By Amy Konrath

Today’s IZOD IndyCar Series and Firestone Indy Lights headlines:

1. IZOD IndyCar Series Q & A – Sept. 12

2. Mario Andretti Trophy to be decided in Japan

3. Formula Nippon champ de Oliveira to race at Motegi

4. Pantano returns to DRR for Motegi

5. Belardi Auto Racing to test sprint car racer Wilson

1. IZOD IndyCar Series Q & A – Sept. 12: IZOD IndyCar Series driver Takuma Sato participated in a Q&A session to preview this weekend’s Indy Japan: The Final at Twin Ring Motegi. Below are select quotes from his interview.

TAKUMA SATO: Former Formula 1 driver Takuma Sato returns to race in his home country this weekend in the Indy Japan: The Final at Twin Ring Motegi for KV Racing Technology – Lotus. Sato raced on home soil for the first time in three years when he raced at the track last year. He hopes to bring more success to his fans this weekend as the series transitions from the 1.5-mile oval to the 2.983-mile road course.

Q. Last year, there were huge crowds of fans cheering you on at Twin Ring Motegi. What’s it like to race in your home country again?

TAKUMA SATO: I think it’s fantastic, really. Last year was the first time I had gone to Japan for a race in front of a home crowd in three years.

Obviously going as an INDYCAR driver is a different scenario. The atmosphere they had at Twin Ring Motegi for the oval, it was just fantastic. It was pure racing and the drivers, the teams and the fans were fully intergrated. The paddock was just full of people. I’ve never seen or felt anything like that. Just moving from engineering to the garage, which was only a hundred yards, was such a big struggle because there were so many people. But the atmosphere was fantastic.

Q. Racing at Motegi almost didn’t happen after the disaster that struck Japan in March. How big will the race be for you?

TAKUMA SATO: I think racing in Japan is not only big for me, but for the whole series. You have Japanese fans as well as (Japanese owned) Honda and Firestone.

It is absolutely necessary to go race there, especially after what happened on March 11 with the devastating earthquake and tsunami. Japan needs energy and IZOD IndyCar Series brings that energetic excitement that Japan needs.

The race there isn’t just a race. It gives the people an opportunity to see a race, but we can also support the people there who need something to take their minds off of what happened. Unfortunately this is the last time that the current IndyCar Series will race their and they’ve had to covert the race to the road course due to oval damage, we are going there, which is a great commitment from the series and the rest of the teams and drivers.

I’m very appreciative when I heard that the Indy Japan would go on this year. It will be a very proud moment for me.

Q. The race won’t happen on the oval, but will move to the road course. Given your background in Formula 1, you have to be confident about the race?

TAKUMA SATO: Every result and every moment always gives you great confidence. This year we have been so strong, given the circumstances. We have struggled at some tracks, but in general, we have been strong. I feel so comfortable and natural going to the races. You get such a great sensation of speed driving an Indy car, and I love that.

This year at Motegi, where no one has raced (on the road course) is a great opportunity for KV Racing Technology – Lotus and for me. We were so successful at Edmonton, where the circuit was changed massively. And this is the same case, where the track has changed.

Q. Have you raced at Motegi’s road course?

TAKUMA SATO: I’ve never raced there, but I have driven a few demonstration laps around the circuit. I’ve never been to a race there, which is equal for all of us. I think it will be a big chance for us and certainly, I will do my best job.

2. Mario Andretti Trophy to be decided in Japan: It’s Round 15 of the IZOD IndyCar Series, the 10th road/street event of the season and – not to add any pressure – the race that will decide the winner of the second Mario Andretti Road Trophy.

The competition for the award that recognizes the top point producer on the roads/streets is about as tight as the overall championship, with Will Power and Dario Franchitti dueling for both honors.

Power takes a 14-point lead to the series’ first venture on the 2.983-mile Twin Ring Motegi road course, which is being utilized because of damage sustained by the 1.5-mile oval racetrack in the March earthquake. The Verizon Team Penske driver earned the inaugural Andretti award.

Its companion award, the A.J. Foyt Oval Trophy, will be presented following the Kentucky Indy 300 on Oct. 2, and that chase also is neck and neck between Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammates Scott Dixon and Franchitti.

Five of Power’s series record-tying six victories and all seven of his PEAK Performance Pole Award starts this season have been recorded on road/street courses as he’s charged from 50 points behind Franchitti in the overall championship following Toronto in mid-July to five points.

Twenty-one of Power’s 502 total points have been courtesy of bonuses for winning the pole (seven) and leading the most race laps (14), and he’s dominated the past two races.

Franchitti has the lead; Power has the momentum. But anything can happen, beginning with the Sept. 17 race on an unknown road course.

“With my experience with championships, I don’t think you’re ever safe,” Power said. “It only takes Dario having a bad day and me to have a good day and I’m right there. … These last three races, I have to have very good races, and I will be doing everything I absolutely can to make sure I do.”

Franchitti prevailed in the 2010 title chase by five points over Power, outpacing the Australian by 22 points in the final two races (Twin Ring Motegi and Homestead-Miami Speedway ovals). Following the Motegi road course event, the series wraps up at the 1.5-mile Kentucky (Oct. 2) and Las Vegas Motor Speedway (Oct. 16) ovals. Both Power and Franchitti will be among the drivers testing at Kentucky Speedway on Sept. 23.

Power has one IZOD IndyCar Series oval victory (Texas2 in June). Advantage, Franchitti, who has recorded 14 of his 20 IZOD IndyCar Series wins on ovals?

“As for Power, we are all very equal on the ovals and the road courses on any given day,” the three-time series champion said. “When we get the car working the way we like it, we are on a very similar level.”

Tony Kanaan, the 2004 series champion, sees the title pursuit going the distance for the sixth consecutive year.

“In a way, (Power) has improved his game on ovals because that’s where he got beat last year,” said Kanaan, who finished third in the Baltimore Grand Prix. “It plays a lot in Will’s favor, us going to Japan on the road course now. So let’s see about the last two ovals. It’s going to be interesting. I’m Dario’s friend, but I love to see people win their first championship.”

3. Formula Nippon champ de Oliveira to race at Motegi: Experience on the Twin Ring Motegi road course could play into Joao Paulo de Oliveira’s hands in the Indy Japan. At least the first-time IZOD IndyCar Series competitor hopes it will be a factor this weekend.

De Oliveira, the 2010 Formula Nippon champion, will compete in the No. 34 Ceremony Conquest Racing car in lieu of rookie driver Sebastian Saavedra. The 21-year-old Colombian, who advanced 11 positions to finish 13th in the Baltimore Grand Prix on Sept. 4 and has a best finish of 11th in 16 races over two seasons, said he’s “working very hard on finding the right funding to at least do Vegas.”

De Oliveira, who is third in the Formula Nippon championship standings, won the fourth and most recent round at Twin Ring Motegi on July 8.

“Motegi is a very smooth and technical track,” says de Oliveira, 30, a native of Sao Paulo, Brazil. “It’s quite demanding on the brakes as well. It’s mostly slow corners followed by long straights, so you need to make sure you get the most out of braking without compromising corner exits.”

De Oliveira has been competing in Formula Nippon – a series that utilizes Swift Engineering chassis and Bridgestone tires powered by 3,400 cc V8 Honda and Toyota engines that deliver about 600 horsepower — since 2007, and has competed simultaneously in Super GT 500 Japan since 2006.

He’ll have three practice sessions on the 2.983-mile course to get a handle on the heavier Dallara chassis before the three rounds of PEAK Performance Pole qualifying.

“I won’t change my approach. I need to learn the limits of the car and then know how to get the most of it by qualifying,” said de Oliveira, who was named the “Sports Player of the Year” in 2010 by the Japan Pro Sport Association. “It’s not an easy task, but I’m confident we can be up to speed and have a strong weekend.”

“I have always been in contact with people in the U.S., but only now something real came up,” he said. “The opportunity was there and I took it. In motorsports, you must be ready whenever something shows up and I feel like this came up in the right moment.”

Looking toward 2012 and beyond, de Oliveira said he’ll seek additional opportunities in the IZOD IndyCar Series.

“Right now, I’m focusing only on this race and trying to deliver a good result to the team,” he said. “I’ll take one step at a time.”

Entrant sponsor Ceremony, established in 1964, is a Japanese wedding and funeral service company headquartered in Saitama.

4. Pantano returns to DRR for Motegi: Dreyer & Reinbold Racing announced that Giorgio Pantano will drive the No. 22 Kona Deep entry for Indy Japan this weekend.

Pantano has been behind the wheel of the No. 22 car for the Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma and Baltimore Grand Prix in place of the injured Justin Wilson (back).

“We’re elated to have Kona Deep on board as our primary partner for the final event in Japan,” team co-owner Dennis Reinbold said. “We’ve enjoyed our partnership the last two years and are looking forward to many years of growth in the future. We also couldn’t be any happier about putting Giorgio back in our car for the race and having him represent Dreyer & Reinbold Racing and Kona Deep.

“Giorgio did a fantastic job for us in Sonoma and Baltimore and we believe he will be really strong around the Japan road course.”

Added Pantano: “I want to say thank you to Dreyer & Reinbold Racing and sponsors for giving me this opportunity again. The last two races were really strong for us and I’m looking forward to running with the team again in Japan. I’m here to do the best that I can as always and I look forward to the chance to compete.”

As a direct result of its partnership with DRR, Kona Deep became America’s top-selling deep sea drinking water beverage.

5. Belardi Auto Racing to test sprint car racer Wilson: Sprint car driver Jacob Wilson will join Belardi Auto Racing for a one day test at Kentucky Speedway later this month.

Wilson, a native of Crawfordsville, Ind., races in the USAC Silver Crown, National Pavement Sprint Car and Must See Racing Xtreme Sprint series. The 21 year-old will take his first run in a Firestone Indy Lights machine with Belardi Auto Racing at a test on Sept. 22 in Sparta, KY.

“We’re very excited to have the opportunity to bring Jacob on board for the test at Kentucky,” team owner Brian Belardi said. “Although he’s never been in a Lights car, the talent he’s showcased on dirt tracks and in sprint cars shows us how successful he could be in the Mazda Road to Indy. We would love to bring more of the sprint car and midget drivers to the program, because I think it’s important to integrate those different types of talent into the development program we have feeding into the IZOD IndyCar Series.”

Despite having no seat time in a formula car, Wilson is no rookie to the world of racing. He has been racing go-karts since the age of 6, and won six of his eight national titles in just one year. Wilson also boasts over 35 national race wins and is the winner of the Joe James/Pat O’Connor Memorial event.

“Growing up as a kid in Indiana it was all about racing for me,” said Wilson. “My excitement for the opportunity to test a Firestone Indy Lights car with Belardi Auto Racing is indescribable. I have to say thank you to Brian Belardi and John Brunner for the opportunity and all of the people involved for their support.”


The next IZOD IndyCar Series event is the Indy Japan: The Final on Sept. 18 at Twin Ring Motegi. The race will be televised live at 11:30 p.m. (ET), Sept. 17 by VERSUS and broadcast by the IMS Radio Network. The next Firestone Indy Lights race is Kentucky 100 on Oct. 2 at the Kentucky Speedway. The race will be televised by VERSUS.