Takuma Sato, winner of Sunday’s Indianapolis 500, did the kinds the things usually expected of the winner of the storied race. He visited New York’s Empire State Building, opened trading at Nasdaq, made the rounds of TV appearances and visited the Dallas Cowboys during workouts.
But Sato’s victory was anything but usual. As the first Japanese driver to win, his victory on the day before Memorial Day rekindled views rooted in World War II and captured in a tweet by a Denver Post columnist. Terry Frei, whose father fought in the war, had tweeted that it was “nothing personal,” but he was “very uncomfortable” with the Japanese driver winning on Memorial weekend. He was fired for the tweets. Sato addressed the controversy that overwhelmed his victory for the first time Wednesday from the top of the Empire State Building.
“To be honest, it was very unfortunate and lost the job,” Sato told Reuters. “I respect the Denver Post decision and the people … nowadays this generation of people thinking that was not an appropriate thing. I appreciate that positive support.”
Frei apologized generally, and to Sato specifically, on Sunday for what he called “a stupid reference, during an emotional weekend, to one of the nations that we fought in World War II — and, in this case, the specific one my father fought against,” but said in a Westword interview that he is frustrated at being called a racist. “If you want to call me an idiot or if you want to call me a moron for saying what I did, that’s fine,” he said. “But the idea that it’s based in racism is quite unfair, in my view, and I defy anyone to find any pattern of that in anything I’ve done in my life.”
The outcry, both against Frei’s tweet and echoing it, was swift on social media. “The most jarring responses, and the ones I took most to heart, are the ones that talked about the heroic contributions of Japanese-American troops during the war,” Frei said. “To me, they weren’t Japanese-American troops. They were Americans to me. And I would have said the same thing had a German won the race on that day.”
Frei reiterated that “what I did was stupid,” and added that “what I most regret is dragging others through that, and for people seeing it as a racist response. I can assure you that it was not. I bear no ill will or hatred for the Japanese people today for what their government did 70 years ago. It’s terrific that we’ve come so far since World War II and that Japan is now a friend and ally. I’m very appreciative of that. I realize that things have changed and that I shouldn’t have said what I said and how I said it.”
The conversation was so intense that Andretti Autosport, for whom Sato drives, addressed commenters on Facebook. The company said it was “thankful for the duty and sacrifice of our servicemen and women,” but added that, like fans, “Takuma Sato is a patriot and is proud of his home country. Andretti Autosport is proud to have and race with a field of drivers from many different countries and walks of life. For us to censor any one person’s heritage, no matter the day of victory, would go against the beliefs that this country is built on. America is a melting pot and we thrive because we look beyond our past differences and work together to build a better community, a better country and a better world.”