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Indy 500 champ surprises Ryan High educator

When a driver wins the Indianapolis 500, the procedure is the same every year.

Spend Memorial Day in Indy, taking the traditional winner's photos at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Head to New York for a Tuesday media blitz including national television appearances.

Show up Wednesday at Ryan High School for an end-of-year faculty gathering.

At least that's what happened this week, when Indy 500 champion Takuma Sato surprised Karen Guenther — Ryan High's campus testing coordinator and an avid racing fan — by dropping in and speaking at the meeting. Sato presented Guenther with some gifts, and the two shared a toast of the traditional Indy winner's milk.

"I'm still in shock," Guenther said. "I knew that he was in town today doing media tours, so when he first showed up, I thought, 'Well, they're just doing part of his media tour here.'"

The 500 champ traditionally visits Wednesday with Dallas-Fort Worth media members in an effort to promote the Rainguard Water Sealers 600K, which is scheduled for June 10 at Texas Motor Speedway.

So Sato spent some time in Frisco at a Dallas Cowboys practice session, then headed to Denton.

Mike Zizzo, vice president of media relations for TMS, said track officials were looking for a way to include a fan in the festivities. Guenther is a member of the track's Speedway Club, Ryan High's location fit into Sato's itinerary, and her job as an educator made her a prime candidate for the honor.

"I think it's important, especially today, to surprise her — somebody who's really dedicated to the students and also is a big fan of racing — and just make her happy," Sato told the Denton Record-Chronicle.

"It's important to me to have the opportunity to talk through what I had been going through in my student days and to let the teachers know it's important because it can be a significant time for the students — inspire the passion, importance of having a dream and keep challenging in the things that you want to do."

Sato told the Ryan High faculty about how he chased his dream of becoming a race car driver. He started in cycling, then just made it into a racing school before he surpassed the age limit of 20. He excelled at the school and earned a scholarship that he used to go to the United Kingdom and learn English.

Sato worked his way up to Formula One, where he spent seven years at the highest level of worldwide auto racing. Since 2010, he's been in the United States competing in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

Sunday's win was the second of Sato's Indy car career, after the 2013 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. He made a move to take the lead on the last lap of the 2012 Indy 500 but spun out and crashed.

"I learned a lot from that — what I should have done, could have done," he said. "You can talk about it, but you have to be there to really understand and go through the experience."

Sato took those lessons and was a contender Sunday. He was running fifth when a slow pit stop and the ensuing restart saw him shuffled back to 17th place. He patiently worked his way back toward the front, then made a daring three-wide pass to take second place with 22 laps remaining.

"It was a great opportunity for me to overtake [Helio Castroneves and Ed Jones], get the confidence and show our commitment and speed to the rivals. That's always come back very handy later on, and ultimately that gave me good track position," Sato said.

Sato passed former F1 driver Max Chilton for second place with six laps remaining and scooted around Castroneves to take the lead with five to go.

Castroneves is a three-time Indy 500 winner and a fan favorite.

"Helio is the guy to beat. He's the man to beat on Indianapolis Motor Speedway," Sato said. "I love racing with him because he's such a fair player. He always respects and gives room, but he's a hard charger and as everyone knows he's one of the most competitive guys on track.

"He's a great man off track, and on track I've never had a problem with him, so he's someone I can trust in going to challenge for winning the Indianapolis 500. It's absolutely a privilege to race with him like this, and then the last six laps it's back and forth and together and going side by side and putting on a great show for the fans."

That's the type of action Indy car fans have come to expect in Fort Worth, where TMS was repaved over the winter.

"It will be exciting because it's dramatically changed in terms of the architecture of Turns 1 and 2," Sato said. "Now [there's] less banking and it's a lot wider track but it's less bumpy, too.

"Trying to figure out what's the best setup — that's a little unknown, and that will be exciting for the fans because which team is going to be the best, we don't know yet."

One can bet Guenther will be there to see for herself.

"We have had season tickets since the track opened. We sat at that first race when Jeff Burton won. We were at the fight with A.J. Foyt and [Arie Luyendyk]," she said. "I've missed a couple of what's now [NASCAR] Xfinity races just because I had school obligations — maybe one of those, but that's been it."

Guenther, who lives in Lewisville, said she started with the Denton school district in 1984. She was at Denton High School until 1991 when the school moved to the Ryan High campus, where she's been ever since.

"My husband and I married in 1988, and he was a racing fan, but the Indy 500 I've watched ever since I can remember," she said. "My parents were from Indiana, so the Indy 500's always been a big thing for us."

Despite the fact that Sato's appearance was a surprise for Guenther, she took the microphone at the assembly and informed the audience that Sato is the first Japanese winner of the 500. She talked about the success his team, Andretti Autosport, has had at Indy and about how Sato used to drive for Foyt.

"I was watching her when he came out and she was shaking her head, and then all of a sudden she was like, 'Oh yeah, he did this, this and this and Andretti.' I'm like, 'We picked a good one,'" Zizzo said.

Ryan High Principal Vernon Reeves introduced Sato by joking that he was Ryan's new driver's education instructor. Sato may not lead a classroom, but he will look to put on a clinic in Denton County next week.

"I think we lift quite of a lot of motivation and morale in the team right now because we just won the biggest race — again — and so I think the entire Andretti Autosport is moving forward," Sato said. "It will be important to have a good race in the doubleheader in Detroit and then the next weekend we move on to the superspeedway at Texas. It will be very exciting."

MATT CRIDER can be reached at 940-566-6906.

FEATURED PHOTO: 2017 Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato, left, and Ryan High School campus testing coordinator Karen Guenther share a toast of milk at Ryan on Wednesday. Sato, who was in North Texas as part of his victory tour, made a stop in Denton to surprise Guenther, who is a Texas Motor Speedway season ticket holder.

Jeff Woo/DRC