Japan's Takuma Sato wins Indianapolis 500

Pic: AFP

Takuma Sato won the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, becoming the first Japanese driver to triumph in America's iconic race.

Sato passed three-time winner Helio Castroneves in the waning laps and held on to win, laying the ghost of a heartbreak at "The Brickyard" in 2012.

"Unbelievable feeling!" a beaming Sato declared as he accepted a bear-hug of congratulations from Andretti Autosport team boss Michael Andretti.

"He drove unbelieveable," Andretti said of Sato's performance in an eventful race that saw pole-sitter Scott Dixon of New Zealand escape serious injury in a spectacular crash and Formula One star Fernando Alonso's race ended by engine failure.

Sato, who started from the second row, beat Catroneves by two-tenths of a second.

"I couldn't do what he was doing (on the closing laps)," said the Brazilian, who improved 17 places from his starting position.

Rookie Ed Jones was third, followed by Britain's Max Chilton, Brazil's Tony Kanaan, Colombia's Juan Pablo Montoya and 2016 winner Alexander Rossi.

The hectic race featured 35 lead changes among a race-record 15 drivers.

That included Spain's Alonso, who rocked racing when he opted to play hooky from Formula One's Monaco Grand Prix on Sunday to tackle the 2.5 mile (4km) Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval.

Despite his Formula One pedigree, Alonso faced a welter of new challenges. He had never raced before on an oval, never driven and IndyCar and hadn't done a rolling start since his karting days.

But he challenged for the lead much of the day, leading 27 laps before his Honda engine blew after 179 of 200 laps.

Honda engine failures also ended the hopes of Ryan Hunter-Reay and Charlie Kimball.

"I felt the noise, the engine friction and then I backed off and saw the smoke from the exhaust," said Alonso, who received a rousing ovation in appreciation of his masterful performance as he exited his vehicle. "I think we deserved at least to finish the race ... who knows what position we could be."

Despite the anti-climactic finish, Alonso called his month of May -- from rookie training through qualifying and the race -- "one of the best experiences in my career".

Dixon survives scare

Dixon's day ended earlier and in much more frightening fashion.

With just over a quarter of the race completed, Briton Jay Howard's car made contact with the outside wall after turn one and slid down into Dixon's.

The Kiwi's car was sent flying and sliding sideways on the inside safety barrier, flames shooting out as the back end of the car was ripped away.

Miraculously, Dixon climbed out of the car and walked away under his own steam, as did Howard.

"I'm a little beaten up there, it was a bit of a rough ride," said Dixon, a four-time IndyCar series champion.

"I think when you make those decisions, which way to go with the car, you're hoping Jay there is going to stay up against the wall. We had nowhere to go, and that happens."

Castroneves just avoided being caught up in the incident, driving under Dixon's car at it was catapulted through the air.

Other shunts included a crash on lap 122 that had doctors checking out 1996 winner Buddy Lazier for chest pain, and a five-car crash on a restart from a caution period 17 laps from the finish.

Sato, 40, avoided it all and became the fifth different driver to win the race for Andretti.

His win expunged the bitter memory of 2012, when his last-lap bid to pass Dario Franchitti for the lead ended with him spinning into a wall.