Sage Karam spoke extensively about his roller coaster of a season in a press conference, earlier this week.
When Sage Karam won the Indy Lights championship two years ago, a lot was expected of the teenager from Nazareth, PA. After all, he came from the heart of Andretti country, had risen meteorically through the Mazda Road to Indy ranks and looked like he had the suitable talent to make it in the Verizon IndyCar Series. Karam signed with Chip Ganassi Racing, albeit without a regular drive for the 2014 IndyCar season.
If you want to be successful you have to be aggressive, take risks on the track. No champion ever stepped back and wasn’t aggressive
Karam spent much of 2014 learning at various tracks, but did get to drive Ganassi’s sports cars in both the Rolex 24 at Daytona and in the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring. He came to Indianapolis in May to work with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing and engineer Mark Weida, a veteran who was immediately impressed by the young man’s poise and race smarts. While he didn’t have the best qualifying effort, Karam drove a heads-up race in his first Indianapolis 500, starting 31st and finishing ninth. By most accounts, it was he and not NASCAR’s Kurt Busch that earned rookie of the year honors, but the record shows otherwise.
Before the 2015 season began, Karam had an accident testing his No. 8 Comfort Revolution/Big Machine Records Chevrolet that wiped out all but a few days of testing prior to the first race in St Petersburg, FL. “I talked to Dario (Franchitti, the four-time series champion and three-time Indy 500 winner who coaches all Ganassi drivers) and he said he did so much testing compared to me,” before Franchitti entered any Indy car race. “He’s impressed with how far we’ve come because I missed 4-5 solid days of testing everyone else got. It hurt me so much… “
As did the broken wrist he incurred from that testing crash. That hurt both outside and in the car and definitely hindered the 20-year-old’s progress as he entered the big leagues of American open wheel motorsport. The results showed, even as Karam shared the No. 8 Ganassi entry with Colombian veteran Sebastian Saavedra. The kid was 19th at St Petersburg, finished 18th in New Orleans, sat out Long Beach (but was on the timing stand), took 18th at Barber and sat out the Indy road-course contest.
Scott teaches more about actual driving through his data; it’s amazing some of the stuff he does with fuel conservation. Dixon is the best in the business
Much was expected at his sophomore Indianapolis 500, but Sage and Takuma Sato had an accident at the start of the 200-lap, 500-mile contest and he was classified 32nd. Not at all the homecoming Karam was looking for, but at least his broken wrist was healing and he was feeling more at home with the bigger Indy car, his team led by exceptional engineer Eric Cowdin (who worked with teammate Tony Kanaan for the bulk of the Brazilian’s career in the United States) and the different tracks he was forced to learn on the fly.
Things started to come together at Detroit, despite penalties for avoidable contact and less-than-suitable pit stops. Karam would have been on pole for the second, rain-affected Detroit race but INDYCAR cancelled time trials as the weather got worse in his session. He finished 16th and 12th in that doubleheader, then took 12th at Texas. Karam sat out Toronto in favor of Saavedra, but then his season made a massive swing at Fontana, where he finished fifth.
'Wouldn't change a thing'
That result, along with his podium in Iowa last weekend, were not without controversy. Other drivers, in particular oval specialist Ed Carpenter, called out the youngster for his aggressive nature. “I wouldn’t change a thing,” Karam said of his drive to third place at Iowa Speedway. “If you want to be successful you have to be aggressive, take risks on the track. No champion ever stepped back and wasn’t aggressive,” he noted.
Karam’s favorite drivers are Ayrton Senna and Alessandro Zanardi, two hard chargers. “They were probably the most aggressive drivers to come through motorsports and they’re legends,” he said.
I don’t think I’m like a villain. The only thing I do is drive hard ... I drive out there like I got something to prove, because I do have something to prove. I take risks
To deal with the outcry from Carpenter - and Graham Rahal - after the Iowa oval race, Karam spoke with Franchitti, who had replayed the race a day later. “He said I did nothing wrong and he’s the guy who will tell me; he’s not scared to be that guy. He said this was the most pleased he’s been with me (after a race). It was just hard racing.”
A rough start
No doubt this is a tough rookie season for a guy just out of his teens and in the cockpit less than 15 years. “I’m really just finding myself in the car. And I started this season the lowest I’ve ever been going in. The broken wrist was the low part and it took me a few races just to get the wrist thing worked out. We had awful luck but I was third in practice at NOLA (New Orleans). Qualifying was cancelled so I had to start 20th,” he recalled.
Running up front at Detroit, Karam knew he belonged but also knew he had to put a race together where he had a good result. “We did that at Fontana even after taking the front wing off. You know,” he mused, “it’s a long road to get to INDYCAR. Finding sponsors is always very difficult and there are never holidays for a racer. I’ve always been worrying would I have a ride in March? In fact my Indy Lights ride was done the second week in March, two weeks before St. Pete. But we did win the title.”
Help from veteran teammates
Having championship-caliber teammates this year, in Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan has been a great help to Sage Karam. “This year wasn’t fun to start out but now it’s starting to be fun. “Dario has taught me you’ve got to be so serious about this - I came into the year with the thought it wasn’t going to be as hard as it was and that led to some early troubles,” he revealed.
“Scott teaches more about actual driving through his data; it’s amazing some of the stuff he does with fuel conservation. Dixon is the best in the business. I’ve learned you can’t give anything to Tony Kanaan, like your car keys,” after Kanaan had his Chevrolet Camaro pace vehicle painted pink. “TK is pretty much the same as Scott teaching on-track stuff. He taught me how to work the high line on starts and restarts.”
With three races left to run this year, next weekend at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, a track Karam really likes, then on to his home race at Pocono and then off to Sonoma for the season finale, Karam is taking everything race by race. “I still have things to prove every time I go out there.” At this time his plans for 2016 are unclear, but Sage Karam will continue to fight with controlled aggression for the real estate on these three race tracks that he thinks achievable.
“I don’t think I’m like a villain. The only thing I do is drive hard. I drive like a rookie, I guess you could say. I drive out there like I got something to prove, because I do have something to prove. I take risks. I take every risk as a calculated risk, but I think to be the best in the sport, it’s going to be the drivers who can take the risks, successfully take those risks. That’s what I’m going to continue to do.”