Ganassi’s protege Sage Karam’s stellar Carb Day sets stage for Indy 500 debut

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The kid they call “SK$,” Indianapolis 500 rookie Sage Karam, almost won a bunch of it ($50,000) for his crew during the Friday Carb Day pit stop competition at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

And he was money to watch from Carb Day’s final Indianapolis 500 practice all the way through the entirety of pit stops.

Karam, the 2013 Indy Lights champion, has been impressive during the month of May in his Verizon IndyCar Series debut in the No. 22 Comfort Revolution/Brantley Gilbert Chevrolet.

But today was his first real, “Holy (expletive), welcome to Indy!” type-moment. Karam ran wide off Turn 4 during Carb Day practice and made very slight contact with the Turn 4 wall.

However, exiting the corner, Karam caught the slide in dramatic fashion, catching and correcting to line his car up straight and go into pit in with only minuscule right rear damage.

It ultimately saved the Dreyer & Reinbold Racing/Kingdom Racing crew a nightmare situation where they’d need to repair a car heading into race day.

“I’m learning something new, and today was more of a race trim situation running with more cars,” Karam explained. “I was following (James) Hinchcliffe, and it looked like he had a bit of a wiggle in Turn 3, so I had a huge run going into four.

“I got closer than I should have been, and was below him when he went low, so I crossed his path, and I had no air on the front wing.” he added. “I had the wheel fully locked to the left trying to turn it, and once I lost it on the bottom and washed up, as soon as the air hit the wing the thing just snapped. We were lucky to save it and get away with minor damage. Like I said, I’m learning every day, and thankfully I learned this today and not Sunday.”

During the pit stop practice, Karam got the crowd going with a series of country-esque celebrations in deference to sponsor Brantley Gilbert. It’s as though, for a moment, he was a cowboy saddled up and riding his horse.

The DRR crew two-stepped their way to wins over the crews of Ryan Hunter-Reay, Takuma Sato and Will Power before losing to Scott Dixon’s crew in the finals. The No. 22 group still took home $15,000 for P2.

“To lose to Scott (Dixon), he’s a pretty good guy,” Karam said. “To get Chip to get two guys in the final is a great accomplishment. He was on the side with better grip. We got to the box at similar times, when I let go of the clutch it was just wheel spin, wheel spin.”

Both experiences were the latest in the learning process for the Chip Ganassi Racing development driver. Karam’s first two races of 2014 were in Ganassi’s Ford EcoBoost Riley Daytona Prototype, at the legendary Rolex 24 at Daytona and Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring. In the latter race, Karam’s passes were simply sublime to watch around the outside of Turn 1.

Has the fact he’s racing in three of North America’s biggest races in the same year sunk in yet for a 19-year-old who still hasn’t even graduated high school?

“It hasn’t yet. It only will after driving,” he told MotorSportsTalk. “I’m truly blessed to have done those two, and now again to drive the ‘500. Only being 19, it’s such an incredible feeling for me. I’m with a great team, and the partnership with CGR, it’s seriously amazing.”

Karam plans to bide his time on Sunday, methodically moving forward from 31st on the grid rather than go ahead with his trademark moves on cold tires.

“I know how big of an air pocket one car makes, so of course I’m gonna be starting behind 10 rows of three,” he joked. “I expect to go into 1, with no grip, no air to wings, so I won’t push the issue. Make sure the tires are all good. At Sebring, I pushed because I wanted to prove something in a short time. This race, this is a pretty big race, I’m not gonna take a risk that early.”

Despite his youth, Karam showed the poise and maturity level of a veteran by organizing a team meeting after his poor qualifying effort. He lifted the team’s spirits – so much so the team even threw him a fake prom earlier this week as he’s missed his to compete in the race.

“I got the whole team together, we shut the garage doors, I gave an inspirational talk, and turned the team morale around,” Karam said. “When we went back out Monday, the car was perfect, and we had a time for P2. We ended up P8 anyway. The years they’ve been working, never seen a driver do that. Monday was huge, for myself and the team.”

We’ll see if SK$ will be rolling in a big amount on Sunday, or, crucially, if CGR and all his partners can continue to find more to provide him more starts in the Verizon IndyCar Series this year.

Even with half the purse and no fans, Indy 500 still has major team value

Indy 500 purse fans
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Even with reportedly half the purse and no fans in attendance, NTT IndyCar Series driver-owner Ed Carpenter believes it remains “absolutely critical” to hold the 104th Indy 500.

“Far and away it’s what makes and breaks our season as teams,” the Ed Carpenter Racing namesake told reporters during a Zoom media availability last week. “It’s the most important event to our partners. It 100 percent sucks not having fans there and not even being able to have the experience with our partners in full being there. But it’s necessary.

“We’ve got to look at all the hard decisions now of what we have to do to be in a position to have fans in 2021. It’s critical for the health of the teams that we have this race to make sure we have teams back here next year. That sounds a little dramatic, but that’s the reality.

HOW TO WATCH THE INDY 500 ON NBCDetails for the Aug. 23 race

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“We live in not only a very volatile world right now, but our industry and motorsport in general, it’s not an easy business to operate. When you lose your marquee event, it’s a lot different than looking at losing Portland on the schedule or Barber. They’re in totally different atmospheres as far as the importance to us and our partners.”

Robin Miller reported on RACER.com that IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Roger Penske told team owners last week the purse for the postponed Indianapolis 500 was slashed from $15 to $7.5 million. Miller reported holding the Aug. 23 race (1 p.m. ET, NBC) would be a $20 million hit to the bottom line.

Carpenter still is supportive of Penske’s “outstanding job” of leading the series through the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Even with a 50 percent purse reduction, the Indy 500 remains the linchpin of teams’ economic viability.

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The schedule has taken many hits with the cancellation of races at Barber Motorsports Park, Circuit of the Americas, Detroit, Portland International Raceway, Laguna Seca and Toronto, and another race weekend doubleheader at Mid-Ohio has been indefinitely postponed.

That leaves the 2020 slate at 12 confirmed races of an original 17, which has raised questions about how many races teams need to fulfill sponsor obligations.

“It’s a moving target,” said Carpenter, who announced the U.S. Space Force as a new sponsor for the Indy 500. “I think we’ve been pretty blessed as a team with the level of commitment of our partners and their understanding of COVID-19 and the impact on our schedule, our contracts.

“All of it is out of our control, out of the series’ control, the promoter’s control. At the end of the day is there a firm number (of races) I can give? No. But definitely every one that we lose, it does make it harder to continue having those conversations.

I think everyone’s as confident as you can be right now with what we have in front of us with what’s remaining on the schedule. Things are so fluid, it changes day-to-day, let alone week-to-week. We just have to take it as it comes. Right now the focus is on the 500 and maximizing this month to the best we possibly can given the situation.”

That’ll be hard this month for Carpenter, who grew up in Indianapolis and is the stepson of Tony George, whose family owned Indianapolis Motor Speedway for decades.

Having spent a lifetime around the Brickyard, Carpenter will feel the ache of missing fans as he races in his 17th Indy 500.

Ed Carpenter, shown racing his No. 20 Dallara-Chevrolet at Iowa Speedway last month, led a race-high 65 laps and finished second in the 2018 Indy 500 (Chris Jones/IndyCar).

“Over that time you develop relationships that are centered around standing outside of your garage in Gasoline Alley,” he said. “It stinks, it sucks that we don’t get to share that passion we all have that is the Indianapolis 500. Unfortunately it’s the reality we’re in right now.

I think this is the best that we can do unfortunately. Without a doubt it’s going to be a different environment. You’re going to be missing the sounds and a lot of the sights and colors. For sure I’ve thought about it. It’s going to be a different morning, different lead-in to the race. After 16 of them, you have a cadence and anticipation for the buildup. That’s all going to be different this year.

“I’m confident it’s not going to affect the type of show we put on or the excitement and how aggressive we are fighting for an Indy 500 win. It’s still going to mean the same thing. We’re just not going to have our fans to celebrate with after the fact. But it’s going to be historic.”