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

0 Comments

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.

Alexander Rossi ‘fits like a glove’ with his new IndyCar teammates at Arrow McLaren Racing

Alexander Rossi McLaren
Nate Ryan
0 Comments

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – There are more than three dozen fresh faces on the Arrow McLaren Racing IndyCar team, but there was one that Felix Rosenqvist was particularly keen to know – Alexander Rossi.

The driver of the No. 7 Dallara-Chevrolet is the most high-profile new hire for McLaren, which has expanded to a third car to pair with the No. 6 of Rosenqvist and No. 5 of Pato O’Ward.

And there is another layer than Rossi just being the new kid. McLaren marks only his second team in NTT IndyCar Series after seven seasons at Andretti Autosport, where he began with a victory in the 2016 Indy 500 and was a championship contender for several seasons.

Rossi is a mercurial talent, and when things go wrong, the red mist quickly descends (and sometimes has led to feuds with teammates). He went winless during two of his final seasons at Andretti and was out of contention more often than not, often bringing out the prickly side of his personality.

Yet there has been no trace of the dour Rossi since joining McLaren. The pragmatic Californian is quick to remind everyone he hasn’t worked with the team yet at a track (much less been in its car), and there surely will be times he gets frustrated.

But it’s clear that Rossi, who made five Formula One starts in 2015 after several years racing in Europe, already is meshing well with an organization whose England-based parent company has deep roots in F1.

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised,” Rosenqvist said Tuesday during IndyCar’s preseason media availabilities. “I think Alex kind of has that bad-guy role a little bit in IndyCar. He’s always been that guy, which is cool. I think we need those guys, as well.

“Actually having gotten to know him, he’s been super nice, super kind. He fits like a glove in the team. I think it fills a role where Pato is kind of like the crazy guy, I’m somewhere in the middle, and Alex is the more engineering guy in the team. I think Alex has more experience, as well. He just feels like a guy who knows what he wants.

“Yeah,  good addition to the team and great guy at the same time.”

There are many reasons why Rossi’s transition from Andretti to McLaren should be smoother than his abrupt move from F1 to IndyCar seven years ago. Namely, he no longer is the only newcomer to the team’s culture.

“It’s been kind of a good time to come in because everyone is finding a new role and position and kind of learning who’s who, finding everyone’s strengths and weaknesses,” he said.

But while Rossi might have questions about the team, he has none about the series. Unlike when he arrived at Andretti without any oval experience, Rossi joins McLaren with his IndyCar credentials secured as an established star with eight victories, seven poles and 28 podiums over 114 starts.

Even in his swan song with Andretti, Rossi still managed a farewell victory last July at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course that snapped a 49-race, three-year winless drought. It seems reasonable to believe he immediately could re-emerge in his 2017-19 title contender form.

“I know the series, and I know kind of everything that goes into American open-wheel racing vs. the European open-wheel racing, which is really the biggest transition,” Rossi said. “Certainly it’s the largest kind of team switch. I’ve obviously driven for different teams in the past in Europe, in sports cars, whatever, but never really in my full-time job. I’ve driven for the same organization for a very long time and have a lot of respect and fabulous memories with those people.

“So it has been a big kind of shift, trying to compare and contrast areas that I can bring kind of recommendations and experience to maybe help fill the gaps that exist at Arrow McLaren. Again, all of this is in theory, right? I don’t really know anything. We’ll have a much better idea and plan going into St. Pete (the March 5 season opener).”

He has gotten a good handle on how things work at its Indianapolis headquarters, though, and has been pleased by the leadership of new racing director Gavin Ward (who worked in F1 before a championship stint with Josef Newgarden at Team Penske). McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown also seems omnipresent on both sides of the Atlantic, making appearances at IndyCar races seemingly as much as in the F1 paddock.

“I think what’s very cool about Arrow McLaren is we do have the resources of the McLaren F1 team,” Rossi said. “They very much are being integrated in a lot of respects. It’s not two separate entities. McLaren Racing is one organization that has its people and resources and intellect in kind of everything. It’s been pretty cool to see how that can be an advantage to us in terms of people, resources, simulations, software, kind of everything. We’ve been able to kind of rely on that and use that as a tool that maybe other teams certainly don’t have.”

That will be helpful for Rossi with the methodologies and nuances of racing a Chevrolet for the first time after seven seasons with Honda.

And of course, there will be the relationship with O’Ward, who has been McLaren’s alpha star since 2020.

Rossi was in a similar role for Andretti, which raises questions about how McLaren will handle having two stars accustomed to being the face of the team. But O’Ward said IndyCar regulations should allow each driver to maintain their own style without being forced to adapt as in other series.

“At the end of the day, as much as teammates will help in order to gather data, it doesn’t mean they’re going to specifically help you in what you need because it’s a series where you can really tailor the car to what you want,” O’Ward said. “Rather than in Formula 1, (it’s) ‘This is the car, you need to learn how to drive this certain car.’ In IndyCar, it’s very different where you can customize it to what you want it to feel like or drive like.

“From past experience, I think Alex likes a car similar to what I do. I do think we have a very strong car in certain areas, but I definitely think he’s coming from a car where that other car has been stronger than us in other racetracks. I feel like if we can just find gains where we haven’t quite had a winning car, a podium car, that’s just going to help all of us.”

Though Thursday at The Thermal Club will mark the first time the trio works together at a track, Rosenqvist said he’s hung out a lot with Rossi (both are 31 years old) and deems his new teammate “well-integrated” in the simulator.

“I think the fit has been good with him, me and Pato,” Rosenqvist said. “On a trackside perspective, it’s obviously huge to have always a third opinion on things. Every driver’s opinion is valuable in its own way.”

Said O’Ward, 23: “It’s been great. (Rossi has) been great to have around. I think he needed a fresh start. I think he’s excited to really work with all of us, create the strongest package.”

Ever the realist, though, Rossi still is tempering some of his enthusiasm.

“Again, we haven’t really done anything yet other than some meetings and some team activities together,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for what they’ve done in IndyCar and also their prior careers. I think that we all bring something a little bit different to the table, which I think is really unique in terms of not only personalities but driving styles and experience levels.

“I think we have the ingredients to really be able to develop the team and continue to push the team forward to even a better level than what they’ve shown in the past. It’s been a really positive experience. Really I have nothing at all negative to say and can’t actually wait to get to work, get on track and start working together.”