He only just turned 20, but Sage Karam has already been part of the IndyCar fabric for the last five years.
Now, he fully gets his chance to shine in the Verizon IndyCar Series as the youngest driver in Chip Ganassi Racing’s illustrious history.
Karam first emerged in the Mazda Road to Indy ladder as a 15-year-old rookie in the USF2000 Championship in 2010. He promptly won nine of the 12 races en route to the title, and moved up to Star Mazda (now Pro Mazda), where he won races in consecutive seasons.
By 2013, he inked a last-minute deal to join the powerhouse Sam Schmidt Motorsports team in Indy Lights. He won three more races and the series championship over teammate Gabby Chaves. Two races – wins at Iowa and Houston – stuck out as huge moments for him in the title campaign.
“I’d say my best race Indy Lights was at Iowa,” Karam told MotorSportsTalk in the run-up to St. Petersburg this weekend. “I started fifth and things didn’t look great, but I went fifth to second on first lap. We won that race. If I don’t win that race, I wouldn’t have won the championship. It was my best performance coming up.”
While Karam won the title, Jack Hawksworth and Carlos Munoz, who also finished behind him in that year’s championship, advanced into IndyCar full-time last year.
Karam didn’t, instead having been brought on by Ganassi as a development driver for a mix-and-match part-time schedule that focused on learning.
“I can’t believe it moves so fast,” Karam said. “I feel like it was just the other day when I was at St. Pete for the first time in USF2000, and now I’m about to make my first road course start in an IndyCar at St. Pete.
“With how fast it moves, the whole journey is pretty incredible. When you look back at the whole ride it took to get here, everyone’s help has been incredible to have.”
Even so, it’s taken more than a year for Karam to be set for a full-time program in IndyCar.
At the moment, he’s only confirmed in the No. 8 GE LED Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet for St. Petersburg with engineer Eric Cowdin, but all indications from the team and driver is that this the first race of an expected full-time campaign. Karam has also enjoyed longtime support from Michael Fux of Comfort Revolution, and recent support from Big Machine Records.
Karam’s opportunity with Ganassi arose over the 2013-2014 offseason, just around Christmas, and he made his team debut in the 2014 Rolex 24 at Daytona.
A handful of further sports car starts followed, with a standout drive in his second start in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring raising some eyebrows on a bigger stage.
Karam described how those couple starts helped prepare him for his biggest moment of 2014, his debut in the Indianapolis 500 in a Ganassi-supported entry fielded by Dreyer & Reinbold Racing and Kingdom Racing that was easily worthy of race rookie-of-the-year honors.
“Daytona and Sebring, those were my first really ever professional debut races,” Karam explained. “People knew of me a bit from Indy Lights, but not yet on a professional stage. It was really good for me to have the performances I did and show that we could compete. It helped me get to this spot right now with the IndyCar guys.”
The Nazareth, Pa. native has been like a sponge in soaking up information from teammates Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan and Charlie Kimball.
But the driver who stands out most to him is Dario Franchitti, the three-time Indianapolis 500 winner and four-time series champion, who is coaching Karam.
“When you have Dario Franchitti helping you out, that’s a pretty big deal right there,” Karam said. “I take everything he says and listen in 100 percent to apply it.
“That helps eliminate the rookie mistakes that I can make and make it as smooth as possible. I’m a rookie and will make mistakes, like what happened at Barber (had a testing accident, but since has returned). If I didn’t have Dario, I’d have made a lot more mistakes.”
Karam praised Dixon’s fuel saving ability in particular as something he’s trying to absorb.
“I think one of the biggest things I learned is that Scott Dixon is absolutely amazing,” Karam said. “Out of any data trace I’ve ever seen, he’s unbelievable.
“The biggest thing I’m learning right now is how to save fuel. He’s the best in the game right now at that.”
Karam expects Chaves to be his toughest contender in the rookie-of-the-year battle, with Stefano Coletti and Luca Filippi also figuring in on the road and street courses.
As he heads to St. Petersburg this weekend, Karam reflected on the journey, the Ganassi opportunity and his presence as a young standout American driver who could emerge as a future star.
“It’s definitely an honor,” he said. “Driving for Chip Ganassi is incredible, and it shows how they’ve taken notice of me at this stage. After coming up through the ranks, I can’t thank everyone enough. It’s been a long journey.
“I love this country and representing it is definitely a great feeling. I’ll do my best. I know this series has needed some young American talent. You’ll start to see a bit of young Americans coming through, including hopefully my good friend Zach Veach.
“I’m hoping to succeed. Driving for Chip, he can have any driver in the paddock he wants. It’s an honor. It can be short-lived. So I have to give it my all.”