After Iowa, it’s official: Sage Karam is IndyCar’s talented, bold, new, needed “black hat”

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For those who have followed Sage Karam’s career as he’s come up and developed in the Mazda Road to Indy ladder, his talent is obvious.

So is his aggression.

And the two elements collided in full Saturday night in what was Karam’s best race to date in his rookie season of the Verizon IndyCar Series.

Karam, who started 10th, moved up early in the race and was bordering on another top-five finish to go along with his fifth-place finish at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana.

But in the waning stages of the race, Karam muscled past Carlos Munoz and held off the advances of Ed Carpenter, while Carpenter ran high and Karam ran low.

The 20-year-old made it to his first career podium in third, but he didn’t earn many friends along the way.

“I mean Sage, you know I kept both of us from crashing and taking us from at least a top four until that, and IndyCar just lets him do whatever he wants,” Carpenter told Trackside Online’s Steve Wittich, via a FOXSports.com story.

“He’s Sage Karam, he’s had his ass kissed from the day he was born, and he does whatever he wants… no respect.”

A longform Sports Illustrated article on Karam would counter that last quote, but, heat of the moment and you get why Carpenter said what he did.

Carpenter’s CFH Racing teammate, Luca Filippi, isn’t exactly a firebrand. But the genial, polite and generally cool Italian more or less echoed Carpenter’s words in a single tweet:

A further quote from another talented American, current IndyCar second-place driver Graham Rahal, also indicates the concern others have about Karam.

“Sage has got a reputation for being that sort of driver and when you get up to the big leagues you need to be a little bit smarter,” Rahal told Wittich. “I think Ed hit the wall three or four times, I mean literally.  I lifted both times on two different straight aways because I thought they were both in the fence. Honestly, just careless driving, absolutely careless driving.  And until he gets penalized by the series they aren’t going to care.”

Karam’s brash, perhaps youthful exuberance came through in his immediate post-race interview to NBCSN’s Katie Hargitt.

“He’s just angry at my driving. He says I squeezed him a few times, but it’s the same way he drove me,” Karam said. “It’s hard racing, I’m going for wins and that’s how we’re driving.

“It’s close racing, it’s Indy car racing. This ain’t go-karts or anything anymore. We’re going to race each other hard and we’re professionals and we know each other’s limits. Tough luck for him, I don’t know.”

By way of what he did Saturday night and also what he has done throughout the course of this season, Karam has done enough to earn a title that isn’t IndyCar rookie-of-the-year (he’s 39 points back of Gabby Chaves), but one that might serve him better long-term:

“IndyCar’s needed new black hat.”

When you come in with something to prove, and talent to burn, you occasionally ruffle some feathers. Karam has done that and then some this year.

Witness the fact Karam has garnered six in-race penalties in a year when post-race penalties have become all the rage.

He’s received two pit speed, two avoidable contact, one blocking and one improper pit entry penalties.

And then factor in the other drama with other drivers at various points this year – for example, the usually mild-mannered Ryan Briscoe said on the radio at Fontana that “Sage Karam is going to (expletive) kill someone” – and suddenly we have our villain dressed in an all-black firesuit.

This is not a bad thing.

The kid’s style is to attack, to push even harder than seems possible at times, and to give it his all, every lap.

When he doesn’t get the result he desires, he gets frustrated. I remember talking to him after Detroit race two this year – a race where he was positioned for a front row start, if not pole, provided qualifying hadn’t been canceled.

He’d gone through a roller-coaster day where he missed that start, rolled off from 20th, received both his avoidable contact penalties, and yet he was irate at fellow youngster Conor Daly, as he’d felt Daly had blocked him.

It spoke to me of a driver determined to perform, damn the torpedoes, and frustrated with whatever or whoever else got in his way.

IndyCar has talked up its #IndyRivals campaign this year without so much as an actual rivalry – or an actual villain – with which to sell.

But Karam provides all that in a wrestler’s package and then some.

He’s a good-looking, brash, talented, fierce American who has race-winning and championship potential within two to three years, who was good enough to draw the interest of no less an owner than Chip Ganassi, who rarely if ever gambles on rookies.

He still has room to grow even though he has matured some over the last two to three years from where he was in his early MRTI days.

Yes, he could afford to take fewer shirtless selfies. And yes, he could calm down on track a bit.

But as a “Paul Tracy-in-training” badass who people can either love or love to hate, Karam is perfect. And desperately needed.