Sage Karam’s growth, maturation evident over course of first IndyCar season

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Butterflies filled the stomach of Sage Karam.

The 20-year-old driver wasn’t on a first date or being berated by Ed Carpenter. That was still three weeks away.

The rookie was leading his first career lap in the IndyCar Series.

Twenty-four laps into the MAVTV 500, Karam drove his white and red No. 8 Chevrolet out of Turn 4 of Auto Club Speedway.

In pursuit were his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Tony Kanaan and 21 other IndyCar drivers. They would chase him for four of the next five laps.

While it had been only 155 days since he led 141 laps in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, it had been almost two years since had led a lap of open-wheel competition, in the Indy Lights Series.

“It was a really, really cool feeling,” Karam said in a media teleconference Wednesday. “It was the first time in a race this year where I actually had, you know, that kind of feeling of butterflies back in the stomach in the late stages of the race because you have an opportunity to win the race.”

Karam was speaking four days after earning his first career podium at Iowa Speedway, a fact overshadowed by Carpenter’s post-race lecture for what he considered unsafe driving.

“You’re kind of just totally after it. You’re on edge. I haven’t had that feeling all season,” Karam said. “When you can run up front with these guys that you used to watch every Sunday growing up, it’s a really cool feeling. I think Iowa and Fontana were probably two of the most fun races I ever done. I credit that mostly to being up front.”

Karam said he had the fastest car at Iowa, but Karam finished third and felt sore arms instead of a fluttering stomach after one of the most physical races of his young career.

Only 11 races into his IndyCar experience, Karam says he’s been surprised by “how hard you actually need to race to be up front.

“I was racing hard in the beginning of the season, but I wasn’t pushing as hard as I should have been,” says Karam. “Then once I started figuring it out a bit more, that’s when I started running up front, the speed started to come.”

Before there was speed, there had to be recovery on multiple levels.

“At the beginning of the season, I don’t think people realize this was almost completely new to me,” says Karam, whose only IndyCar start prior to 2015 was last year’s Indianapolis 500. “I was coming into a really great team at such a young age, with almost virtually no testing basically, and (being) hurt.”

Sage Karam, Ed Carpenter
Sage Karam, Ed CarpenterAP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File

Karam broke his wrist in crash during preseason testing at Barber Motorsports Park, resulting in a loss of valuable seat time and a physical and mental recovery that lasted into the season.

“I started out the season on a totally low note, probably the lowest I’ve ever been mentally going into a season,” says Karam.

“I was actually really high going in, and then once you broke my wrist … I think once we got past the injury, I got a little bit more seat time, thinking now the speed is starting to show, we’re showing that we can run up front.”

But there was still bad luck and mistakes. Avoidable contact penalties, rained out qualifying sessions and probation defined the first part of the season. But the lowest point was likely crashing on the first turn of the first lap in the Indy 500.

“That’s where I think I started to find myself, was Indianapolis,” Karam said. “I was running up front the whole month basically. Then another bad-luck situation, we get taken out. It’s pretty much been the story of bad luck this year.”

While he’s learned from teammates Kanaan, Scott Dixon and Charlie Kimball, it’s former Ganassi driver Dario Franchitti that’s helped guide Karam and open his eyes to what it takes to be at the front.

Karam says the three-time Indy 500 winner and four-time series champion, a constant presence on his pit box, “laid into” him around the time of the Texas and Detroit races over mistakes he made.

“I think that’s when I had a real attitude change as far as how much I need to take this seriously,” says Karam. “After that, the results started to come. I’ve been taking it a lot more serious. I’ve been working out a lot harder. I’ve been spending more time with the engineers and stuff. Dario has taught me a lot about that.”

From Franchitti’s lessons and his own experiences, Karam has embraced that it takes risks to get to front as he did at Fontana and was close to doing at Iowa.

“You got to take calculated risks,” Karam says. “I think if you’re taking calculated risks, you’re driving with confidence, and you’re taking risks. But when you’re not taking calculated risks, you’re doing it week in, week out, causing accidents, running into cars, you’re being reckless, and no one wants to be reckless.”

Karam’s surprise has now given way to understanding.

“Once I found out how hard I needed to push, how much risk you needed to take, I think that was the biggest wakeup call for me,” Karam said. “I think if I were to go back and start the season over, the beginning of the season would be a heck of a lot different than it was.”

But Karam wouldn’t change the final 20 laps at Iowa, where he restarted third, but wasn’t content on staying there.

Not being content will likely lead to more success, scrutiny and pressure in a sport that sees the him as part of its future.

“I still like to be a humble kid.” Karam says. “I think people sometimes forget that I’m only 20 years old. I like to be just a normal kid. I’ll go home after I go to the race shop, I’ll play XBOX the rest of the night, just hang out with friends. I like to do things that a regular 20-year-old kid would do.”

One of those things is taking risks, calculated or not.

It’s the only way he knows how to chase butterflies.

New Chip Ganassi driver Marcus Armstrong will team with boyhood idol Scott Dixon

Marcus Armstrong Scott Dixon
Joe Portlock - Formula 1/Formula Motorsport Limited via Getty Images
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Marcus Armstrong was a Scott Dixon fan his entire life, and when he was 8, the aspiring young racer asked his fellow New Zealander to autograph a helmet visor that he hung on his bedroom wall.

Next year, Armstrong will be Dixon’s teammate.

Armstrong was named Friday as the fourth IndyCar driver in the Chip Ganassi Racing lineup and will pilot the No. 11 next season on road and street courses.

A driver for the five oval races on the 17-race schedule will be named later.

The No. 11 is essentially the No. 48 that seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson drove the last two seasons, with Chip Ganassi making the change to run four cars numbered in sequential order. Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson drives the No. 8, six-time champion Dixon drives the No. 9, and 2020 IndyCar champion Alex Palou drives the No. 10.

So just who is the second Kiwi in the Ganassi lineup?

A 22-year-old who spent the past three seasons in Formula One feeder series F2, a Ferrari development driver in 2021, and former roommate of Callum Illot and former teammate of Christian Lundgaard – both of whom just completed their rookie IndyCar seasons.

“I’ve always been attracted to the IndyCar championship because it’s one of those championships that’s been really well televised in New Zealand since I was young, mainly because of Scott and his success,” Armstrong told The Associated Press. “As time progressed, as I got closer to F1 and single-seaters, the attraction to IndyCar grew just because of how competitive the championship is – I like to challenge myself and the level of competition in IndyCar is remarkably high.”

Armstrong, from Christchurch, New Zealand, was set to travel from his current home in London to Indianapolis this weekend to meet his new team. He won’t need an introduction to Dixon, the 42-year-old considered the best IndyCar driver of his generation and Armstrong’s unequivocal childhood hero.

Last season, Dixon earned his 53rd career victory to pass Mario Andretti for second on the all-time list. Dixon has driven for Ganassi in all but 23 of his 345 career starts.

“For a long time I’ve been a Scott Dixon fan. I don’t want to make him cringe with our age difference,” Armstrong told the AP.

Despite the two-decade age difference, Armstrong never considered someday racing with Dixon a fantasy.

He convinced his father after winning five national karting championships to allow him to leave New Zealand for Italy at age 14, where he moved by himself to pursue a racing career. Armstrong said as soon as he’d received parental permission, he’d never look back.

Armstrong was in Formula 4 two years after his move to Italy and won that title in his first season. He won four races and four poles in F3 in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, then collected four wins and eight podiums in three seasons of F2.

“Maybe it’s a strength, or maybe it’s a weakness, but I always thought I was capable of doing great in the sport,” Armstrong told the AP. “I think you probably have to succeed in the sport, you need to believe in yourself. I always pictured myself being in IndyCar.

“As Scott’s teammate? I can’t specifically say I saw that. It’s an extraordinary chain of events.”

Armstrong becomes just the latest driver to leave Europe, where F1 is the pinnacle but has only 20 seats each year. Alexander Rossi began the trend in 2016 when the American left F1 and won the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie. He’s been followed by Ericsson, last season’s Indy 500 winner, Romain Grosjean, Illot, Lundgaard, and on Thursday three-time W Series champion and Williams F1 reserve driver Jamie Chadwick was announced as driver for Andretti Autosport in IndyCar’s second-tier development series.

Armstrong said he could have remained in F2 for a fourth season, but he’d been watching IndyCar for so long, and after conversations with Illot and Lundgaard, he decided to make the move to what he believes is the most balanced racing series in the world. He tested for Dale Coyne Racing at Sebring in October.

He doesn’t know if European racing is done for good, just that he wants to be in IndyCar right now.

“I don’t want to think too far into the future, I’m just grateful for this opportunity that is standing right in front of me,” Armstrong said. “I want to perform as well as I can in the near future and just consolidate myself in the fantastic chance that is IndyCar and just do my best.

“I’m not looking at F1 as a landing spot – I am looking at IndyCar, and that’s exactly why I am here.”