It’s not that racing there two years ago in Indy Lights wasn’t a big deal, but for Sage Karam, this Sunday’s ABC Supply 500 is the first real “home race” he’ll get at Pocono Raceway.
The 20-year-old is set to close out his rookie season in the Verizon IndyCar Series in front of an onslaught of family, friends and supporters.
And hopefully, his dog Max.
“I’ll try to bring him up one of the days,” Karam says of the dog that got an unexpected amount of publicity thanks to a now-infamous, since deleted Instagram post of the two together. “Only problem would be where to keep him when I’m on track. If I can figure it out, I’ll bring Max along. Get some funny photos out of it.”
The lighthearted tone to end our chat on Monday comes in the midst of a serious reality facing Karam: unlike the rest of the field, he won’t be going onto Sonoma next weekend with a chance at truly ending his season on a high, or even with a shot at usurping past Indy Lights title rival Gabby Chaves for the season-long rookie-of-the-year honors.
LIKELY LAST SHOT OF 2015
Karam has been on a sponsor-dependent first-year program at Chip Ganassi Racing, the team’s first rookie in ages, but will have missed four out of 16 races this season.
Pocono, his home race, is his last shot this season in the No. 8 Comfort Revolution/Big Machine Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, barring a last-minute opportunity of a fifth car being assembled or being farmed out to another team.
It’s all of those factors that have Karam laser-focused on doing the best job possible in his final 2015 audition before 2016, which isn’t guaranteed yet.
“There’s a little added pressure,” Karam said. “It’s people that have been there my whole life. Besides Indianapolis, this would be the next biggest one I want to win.
“It’s the hype of it. This is the one race, where I had a lot of people come out to Indianapolis and wasn’t able to show them much of a good race. But this one, this is an opportunity. Hopefully I get through Turn 1 this time. I just need to put my head down, and bring home a good result.”
Karam’s Indianapolis 500 misstep was arguably his biggest blemish of the year. The first lap, first turn contact with Takuma Sato to his outside and Ryan Hunter-Reay on the inside wiped out a month’s worth of great speed and great hopes for a good result.
Detroit a week later was the nadir of his season. Several penalties followed in a disastrous second race of the weekend, and also earned him a stern talking to from Ganassi driver coach and adviser Dario Franchitti.
Since then, Karam has embarked on a significant turnaround. Texas was improved, Fontana was his first top-five finish, Milwaukee his best start of third, and Iowa a month ago his first podium, even though the latter race earned him a number of headlines for his aggressive style and battle with Ed Carpenter.
Karam’s oval skills have never been in doubt throughout his development in the Mazda Road to Indy, or in his first IndyCar season. So it’s with that in mind he thinks Pocono can produce another podium result, if not his first career victory to follow the trend of “firsts.”
“I’ve done better this year on the ovals and super speedways,” Karam said. “Super speedways gel well with me. This one’s tricky. Turn 1 gets a lot tighter than you think it is. I know in the Indy Lights car, every time you went in there, you prayed it would stick. I can’t imagine it with an extra 20-30 mph. I talked to my teammates and it’s one of the hardest turns on the schedule. The extra hour for us on Saturday will help get me up to speed quicker.”
Karam also admitted that he can’t expect to get away with too loose a race car at Pocono, as he could at Iowa.
“This year has been really tough because you lose the rear end … you don’t want to set it up to understeer,” he said. “If you set it up too free, it’ll be too loose. Going 220-230, if car gets loose, things happen at a quicker rate.
“I got away with driving a looser car there, but I probably wouldn’t at a track like Pocono. It’ll come down to who’s got the best car in 1 and 3. If you have a solid car and you can stay flat, you’ll be able to make passes.”
MOVING FORWARD AFTER IOWA, MID-OHIO
Karam has also done his best Taylor Swift imitation in acknowledging while the haters may hate, he’s shaken off the controversy that’s followed his name the last two races – at Iowa when he raced hard, and at Mid-Ohio when some competitors drew conclusions about his spin at Turn 5.
“As far as what’s happened in the past, that’s all in the past,” he said. “I don’t think other drivers are gonna be like, ‘Oh, he did this, so I’ll go out and block him, or even put me off the track, or even talk to me.’ It’s just another weekend. Move forward.”
THE REALITY OF BEING 20
It’s easy to forget given how long he’s been in the open-wheel ladder, and now in IndyCar, that at 20, Karam hasn’t enjoyed the typical life of a teenager to early-20-year-old. Seeing friends before they go off to a college is a reminder of what he’s not experiencing, while his friends get to see something they don’t do on a regular basis.
“I spent some time with family and friends the last few weeks,” says Karam, who’s been in his hometown of Nazareth since Mid-Ohio. ‘They’re all headed off to college, and I probably won’t see them again ’til Thanksgiving.
“I always tell my dad (Jody), ‘Ah man, I wish I could go to college, miss the college experience.’ I think about what it would be like if I went to college. But then I bet they wonder what it’s like to go 230 mph in an IndyCar.”
Karam will be able to prep for this weekend’s race from the comforts of his own home – he lives in nearby Nazareth, just 20 minutes from the track.
“The hype is having so many family and friends, a lot of support, with a whole Sage Karam section up in the bleachers. They’ll be cheering.
“It’s a cool thing in front of my natural home. These are the people that will be behind me, both in the race car and as a person off the track. There will be a lot of my wrestling teammates, a lot of first-time race attendees. It’s important to show them a good result.
“It’s only about 20 minutes away. So I won’t have to stay in a hotel room, I’ll be in my own Comfort Revolution bed, and can get some good nights sleep. That’s always good.
“If we win, we’ll have a team party at my house.”