At 20 years old, Sage Karam is the latest – but not the first – American to stand at the crossroads of an open-wheel career without knowing what’s coming next.
A cursory glance of the Verizon IndyCar Series field reveals several of his countrymen – Ryan Hunter-Reay, Graham Rahal, Conor Daly, even Spencer Pigot – as those in the “we didn’t have a full-time ride opportunity at some point in our careers but we’re going to keep fighting for it as hard as we can” club.
And that’s before you get into the international drivers in the same boat – the Simon Pagenauds, Will Powers, and Sebastien Bourdais’s of the world – who came back to IndyCar only on part-time programs before reaffirming their full-time status in better opportunities.
Point being, while it’s unfortunate that Karam’s IndyCar opportunity for 2016 is, at the moment, limited to the Indianapolis 500 with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing with Kingdom Racing, the Nazareth, Pa. native is at a more mature mindset than you might expect for someone his age, or someone stuck in his situation.
You see, Karam has been here before – in fact, his situation for February 2016 is no different than where it’s been each of the last three years, more or less.
Before he set out to win the 2013 Indy Lights title, Karam didn’t even have a confirmed ride less than a month out. He’d been with Andretti Autosport for the bulk of his rise through the Mazda Road to Indy but it was only thanks to an eleventh hour deal with longtime supporter Comfort Revolution he garnered a place with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. He then beat future IndyCar rookies Gabby Chaves, Carlos Munoz and Jack Hawksworth to the championship.
His reward for that title? Not knowing what his status would be for 2014.
It was only thanks to a “Christmas gift” that he entered the Chip Ganassi Racing fold as a development driver. He proceeded to drive the wheels off of everything he could that year, notably at Sebring in sports cars and then with DRR in his Indianapolis 500 debut.
His reward for that “making the best of all opportunities” run? Still uncertainty for 2015, and as it turned out, a race-to-race deal with Ganassi in a fourth IndyCar.
So suddenly the fact it’s early February 2016 and Karam has not just one, but two confirmed programs for this season – the Indianapolis 500 drive plus a full-season in the new F Performance Racing Lexus RC F GT3, whenever it debuts – actually puts him ahead of several others who you’d hope would have something, but don’t.
“To be back with Dreyer & Reinbold is a great thing. It’s the team I started with. It’s like a homecoming,” Karam told NBC Sports during IndyCar media day last week.
“They worked well with me, I worked well with them, and we had a really fast car the first year. I think with more experience I can grow the car even better and apply to it that month.”
Karam’s departure from the Ganassi fold was certainly fascinating to read about, but doesn’t seem acrimonious. He described what happened that led to him going back on the open market.
“Obviously a couple articles went out about me and Ganassi parting ways. I think Dennis was on vacation, and he didn’t see them.
“When he came back in the country he got on Twitter, read some of those, and called us up right away. He threw out the idea, ‘Hey we have a sponsor for the 500, and I’m just curious if you’d like to run for me.’ Not having anything, and knowing Dennis and he’s a great guy, a great team owner, I said ‘Of course. I’d love to.’
“We got the whole deal banged out about in two weeks. Before Christmas, it was signed. To be honest, it was good to actually have a Christmas knowing I’d be racing something.”
Karam noted he wasn’t likely to be back on the IndyCar grid months before the season ended.
“Coming off a year with Ganassi where I was starting to find my feet, I hoped to get a couple years put together. But I knew it would be tough to put the money together again,” he said.
“I knew about a week after Sonoma, unless a miracle happened, I wasn’t going to be able to be back on that grid.”
That led to the Lexus opportunity, where Paul Gentilozzi contacted him and provided him the opportunity to reconnect with Scott Pruett, who he co-drove with in the handful of sports car races.
It’s a stable opportunity there, whereas as Karam noted about 2015, the instability of wondering whether he or Sebastian Saavedra would be in the fourth Ganassi car didn’t allow chemistry to build.
“The hard thing for me last year is that I was in the car for a week or two, then I’d get pulled out and Saavedra would go in,” Karam said. “Then right when I was starting to get momentum, I’d get pulled out and Saavedra went in. It was hard to really keep a consistency underneath me. I think we did a good job given the circumstances.
“It was tough and a lot of pressure being at 20 years old with a team that won the championship. It’s a case where you’re driving alongside guys that have won Indy 500s and championships, and there’s a lot to ask.
“There were a lot of times where I did things in practice sessions for the team, that Scott (Dixon) or Tony (Kanaan) couldn’t do because they had to focus on qualifying setup. They had to nail it. I was worrying about what am I gonna do to help give them a better car for the race.
“Sometimes I’d sacrifice my time practicing for them, which I was totally fine with, because I knew it’s one team and I wasn’t in the championship. Scott was.
“I did whatever I could. I learned so much, and if I was to go back and do the season over, with everything I now know, I think I could be consistently in the top 10.”
Karam also dispelled notions he can’t be a good road and street course racer. However, in such a deep field and with slim margin for error, any small mistakes were magnified.
“I’ve won races (on those) in the past,” he explained. “Honestly, when you make a mistake on an oval, it’s big. When you make a mistake on a road or street course, you take your wing off. You do this or that. When you do that you fall back, and it’s hard to regain your spot.
“For me, it’s one of those things where I have to drive as hard as I can out there. And you guys saw, I pushed the issue, pushed the aggression too much. Mistakes are going to happen.
“I sat on pole at Detroit, but it got taken away. NOLA I was P2 going into qualifying… then qualifying gets canceled. Barber, I had a broken wrist. St. Pete, broken wrist. I had four days of testing. I think even at Mid-Ohio… I’m running to get to next round and I make a mistake in qualifying and lose my head. So it’s all those things like that.
“If you take those experiences into another year, you grow and get better. Look at how Josef (Newgarden) grew. Josef’s the prime example of a team sticking with a young driver, helping him develop, and now he’s a championship-winning capable driver.”
While Karam’s hopes are limited to Indy – again – he should be a strong dark horse candidate from the off. A similar crew, with only a crew chief change, led by lead engineer Jeff Britton is set to field the No. 24 Gas Monkey Garage entry. Karam called it a “straight up DRR” effort without any technical alliance.
The story of how he and Gas Monkey Garage came together is equally fascinating, as is his relationship with Buddy Rice, who will play a role in the month of May for DRR.
“He’ll be spotting. He’s the guy within the camp that got this whole Gas Monkey Garage sponsorship together. It’s such a cool sponsor, by the way,” Karam said.
“It’s insane. When (Richard Rawlings) comes here for this race, it’s gonna be huge. But the attention it will bring is mega.
“I went to Dallas for the announcement. Met the guys. They’re really cool guys.
“I watched their show, honestly, way before I knew I’d get them on the side of the car. They sponsored a Pro Stock car. And I thought, ‘Man these guys need to get into IndyCar. Come on over!’ Sure enough two weeks later I get a call, and I couldn’t believe it.
“Buddy knows his way around here. I guess he’ll be my Dario (Franchitti) for the whole month.
“If you talk to Dario about tips on coaching me he’d give you some pretty funny stories. I think those two would laugh. I think (Buddy) will be in the sky in 1 or 3. He’s on board fully to lend a helping hand and help however he can.”
And for 2016, it’s a case where Sage Karam will attempt to impress again – however and wherever he can – in now two completely different disciplines.