Karam delivered when it mattered the most in Indy 500 Qualifications

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INDIANAPOLIS – Sage Karam was in a difficult position that he never expected to be in. He was in the “Last Row Shootout” for the 103rd Indianapolis 500 – one of six drivers fighting for the final three positions in the 33-car starting lineup.

Only once in his previous five Indy 500s had Karam started in the last row, and that was when he was a rookie in 2014. In that race, Karam started 31st but raced his way up to a ninth-place finish.

Now, Karam was facing the pressure of pulling off his best four-lap qualification attempt of the month to make the field. Driving for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, one of the best “Indy 500-only” teams in Gasoline Alley, Karam’s #24 Chevrolet had issues during Saturday’s first round of qualifications.

On a hot, slippery track, the car didn’t perform well enough to make the top 30 that would be locked into the starting lineup. He made five attempts on Saturday and none of them were fast enough.

“I don’t know what’s wrong, I was flat for four laps,” Karam told a group of reporters Saturday. “It just won’t go quicker. It’s just slow; we don’t really know. It’s not that much different from our teammate (JR Hildebrand), who just got it in the show. I don’t know.

“It’s not looking good for us right now.”

Karam knew he had to deliver on Sunday, and he reached back to his days as a champion high school wrestler in Nazareth, Pennsylvania.

Wrestling is the ultimate “martial art.” It is as much mental as it is physical. It’s wrestler vs. wrestler under tremendous strain, and often pain, but it requires being calm and cool enough to know when to make the right move.

INDYCAR Photo by James Black“I had a wrestling coach once tell me it doesn’t matter who you are wrestling that day, don’t look at the seeds, don’t look at the records, don’t look at the brackets — the better wrestler who wrestles the best six minutes that day is going to be the guy who wins,” Karam told NBCSports.com. We didn’t do that Saturday. We didn’t wrestle that car; we didn’t wrestle that track the way we needed to.

“Let’s just keep it up and get it done on Sunday.”

Karam thought about that as he sat in the inspection line. And he delivered like a champion with the fastest four-lap average in the “Last Row Shootout.” His average speed of 227.740 miles per hour put him in the 31st starting position for Sunday’s race.

After looking into the abyss, he came out the other side. He will look back at this experience as one of his most important moments as a man.

“Absolutely,” the 24-year-old said. “This is one of the most emotional moments I’ve ever had in my life. I’ve worked so hard this month just to be able to talk to you in a happy way. It’s been a roller-coaster month. We’ve had a lot of issues and things we couldn’t control – weather related and other issues.

“I told my team owner, Dennis Reinbold, I wouldn’t let him down. I can’t believe it. I feel like I’ve won the thing and I’ve only qualified for it. That’s what Indy is. Just to race in this race, you are one of only 33 humans that get to take the green flag in this race, and I don’t take it for granted.

“On the first day, we had buffeting issues with the helmet and the car balance wasn’t good. I had a shoulder issue. Just to come back after Saturday, I’m so happy.

“The fans had a crazy roller-coaster ride in this qualifying. Last year’s was good; this year’s, even better. IndyCar is on the right path and I will remember this moment the rest of my life. I will never take this for granted.”

INDYCAR Photo by James BlackKaram later detailed the sharpest valley and highest rise of that roller-coaster ride.

“I always knew that speed was there, it was just getting it out of it,” Karam explained. “I had a really bad first qual attempt Saturday and skimmed the wall, and I got out and the first thing I said was, ‘We’re fine, we’re fine.’ I genuinely believe that a run like I did just now was going to be like yesterday, I would have been able to bounce back and do that yesterday. But we just kept slightly missing the balance for the weather and ended up having to come back today to fight into the field.

“That was the most stressful 48 hours of my life, probably one of the biggest battles I’ve ever had to go through mentally.”

Karam’s teammate, JR Hildebrand, was able to qualify 21st on Saturday with a four-lap average of 227.908 mph.

INDYCAR Photo by James Black“My teammate did it, and our cars were pretty similar,” Karam said. “We had a really good car for two laps, but we didn’t really have a good car for four, so today we bettered that drop-off, and that was the difference. If we would have fell off even more, who knows then what would have happened.

“But the team rallied, and it’s just been a really, really tough month. To be able to say we qualified when we were kind of backs against the ball there for a while. I’m happy I got in, and in 2014 with this same crew, same car, everything, started 31st and finished ninth as a rookie. If it shapes up like that again, I’ll be quite happy.

“We’ll see how we can do it.”

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

Marcus Armstrong Scott Dixon
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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.”