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.”

Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told RACER.com “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).