One-shot drivers hoping to use Indy 500 as launching pad

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Sage Karam carried the burden of an entire team into his final four-lap qualifying attempt last weekend.

He could extend his season by putting Dennis Reinbold’s No. 24 car into the Indianapolis 500 starting grid. Or he could go home and wait 12 months for another chance.

Karam delivered in the last-row shootout, qualifying 31st with a win-or-go-home mentality that has become a theme for the drivers who show up at the track annually with only one or two races on their schedule.

“I think that’s why I was so emotional after (qualifying),” Karam said Wednesday. “I was feeling a lot of pressure because I waited a whole year to get back to Indy. I did so much to get ready and I didn’t want all this stuff to go for nothing. Also Dennis has never had a car that failed to make the race. I didn’t want to be the first.”

The 24-year-old Karam came up clutch with an average speed of 227.740 mph, putting him ahead of 2016 pole-winner and series regular James Hinchcliffe. It also put him ahead of two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso, who got bumped out of Sunday’s race.

A relieved Karam started screaming into the team radio before crossing the yard of bricks on his final lap and nearly broke down in a post-qualifying news conference.

Not every one-off driver winds up in such a high-stakes situation.

Three-time race winner Helio Castroneves will make his 10th attempt at a record-tying fourth Indy 500 win from the No. 12 starting spot Sunday.

Oriol Servia continues to chase the elusive win that would make him an instant star in his native Spain.

And Karam and teammate JR Hildebrand are trying to help Reinbold generate enough to transition to running IndyCars full-time.

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The challenges are different, too.

At 31, Hildebrand is the 2011 Indy runner-up who acknowledges he’s adjusted his mentality to his new job after previous stints as both a full-time and part-time driver in the series. Hildebrand has competed in only one or two races five of the last six years.

“I think you look at racing in a little different way when you’re only racing once,” he said before qualifying 21st. “In some ways, it makes it easier because you can have a much more focused approach. But it’s also impacted how I think about my aggression level during the race.”

Castroneves is a relative newcomer to this form of racing.

A year ago, the popular Brazilian competed only two times in Indy cars – making his season debut on Indianapolis’ road course and his season finale two weeks later on the Brickyard’s historic oval. That’s the plan Team Penske followed again this year, and it’s the intended plan for 2020.

For now, Castroneves finds himself in an ideal situation. He’s working with a deep-pocketed team he knows, on a track he loves and with data he understands better than most. Yet it can be tricky, as Castroneves found out last year when he crashed after completing 145 laps and finished a career-worst 27th.

“I’m glad I’m with the same team because I’m comfortable with so many phases of it, starting with the seat and what you have on the steering wheel and the language with the engineer,” Castroneves said. “At some point, muscle memory kicks in and the good news is that everyone is running their first oval of the season here so you’re not too far behind.”

For drivers like Karam and Conor Daly, they know they must succeed at Indianapolis to get back in the game full-time.

In Karam’s case, he has a whole team counting on him, too.

“Doing well in the Indy 500, that’s where it all starts,” Karam said. “It’s the biggest race in the world. If you win the race it would not only be a career changer for me, it would be a team changer for DRR and the boys to be able to go and do more races. Dennis has made this his life’s dream, to win it, and I want to fulfill that for him and that team.”

Justin Grant prevails over Kyle Larson in the Turkey Night Grand Prix

Grant Larson Turkey Night
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On the heels of his Hangtown 100 victory, Justin Grant worked his way from 13th in the Turkey Night Grand Prix to beat three-time event winner Kyle Larson by 1.367 seconds. The 81st annual event was run at Ventura (Calif.) Raceway for the sixth time.

“My dad used to take me to Irwindale Speedway, and we’d watch Turkey Night there every year,” Grant said in a series press release. “This is one of the races I fell in love with. I didn’t think I’d ever get a chance to run in it, never thought I’d make a show and certainly never thought I’d be able to win one.”

With its genesis in 1934 at Gilmore Stadium, a quarter-mile dirt track in Los Angeles, the race is steeped in history with winners that include AJ Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Gary Bettenhausen and Johnnie Parsons. Tony Stewart won it in 2000. Kyle Larson won his first of three Turkey Night Grands Prix in 2012. Christopher Bell earned his first of three in 2014, so Grant’s enthusiasm was well deserved.

So was the skepticism that he would win. He failed to crack the top five in three previous attempts, although he came close last year with a sixth-place result. When he lined up for the feature 13th in the crowded 28-car field, winning seemed like a longshot.

Grant watched as serious challengers fell by the wayside. Mitchel Moles flipped on Lap 10 of the feature. Michael “Buddy” Kofoid took a tumble on Lap 68 and World of Outlaws Sprint car driver Carson Macedo flipped on Lap 79. Grant saw the carnage ahead of him and held a steady wheel as he passed Tanner Thorson for the lead with 15 laps remaining and stayed out of trouble for the remainder of the event.

“It’s a dream come true to win the Turkey Night Grand Prix,” Grant said.


Kyle Larson follows Justin Grant to the front on Turkey Night

The 2012, 2016 and 2019 winner, Larson was not scheduled to run the event. His wife Katelyn is expecting their third child shortly, but after a couple of glasses of wine with Thanksgiving dinner and while watching some replays of the event, Larson texted car owner Chad Boat to see if he had a spare car lying around. He did.

“We weren’t great but just hung around and it seemed like anybody who got to the lead crashed and collected some people,” Larson said. “We made some passes throughout; in the mid-portion, we weren’t very good but then we got better at the end.

“I just ran really, really hard there, and knew I was running out of time, so I had to go. I made some pretty crazy and dumb moves, but I got to second and was hoping we could get a caution to get racing with Justin there. He was sliding himself at both ends and thought that maybe we could get a run and just out-angle him into [Turn] 1 and get clear off [Turn] 2 if we got a caution, but it just didn’t work out.”

Larson padded one of the most impressive stats in the history of this race, however. In 10 starts, he’s won three times, finished second four times, was third once and fourth twice.

Bryant Wiedeman took the final spot on the podium.

As Grant and Larson began to pick their way through the field, Kofoid took the lead early from the outside of the front row and led the first 44 laps of the race before handing it over to Cannon McIntosh, who bicycled on Lap 71 before landing on all fours. While Macedo and Thorson tussled for the lead with McIntosh, Grant closed in.

Thorson finished 19th with McIntosh 20th. Macedo recovered from his incident to finish ninth. Kofoid’s hard tumble relegated him to 23rd.

Jake Andreotti in fourth and Kevin Thomas, Jr. rounded out the top five.

1. Justin Grant (started 13)
2. Kyle Larson (22)
3. Bryant Wiedeman (4)
4. Jake Andreotti (9)
5. Kevin Thomas Jr. (1)
6. Logan Seavey (8)
7. Alex Bright (27)
8. Emerson Axsom (24)
9. Carson Macedo (7)
10. Jason McDougal (18)
11. Jake Swanson (16)
12. Chase Johnson (6)
13. Jacob Denney (26)
14. Ryan Timms (23)
15. Chance Crum (28)
16. Brenham Crouch (17)
17. Jonathan Beason (19)
18. Cade Lewis (14)
19. Tanner Thorson (11)
20. Cannon McIntosh (3)
21. Thomas Meseraull (15)
22. Tyler Courtney (21)
23. Buddy Kofoid (2)
24. Brody Fuson (5)
25. Mitchel Moles (20)
26. Daniel Whitley (10)
27. Kaylee Bryson (12)
28. Spencer Bayston (25)