Sage Karam is hoping to kickstart his NTT IndyCar Series career this weekend on the streets of Toronto.
Drafted in for a one-race deal with Carlin Racing as teammate to Max Chilton, the native of Nazareth, Pennsylvania, wants to prove he’s more than an Indy-only specialist.
It’s remarkable to consider that Karam, with all he’s done in the sport since winning the 2010 USF2000 championship with Andretti Autosport, is only 24 years old. He won the Indy Lights championship in 2013, and after finishing ninth on his Indy 500 debut in 2014, the door opened at Chip Ganassi Racing, where he’d contest the majority of the 2015 season in a car co-entered by AFS Racing.
That fleeting glimpse of Karam’s potential, highlighted by an Ed Carpenter-angering podium run in Iowa, and a fifth on the big Fontana oval, disappeared when AFS went elsewhere in 2016. In the last four years, Karam has contested four IndyCar races, all at the Indy 500 with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing.
And with a number of street course wins to draw from during his Mazda Road To Indy days, including Toronto, Houston, and Baltimore, getting a second shot in IndyCar – outside the confines of an oval – is where Karam has focused his energies. Rather than continue to wait for a call that hasn’t come, he’s taken a proactive approach in finding a sponsor to create an opportunity to reshape his reputation which, with a vacant seat at Carlin, is now a possibility in Canada.
“It’s been a whirlwind, a lot of ups, a lot of downs, and there’s been a lot of times where we’ve been really, really close on landing some races after Indy,” he tells RACER.
“I’ve had some sponsor interest, team interest and then last-minute things where it just would kind of not work out, so I’d get my hopes … I’d get them really far up and then all a sudden the hopes would be crushed. I was getting kind of down on myself, honestly, just because it’s hard to keep getting knocked down like that and keep the faith, but I knew I had to do it.
“I wasn’t ready just to pack it in yet, so we stuck with it and I started working with a guy here in Nazareth, who is a close friend of mine and has done a lot of sponsor deals with fighters in MMA. [Toronto sponsor] SmartStop were on my helmet as a personal deal for the last two Indy 500s. Then they stepped up to come into the Toronto weekend, so I think they’re wanting to get into IndyCar on a bigger scale, which is great. They’re opening a hub to their company out there, so this is one they definitely had on their radar, and I’m just really happy that Carlin gave me the opportunity and we could get it all worked out.”
By the numbers, Karam will have waited 1440 days between road and street course activity in an IndyCar, drawing back to his run with Ganassi at Mid-Ohio in 2015 and his first laps of practice on Friday in the Carlin Chevy formerly occupied by Pato O’Ward. Outside of IndyCar, Karam kept his road racing skills in tune while driving for the factory Lexus IMSA GT team from 2016-2017, but there’s no denying he’ll be stepping into deep and unforgiving waters this weekend in Toronto.
“Well, I think that’s actually a benefit for me; what everybody is expecting is that I’m going to go in there and be well off the pace and basically be a write-off all weekend, and I’m going to be the guy that’s going to be the first one a lap down and stuff like that,” he says.
“Whatever, but that doesn’t really add pressure. That kind of just takes it away and then anything else you do better than that is a plus, but that’s just not the type … I guess that’s just not the type of competitor or driver that I’ve always been. I’ve always wanted to go in and do the best job possible, no matter what race car I’m in, or any race I’m in.”
With all of that being said, Karam also knows that with no opportunities to test prior to Toronto, he’ll have to adapt quickly or risk running at the back of the field.
“I can tell you; do I expect to be towards the bottom of the charts the first session? Probably,” he says. “Even though I kind of think that’s how it will be the first session, I’m not going to be happy with that, obviously.
“So I’m going to do whatever I can to make sure that doesn’t happen, but by the same token, I’ve waited so long for an opportunity to race another IndyCar race on a road course after the 500 that I want to make the absolute best of this opportunity, and I’ve been doing everything in my power to make sure that I’ve been ready for this call.
“I’m going to try and go in there and open up some eyes, because this is an opportunity that I don’t get much of, and it could turn into something bigger down the road if you perform at a high level. I’m going to need to learn really, really quickly, but I’m confident with the resources around me, and the experience now that I have with just racing in general. I feel confident going in that I’m not going to be a laughing stock by any means.”
Karam is emboldened by the fact that in the hands of O’Ward, his Carlin car was plenty fast at previous road and street course events. Once he gets a feel for two significant technical changes since the 2015 season – a switch to lower-downforce bodywork, and a brake vendor change from Brembo to PFC – he knows similar performances are possible.
“Pato qualified inside the top 10, so that’s obviously a big confidence boost as far as going into a team knowing that it can produce good results,” he says.
“I’m just going to have to figure it out, but that’s just the main thing of this whole deal. Basically this is going to be something completely different to me. I haven’t sat in an IndyCar with road course wings on it in so long. I think the hardest thing for me is going to be figuring out the brakes.
“When I drove an IndyCar (in street course spec) in 2015, we had so much more downforce, so it was basically brake as late as possible and the thing would stick. The car is a lot different nowadays. It looks like tire deg is a bit bigger this year from what I’ve been used to. So, there’s definitely a lot of things that I’m going to have to just learn on the fly. Unfortunately, it’s not like you have two full days of just turning as many laps as you want to figure it out. You’ve got to learn it pretty quick.”
Karam is searching for direction in his life. Vast racing experience, earned at such a young age, has value when drives in IndyCar or IMSA appear, but without a steering wheel to turn, he isn’t sure where, at least outside of the Indy 500 each May, his path will lead.
“It’s been hard with [having] full-time [rides], and I just wanted to be in racing and be around the paddock, and I’ve been thinking about what it would take, how I could do it, of just trying to start up a USF2000 team or something like that. I think that would be something really cool and something I’d really enjoy,” he says.
“So, we’ll see what the future holds. Right now the main focus is just going in, doing my job to the best of my ability and just hopefully I can leave that weekend and people can say, ‘Wow, he’s come a long way maturity-wise, and just didn’t really expect for that to happen after being out of the car for so long.’ That’s the main goal.”
As many folks are prone to do, Karam places too much value in how he’s received on social media. Repairing or improving his reputation within the IndyCar paddock, which could carry significant and lasting returns, is another goal for the weekend.
“I have a really strange group that follows me,” he says. “It’s like I’ve got my people that are diehard for me and will have my back ‘til the day I die, and then I’ve got the people that really want nothing to do with me. It’s cool, though, because it starts a lot of talk and a lot of publicity for people that are involved. I want the general perception to be a bit better, obviously. Just across the board. Obviously, as an athlete, you want everybody to like you, but you can’t have that, so I get it.
“There’s some opinions of me… my goal the last few years has been just trying to change the perception and be somebody that when the little kid in the stands is there watching, or is in the paddock and asking for autographs, I just want that kid to just be like, ‘I want to be like him when I grow up.’ So that’s been my goal. And to do that, I’ve got to be racing more. So, I’m doing my best to get more races.”