There came a point during the offseason where Sage Karam was contemplating the end of his NTT IndyCar Series career. With his Dreyer & Reinbold Racing team facing a big downturn in funding as longtime title partner Wix Filters took a step back, the 2013 Indy Lights champion and seven-time Indy 500 starter was preparing for the only job he’s ever known to be taken away.
“It was a rough offseason for me, I’m not gonna lie,” Karam said. “I got a call from Dennis [Reinbold] saying that Wix wasn’t coming back in the same capacity as they’ve always been, and that was tough for me. He basically told me, ‘We’re gonna have to find somebody who’s going to bring a little money in, because we can’t afford to run two cars and right now, we’re stretching to run one.’ He decided he wanted to do one car, so I was pretty bummed. I was sitting there thinking, ‘This is the first 500 I’m not going to be a part of (since 2014).’”
Fearing he’d be replaced by a ride-buying driver, Karam was left to contemplate how he’d support his family.
“I really felt alone and just like, ‘What am I going to do now?’” he continued. “I never thought of life without racing. I was actually applying for job interviews, like normal life. Trying to do stuff in sports, maybe working with athletes in some capacity. I even thought about maybe even just learning how to freakin’ change a [IndyCar] tire. Who knows?
“I’ve got a fiancee, I’ve got a house, I’ve got dogs; I’ve got to provide. Racing in the 500 is how I how I live, bring the dough home, and that’s when I came to realization that I might not be doing it. It was a big wake-up call.”
Fortunately for Karam, the career panic was short-lived.
“Two or three days later, [Reinbold] calls me back. “He’s like, ‘Hey, we found a sponsor,’ and I’m like, ‘Yes!’ I was fortunate enough to get it back. It was a dream come true.”
Despite experiencing an abbreviated heart attack, the change of direction in downsizing from two cars to one and fresh energy from signing AES Indiana as the new sponsor of the No. 24 Chevy coincided with a massive turnround for Karam and DRR on Day 1 at Indy.
Among the slowest cars at the last few 500s, the 26-year-old rocketed to the top of the afternoon speed chart with a lap of 225.942mph, and while he was eventually knocked down to P4 by the end of the session, the only drivers who were faster — Will Power, Ryan hunter-Reay and Takuma Sato — have a combined four Indy 500 wins and two IndyCar championships.
“The last two years have been really tough; we haven’t had the package where we could qualify anywhere in the field and drive to the front,” he said. “We just really lacked speed; I’ve never really had a great car balance the last couple years, and then we came here today and just unloaded the thing out of the truck and it was one of the best cars I’ve driven.
“We made some good changes through the winter and the team did a really good job of prepping — this car is beautiful. Everything’s polished and just super smooth. They went the extra mile with it, for sure. I’ve got to thank the old DRR crew for doing that. Team Chevy showed up as well. It’s still early to tell who’s got an advantage, but I think we’re gonna have a good little battle on our hands. I think it’s a lot closer this year.”
Coming into the event, DRR was one of the teams — based on recent performances — that looked like it could be a question mark to earn one of the 33 starting spots with 35 cars entered. It’s only the first day of practice, of course, but with newfound speed and competitiveness, there’s extra confidence to be found in the DRR garage.
Also consider how the team is one of few single-car and fully independent programs in the field, which makes running P4 behind Team Penske, Andretti Autosport, and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing on Tuesday another indicator of how heavily the team is defying expectations.
“We don’t get any data from anybody,” Karam said. “Everything we roll out on the track with is what we come up with. We’re a little team. The big question mark is where we’ll stand in qualifying. Qualifying’s huge and hopefully we’ve got the speed to do it.
“Obviously, the goal is to win this thing and I’m more confident after today than I was before I got on track. I’m going to eat a nice steak tonight. I thought I was gonna [stay] P1 after that lap. I really did. I came across the line. I gave a big Ric Flair ‘Wooooo.’ I was pretty pumped up…but then you know, slick Willy P had to come knock me off.”