It was perhaps the most under-the-radar performance in Sunday’s Indianapolis 500, but Sage Karam’s drive deserves further attention.
After starting on the last row of the grid in 31st, the 26-year-old moved through the field in the No. 24 Dreyer & Reinbold Chevrolet to collect a seventh-place finish. The result is a new career-best for Karam in the Indy 500, breaking his previous mark of ninth, which came in his IndyCar debut in 2014.
Karam has been an Indy 500 one-off entry in five of his eight seasons in IndyCar, and all but one of his Indy appearances have been with DRR. For the Pennsylvanian, the result was validation of the belief team owner Dennis Reinbold has had in him throughout their journey together.
“It really makes me emotional, just talking about it like that,” Karam told RACER. “Dennis Reinbold is one of the most genuine human beings I’ve ever met in my life. In racing, you don’t come across those types of people all the time. That guy has kept more faith in me and believed in me longer than many people would have. I’ve made mistakes along the way, that’s for sure. I’ve wrecked a couple of his race cars when we were running up front, and it would have been very, very easy to turn the page and go to somebody else. But for some reason, he’s always believed that I’ve had the ability to give him a chance to put him in victory lane, and I can’t thank him enough for keeping that positive energy into keeping me around and working with me to make this happen.”
Earlier in the year, though, there was a time when it appeared that where Karam’s streak of Indy runs with DRR was destined to end.
“I had two really, really bad years in a row the last two years,” he said. “Dennis called me a couple of months before the race and was like, ‘We don’t have a sponsor. You’re probably not going to be coming back,’ and my life flashed before my eyes. I was really devastated. Then a couple of days later, he calls me and says, ‘AES came on board and we’d like you to drive again.’
“It was a rollercoaster of emotions, and it was at that point where I knew, ‘This year is going to be make or break for me. I’m either going to have a strong result and I’m going to bring that belief totally back in Dennis’ eyes – even though I knew he always had a belief – and I was going to bring it back to all of the mechanics and engineers and everybody that’s part of it.’ It was almost like it was going to put me back on the map if I could deliver a good result. It was a lot of pressure. We only do one race, and it’s an amazing privilege to be able to come and do this race every single year, knowing it’s the biggest race in the world. It could change your life in a day, and I didn’t win, but at the end of the day, it feels like a win.”
Where Karam was able to make up the most ground was when the caution came out on lap 34 – a lap after his first pit stop – when Stefan Wilson crashed during the opening round of pit stops. As the running order shuffled, Karam vaulted from 23rd to 15th. From there, it became a game of minimizing mistakes and protecting track position as he finally cracked the top 10 on lap 104. He even managed to find the lead on lap 176 when some of the frontrunners short-pitted for their final pit stop. At the end, lost in Helio Castroneves capturing a record-tying fourth Indy 500 win and ‘Helio-mania’ taking over the crowd of 135,000, was Karam putting in one of the best drives of his career.
“I just knew that if I could just keep it on the dance floor and deliver by hitting my marks and just being consistent that we might have a shot at finishing in the top 15,” Karam said. “Then when I got to the top 15, I was like, ‘Hey, we can get this thing into the top 10 if we just keep going,’ because we got there quite quickly. It was just a group effort. And like I said, just the faith that these guys have shown me and keeping me around… I’ll never forget it. Dennis, Reinbold is like a second dad to me. I’m just really privileged and proud to be able to drive a DRR car.
“Obviously, my dream is to be full-time and racing in IndyCar, it’s the only thing I want to do. Without IndyCar, I don’t really know what life is for me. So I’m doing everything I can, and hopefully this is the first step back.”