INDIANAPOLIS — Sage Karam has a ride for the doubleheader race weekend in a couple of weeks at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. While some may be wondering if its back with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing in the NTT IndyCar Series, well Karam shocked the racing world on Monday by announcing that his deal isn’t even with an INDYCAR team in general. He’s going NASCAR racing.
Karam, will pilot the No. 31 Chevrolet for Jordan Anderson Racing in Aug. 14’s Pennzoil 150 (4 p.m. ET, NBCSN, IMS Radio Network). Is this a new path for his career?
He says it potentially can be. While he’s not 100% closing the door on any future INDYCAR races, with the NASCAR deal, it opens the door up on that side of things as well.
“As I’m going on my career and I’m not racing full time in the INDYCAR, I want to be racing more on a weekend basis.,” Karam told me during an exclusive interview on Monday afternoon. “I think that now it would be more of a priority to me to get in a car whenever I can and try different things. I really just wanted to try different cars and different things, new tracks, that kind of thing and types of racing. I think this year after the Indy 500, finishing seventh, I think it opened up some doors to put me back on a radar.”
How did this deal come about then you may be asking? Well, before you get to that, you first have to rewind to get the full jest of this story. It comes full circle as to how he was led down this path and why it happened this way.
Karam, 26, has proven that he’s a hell of a talent with a lot of speed. There’s absolutely no debating that. I mean, he finished ninth in his INDYCAR debut back in the 2014 Indianapolis 500, the same race that featured Kurt Busch, and did so as a high school senior.
Yes, Karam was still in high school and had no prior INDYCAR experience before that year’s Month of May. He drove a race car at speeds in excess of 225 mph, pulling 4+ g’s per turn, per lap, for 3 hours and came away with a top 10 finish. What did you do as a high school senior that can compare to that? The easy answer is, nothing.
Karam, did have open wheel experience though as he came through the karting ranks up to a USF2000 ride in 2010. He did so with Andretti Autosport, a team that’s been close to him.
See, Karam has resided in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. Yes, the same town that the Andretti’s hail from. It’s not a coincidence that he’s came up the similar ranks as them as he’s actually quite close with the family. Marco Andretti is one of his best friends. His dad Jody drove Karam and Andretti to karting races while they were growing up as the families remained very close over the years.
That’s how Karam got started in the Road to Indy program with Andretti Autosport. He won the championship as a rookie that year on the heels of nine wins and two runner-ups in 12 starts. He moved up to the Star Mazda Series (now the Indy Pro 2000) for the next couple of years to where he scored five wins and six runner-ups in finishes of fifth and third respectively in the championship each year. That allowed him to move up to Indy Lights for 2013 but he had to do so with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. Karam, won three more times and had nine podiums in 12 races in what was a championship campaign again. That’s two titles and 17 wins in four years in the RTI program.
He the moved up to INDYCAR but for only one race in 2014 – the Indy 500. He’d finish that remarkable ninth. So, how does someone with so much open wheel success end up in NASCAR a few years later?
Sponsorship is a big reason as to why. He was told when he got going that as long as you keep winning championships through the ladder system, you’ll keep rising. He did just that. He was fast all the way up to INDYCAR and even in the series too. But, being fast can only take you so far. You also need a sponsor.
That’s why I feel like Karam never got a fair shot in my opinion in INDYCAR. It was more about funding and less about letting Karam have time to grow and learn and showcase his talents. He was 19 when he came into the series. 19. After a one year stint with Chip Ganassi Racing, he’s spent his last six years trying to find his path to a full time job as a driver.
He said that he didn’t take it seriously enough to find sponsors and it put him in a position to have to find a different avenue to remain a race car driver at the sports’ highest level. Now that he’s taken a different approach, it’s paying off.
“I think it was a wake up call a few years ago,” Karam continued. “It doesn’t matter how many races you win or how many championships. I quickly learned that if you don’t have the funding, you’re not going to be racing. For a while it took me a long time to grasp that concept. That’s when I started to struggle to get on the grid. Then a couple of years ago, that’s when I started to really take it serious and trying to figure out a way to get on the grid. Making more phone calls. Trying to be better about how I can figure out how to help a sponsor out. You’ve got to get creative now a days. Sponsors like business-to-business opportunities. It’s not the 90’s or early 2000s when people are writing checks anymore. They want to see how it’s going to help them. So you really do have to get creative with it.
“It’s been hard. It’s almost like it’s two jobs in one. You’ve got your off track business and your on track business. If you’re off track business isn’t booming then you’ve really got no on track business.
“I learned that and have been working hard on that the last couple of years. I think that’s a testament of being able to do this race. I think me 3-4 years ago would never have this opportunity and I never did have that opportunity because I didn’t really look into it or work on it as hard as I should have been.
“Now I am working on it and I’m young enough, I’m still only 26 years old that I think I can make a really good transition or switch to something or even make a good career in INDYCAR still if that opportunity came about. What I do know is I’m taking it race-by-race and opportunity-by-opportunity and trying to do my absolute best.
“You’re only as good as your last race.”
As to what led this all to an opportunity with Jordan Anderson Racing?
He said he’s always had an eye on NASCAR, but after traveling to some SRX races with Marco Andretti and seeing how happy and how much fun he was having in that series, he thought, why not try to go outside of his open wheel comfort zone too. He found a sponsor in a Pennsylvania company in Montage Mountain, made a few phone calls and off the ground this opportunity went.
“I’ve always kind of wanted to dip my feet into the stock car world,” Karam told me on Monday afternoon. “I just never really knew on where to go, who to contact. The only teams I really knew were Penske and Ganassi as far as knowing personnel from the INDYCAR side. It is two completely different worlds in that kind of aspect.
“We made some phone calls and got in contact with some people at Jordan Anderson Racing with Montage Mountain Resorts here in Pennsylvania. It was a lot of hard work to do but we got the deal done and I’m just really fortunate about it.
“Most of the people I spoke to on the NASCAR and even INDYCAR side were kind of pointing me into Jordan’s direction. Once I was able to get on the phone with him, I found out quite quickly why people had such high regard for him.”
The thing is, while he has as much experience on the 2.439-mile IMS road course layout as anyone in the field in August, racing an INDYCAR vs. racing a NASCAR on this track are two wildly different beasts. Jimmie Johnson and the storied list of past drivers who’ve gone between INDYCAR to NASCAR or vice versa have all talked about how you basically have to change your entire driving style and relearn as well as to break old habits.
At Indy, the NASCAR is going to go much slower than his INDYCAR has. The car is also heavier which means you have to brake much earlier than you would in an open wheel car around here. That then changes your sightlines as well as having to train your brain to forget everything you know in the past of this track and alter how you drive it.
Karam, sought out Johnson actually and said that their discussion a couple of weeks ago was very beneficial for what he could expect for the Pennzoil 150.
“I think it’s going to be quite different. It’s going to be substantially different honestly,” said Karam of the two disciplines at Indy. “I actually spoke to Jimmie about a week in a half ago and just kind of picked his mind. I figured he’d be the best guy to talk to since he’s driving the current car that I’m used to and he was just in NASCAR last year. He gave me some really good stuff to look for. Stuff to not do. Stuff to work on. I thank him for that. He’s been a great help and a great guy.
“I think for me the biggest difference is the braking and the car being so much heavier. It’s about twice the weight of an INDYCAR so when you have something like that, it’s hard on the tires. It’s harder to stop. When you have all of those things that come into play, I’m not used to that.”
Also, there’s only 50 minutes of practice available that weekend too. With lap times exceeding a minute in length here, there’s not much time to actually practice. If they need to make changes, the longer they’re in Gasoline Alley fixing it, the shorter amount of time that he’s on track getting valuable laps. See the Catch 22?
How much feedback does Karam give vs. just trusting what the car has under him?
“I’m going in trying to get the most amount of laps in practice which means making the least amount of changes,” he said. “I think just turning laps and getting comfortable. I know I have full confidence in the team in having a great car. They showed that this year. I know the cars good. I think my biggest thing is, I don’t really know what’s supposed to feel good or not. I think my job is to tell everybody what I’m feeling and trust that we’re going to go in the direction that they think is good because I don’t know. That’s a big question mark for me. I don’t know what changes I’m feeling or if I’m feeling something that’s good or bad.
“For me, it’s just turning as many laps in that session and getting comfortable. In talking with Jimmie, he said that the tires are going to feel great the first 2 or 3 laps then it’s kind of maintaining tire life and survival. So I think I probably won’t in the first practice be able to optimize the life time with the tire.
“I just have to trust the process.”
The good news is that his confidence is high though because he can bring some past experiences from this track with him still. There’s some things that can translate over. He notes that without being a full time INDYCAR driver, there’s not a lot of habits to have to break. The transition could be much easier because of that. Being part time can actually help in that sense. Also can having a love for this track and this road course too.
Karam said that there’s some tracks you genuinely don’t look forward going to and it affects your attitude towards that weekend. Indy isn’t that case. He loves it here. He loves the road course and is going in with a fun loving open mind at what he can do inside of the car.
Plus, this car has also been really good this year in scoring four top 10 finishes in nine races run including two of those four coming on road courses by two different drivers.
Also, how does Karam adapt to the aggressive nature of road course racing in NASCAR? This car clearly has top 10 capability but you have to be aggressive to get there. Karam, is the new guy. You don’t want to make a bad first impression in the series and struggle to gain respect. But, you also don’t want to get taken advantage of either. How do you balance the two?
“It’s racing and my No. 1 objective for me and the team is the goal to keep the equipment in good shape. But, if you are in a position to maximize to get a potential result, whether you’re running in the top five or the top three, for a win, you don’t know how many opportunities you’re going to get in life so you got to go for it,” he said.
“I won’t be scared to mix it up with people out there for sure.”
Nevertheless, he’s joining drivers like John Andretti, Tony Stewart, Dario Franchitti, Juan Pablo Montoya, Jacques Villeneuve, Scott Pruett, Danica Patrick and others who’ve gone the INDYCAR to NASCAR path. Karam, is talented enough to make this work in whatever endeavor he chooses his next path.
“I think every driver wants to be racing full time in whatever they’re racing in. I don’t have that luxury right now to be racing every single weekend,” said Karam. “I’ve got to fight tooth and nail to find out what that next opportunity for me and when those opportunities do come I need to maximize it. It is tough. I always have put all my trust in my love into God and knowing that there is a plan and who knows, maybe this is just the start of something great doing this Xfinity Series race with Jordan.”