Photo Credit: sagekaram.com
After starting off his Verizon IndyCar Series career with a bang, racing in the 2014 Indianapolis 500 and 12 of the 16 IndyCar races in 2015, Sage Karam, the 2013 Indy Lights Series champion, did not have a ride for the 2016 season outside of the Indianapolis 500. With lots of proven talent and ability, Karam is not the type of driver that should be racing just 1 race per year.
Although Karam, 21, has just 3 top 10 finishes in 14 races, these statistics don’t tell the full story. I’ll tell the full story, and then explain why it means that a team the series needs to get Karam a full-time ride as soon as possible.
From Nazareth, Pennsylvania, just like the members of legendary Andretti family, Mario, Michael, and Marco, Karam qualified for the 2014 Indianapolis 500 as a 19-year-old high school senior in 31st, and ended up finishing the race in 9th place, advancing 22 spots over the course of the race. This race showed he had potential to be a star in the series, and he ended up driving for Chip Ganassi Racing for 12 of the 16 races in the 2015 season.
During last season, Karam struggled early on, finishing 19th, 18th, and 18th at St. Petersburg, New Orleans, and Alabama, respectively. Once the series got to Indianapolis, Indiana for the Indianapolis 500, however, Karam really kicked it up a notch, and was one of the fastest cars in practice. However, after a poor qualifying session in which he ended up in 23rd place on the starting grid in the middle of row 8, he was taken out in the first corner by Takuma Sato, who tried to pass Karam and Ryan Hunter-Reay on the outside (3-wide) on the 1st turn of the race.
The series then moved to Belle Isle, Michigan for the Dual in Detroit doubleheader. Karam was slated to take the pole position for the 2nd race, but then got another tough break when IndyCar canceled the qualifying session due to weather after the required time to complete the session was just barely missed, forcing the cars to line up by entrant points, and putting Karam in the back of the field.
After another tough break at Belle Isle, the next 4 races on Karam’s schedule were the oval tracks of Texas, Fontana, Milwaukee, and Iowa, with his hometown race at Pocono coming up after a stop at Mid-Ohio on the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.
Karam put together a solid race at the Firestone 600 in Fort Worth, Texas and finished 12th, and then put together a fantastic race at the MAVTV 500 in Fontana, California and finished in 5th after leading some laps. Had the race at Fontana not ended under caution due to a crash at the start of the final lap, though, Karam, who was on much newer tires than 3 of the 4 drivers who finished ahead of him, may have been able to win the race should it have gone one more lap. Even after an at-the-time career-high 5th place finish, it was still another tough break for Karam.
At the Wisconsin 250 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Karam ended up capitalizing on that momentum he had gotten from his 5th place and first career top 5 finish at Fontana and qualifying a career-high 3rd, but unfortunately ended up crashing and finishing in 19th place. At the Iowa Corn Indy 300 in Newton, Iowa, Karam really made a name for himself by racing fellow American drivers Ed Carpenter and Graham Rahal very hard to the point where they expressed their disapproval (WATCH HERE) of Karam’s aggressive driving style, which has been likened to that of the great Paul Tracy, who sits tied for 9th on the all-time wins list for American championship car racing after an impressive career which ended in 2011.
Despite all of the commotion at Iowa, Karam finished in a career-high 3rd place. Still, though, seeing that all of the attention he was getting after that race was negative in regards to his driving style, Iowa was still yet another tough break for the rookie.
After a 4-race oval stretch for Karam that included a row 2 start and 2 top 5 finishes, including a podium, Karam looked like he was going to do big things in the series and would certainly have a ride in future years.
After those races, the series departed for the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio, and Karam was criticized yet again, this time for blocking Graham Rahal during his qualifying run, forcing Rahal, who had placed in the top 4 at Fontana, Milwaukee, and Iowa, to start in the middle of the pack rather than up front.
Then, race day rolled around. After a poor qualifying session the day before, Karam worked his way inside the top 10 before spinning out towards the end of the race and bringing out a caution. The cars who had already pit cycled to the front of the field. The leader of the race and the championship, Juan Pablo Montoya, still needed to pit, and ended up being cycled back to the middle of the field when he did so. The person who took the lead and went on to win the race? Graham Rahal, who later referred to Karam as “his buddy.”
This incident had Montoya fuming, since this not only allowed Rahal to close to within 9 points of him in the championship, but it helped Karam’s teammate, Scott Dixon, to finish in 4th place as opposed to mid-pack and close to within 34 points of Montoya with just 2 races to go in the series. There were conspiracy theories that because Karam had spun in such an awkward portion of the track, he had had communication from his team to do so to cause a full-course caution, thus allowing Dixon to move from the middle of the field to the front since he had already pit, and to force Montoya to relinquish the lead and head to the middle of the pack still needing to pit.
“Karma is a b****,” Montoya said at the end of the race on live television. (Yes, I meant to say Karma, not Karam). So, when the weekend was all said and done, more heat existed for Karam to have to deal with.
The next race was the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono, just miles from Karam’s hometown of Nazareth. Late in the race, Karam had worked himself into the lead after starting the race in 20th place. With 21 laps to go and leading the race, however, his car broke loose exiting turn 1 and he crashed nose-first into the wall, ending his day. It seemed when Karam was towards the front of the field that NBC Sports Network race announcers Leigh Diffey, Townsend Bell, and Paul Tracy would always talk about how Karam was the future face of the IndyCar Series.
Not only did Karam crash with the lead, late in the race, and during his hometown race in his rookie season, but the nose cone from his mangled car hit Justin Wilson’s helmet while it was bouncing around on the track moments after the crash. This impact instantly knocked Wilson out and put him in a coma, causing him to become a passenger in a car, albeit a slower one, headed toward and eventually hitting the inside retaining barrier. The following day, it was announced that Wilson had passed away from the hit to the head.
The death of Justin Wilson was not Karam’s fault at all, as Karam had lost total control of his car and definitely had no control over where a piece of debris flew. However, thoughts like “Wilson would still be alive if I hadn’t crashed,” and “What would’ve happened if I didn’t crash?” poisoned Karam’s mind following the tragic accident to the point where he could not fall asleep at night and needed to see a psychiatrist for therapy. He ended up sitting out the season finale at Sonoma.
This season, in his return from the tragic Pocono wreck, Karam came back and worked his way into the top 5 by lap 94 of 200 in the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 after starting in 23rd place. It looked like the tables had turned and Karam’s talent would finally be recognized for what it was, and it looked like Karam was in line for a fantastic result with no controversy surrounding it. However, an aggressive move in turn 1 on the outside of Townsend Bell, who would not budge to let Karam past, ended up sending Karam into the wall with yet more disappointment on yet another day where things could have gone so much better.
So why does all of this negativity surrounding Karam mean the series needs him full-time? Well, the answer is actually quite simple.
Obviously, not all of your races are going to turn out well, even if you are fast all weekend. But in Karam’s case, he has been a legitimate contender to win 8 or 9 of the 14 IndyCar races he has driven in, which is very impressive for any driver, let alone a driver of just 21 years of age. Unfortunately, however, more often than not, something ended up spoiling the day for him in each of those races.
But to be in a position time and time again to be a contender at all types of tracks, it goes to show that Karam is a great IndyCar driver and needs to be in the series full-time because of his ability to race well at most tracks, despite some of the things that he has unfortunately had to deal with. Again, add to that the fact that he is doing it at just 21 years of age, and even through the numerous rough patches, he already has 2 top 5 finishes and a podium finish to his name.
Like the NBC Sports Network broadcasters said during the 2015 ABC Supply 500 at Pocono, Karam is the future face of the Verizon IndyCar Series. With his extraordinary talent, that statement is likely true. But some team in the series needs to give him a full-time ride first. The question is which team wants to be rewarded down the stretch by taking a small gamble right now.