IndyCar Meet-and-Greet: Sage Karam

The youngest driver in the 100th Running of the Indy 500 says victory is within reach. If Karam takes the Borg-Warner trophy today, he would be the youngest ever to win the race.
Being the youngest isn’t anything new to Sage Karam, the driver of the green and black 24 car. Every year, he seems to acquire that title. At only 21 years old, he will be the youngest driver in the 100th Running of the Indy 500—but he’s no rookie.

Karam started racing Go-Karts when he was just seven. He has been victorious on every major racing circuit in the U.S., and this year, he will be racing in his third Indy 500. Karam started 31st and took ninth place in 2014—his best finish in the 500 yet. But he plans to do better this year.

After a slow first week out at the track that left him thinking he would be running around with no chance of passing anyone or matching their speeds, on Monday, his car was running better. So much better, in fact, that he thinks he has a shot at that Borg-Warner trophy. The butterflies haven’t stopped since the thought crossed his mind. Troy Ruttman is currently the youngest Indy 500 winner. He was 22 years and 80 days old when he won in 1952. If Sage were to win, he’d make history as the youngest driver ever to win the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. “When you feel you have a good shot at winning, it just changes everything,” Karam says. “The days were going by so fast, but now they’re going by so slow. All I want is race day to come already. It’s just not coming quick enough. I just can’t wait to start it, and I can’t wait to get it over with. I just want to know how well I do already.”

Despite his anticipation to get it over with, Karam will cherish all 500 miles of the race—his first one in nine months. After being involved in the crash at Pocono Raceway last August that ultimately killed IndyCar driver Justin Wilson, the most practice he’s had is with his remote control car. He’s worked with his driving simulator at home a bit, but he’s mostly focused on getting into shape for when the call came to participate in the Indy 500 again—a call he knew he’d get.

Driving for a smaller team, the pressure from others isn’t as high as it could be. People don’t expect much, Karam says, but they’re really impressed when he does something good. But since the pressure isn’t coming from others, Karam puts it on himself. Last year, he got to the podium. He ran up front with Helio Castroneves and Scott Dixon. He knows what he can do now.

But he also knows what he can’t do. At the Iowa Corn 300 in 2015, Ed Carpenter was not impressed with the rookie. He says Karam was driving too close and too hard. He needed to grow up. Karam thinks he’s more mature inside the car than he was last year—but he wouldn’t have raced Carpenter any differently in Iowa. He thinks Carpenter gave him a hard time because he’s young. No harm, no foul, Karam says. They got through it. His car was just faster than Carpenter’s. “I feel like if Tony Kanaan would have done that to Ed, there would have been no issue.”

Rather than taking every opportunity to further himself in the race this go around, Karam has a better idea of what risks are worth it and which aren’t. He describes this as taking calculated attacks. He says other drivers can be around him and feel a bit safer now. He’s more predictable than he was this time last year. “But I’m still very aggressive. I still attack, and you’ll see that on Sunday.”

Karam is starting right behind Carpenter, and Carpenter hopes he will be able to keep him there all day. He says in racing, you just have to deal with what’s in front of you. With Karam behind, he won’t have to worry about him. “He’s one of the most aggressive guys in the field. So I hope that he remembers it’s a 500-mile race. I’m sure he will. He got caught up on the first lap of the race last year, so I’m sure he won’t want to be in that situation again.”

As Karam sets his sights on the finish line, his goal is to be the best. Not the best that he can be, but the best ever. He doesn’t aspire to be like any racing legend that’s come before him. Growing up, for a while, he looked up to the Andretti family. But he’s always wanted to do better than the racing legends of the past. He’s a competitor. A racer at heart. And if he were to get the wreath draped around him on Sunday, and take a drink from the iconic bottle of milk only the best get to have, he will cherish every second of his victory. He knows it might only happen once.

Adjusting his black Gas Monkey Racing hat, Karam rests his arms on a table in the IMS pavilion, his eyes widen as he imagines his victory—where they take the winner, what they get to do that isn’t shown on TV, the celebration afterward, the victory photos the next morning he’d have to wake up early for. “I’m ready to go,” Karam says. “I’m starting 23rd—but I don’t think I’m going to be there for long.”