May 23, 2014, 4:30 PM EDT
The kid they call “SK$,” Indianapolis 500 rookie Sage Karam, almost won a bunch of it ($50,000) for his crew during the Friday Carb Day pit stop competition at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
And he was money to watch from Carb Day’s final Indianapolis 500 practice all the way through the entirety of pit stops.
Karam, the 2013 Indy Lights champion, has been impressive during the month of May in his Verizon IndyCar Series debut in the No. 22 Comfort Revolution/Brantley Gilbert Chevrolet.
But today was his first real, “Holy (expletive), welcome to Indy!” type-moment. Karam ran wide off Turn 4 during Carb Day practice and made very slight contact with the Turn 4 wall.
However, exiting the corner, Karam caught the slide in dramatic fashion, catching and correcting to line his car up straight and go into pit in with only minuscule right rear damage.
It ultimately saved the Dreyer & Reinbold Racing/Kingdom Racing crew a nightmare situation where they’d need to repair a car heading into race day.
“I’m learning something new, and today was more of a race trim situation running with more cars,” Karam explained. “I was following (James) Hinchcliffe, and it looked like he had a bit of a wiggle in Turn 3, so I had a huge run going into four.
“I got closer than I should have been, and was below him when he went low, so I crossed his path, and I had no air on the front wing.” he added. “I had the wheel fully locked to the left trying to turn it, and once I lost it on the bottom and washed up, as soon as the air hit the wing the thing just snapped. We were lucky to save it and get away with minor damage. Like I said, I’m learning every day, and thankfully I learned this today and not Sunday.”
During the pit stop practice, Karam got the crowd going with a series of country-esque celebrations in deference to sponsor Brantley Gilbert. It’s as though, for a moment, he was a cowboy saddled up and riding his horse.
The DRR crew two-stepped their way to wins over the crews of Ryan Hunter-Reay, Takuma Sato and Will Power before losing to Scott Dixon’s crew in the finals. The No. 22 group still took home $15,000 for P2.
“To lose to Scott (Dixon), he’s a pretty good guy,” Karam said. “To get Chip to get two guys in the final is a great accomplishment. He was on the side with better grip. We got to the box at similar times, when I let go of the clutch it was just wheel spin, wheel spin.”
Both experiences were the latest in the learning process for the Chip Ganassi Racing development driver. Karam’s first two races of 2014 were in Ganassi’s Ford EcoBoost Riley Daytona Prototype, at the legendary Rolex 24 at Daytona and Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring. In the latter race, Karam’s passes were simply sublime to watch around the outside of Turn 1.
Has the fact he’s racing in three of North America’s biggest races in the same year sunk in yet for a 19-year-old who still hasn’t even graduated high school?
“It hasn’t yet. It only will after driving,” he told MotorSportsTalk. “I’m truly blessed to have done those two, and now again to drive the ‘500. Only being 19, it’s such an incredible feeling for me. I’m with a great team, and the partnership with CGR, it’s seriously amazing.”
Karam plans to bide his time on Sunday, methodically moving forward from 31st on the grid rather than go ahead with his trademark moves on cold tires.
“I know how big of an air pocket one car makes, so of course I’m gonna be starting behind 10 rows of three,” he joked. “I expect to go into 1, with no grip, no air to wings, so I won’t push the issue. Make sure the tires are all good. At Sebring, I pushed because I wanted to prove something in a short time. This race, this is a pretty big race, I’m not gonna take a risk that early.”
Despite his youth, Karam showed the poise and maturity level of a veteran by organizing a team meeting after his poor qualifying effort. He lifted the team’s spirits – so much so the team even threw him a fake prom earlier this week as he’s missed his to compete in the race.
“I got the whole team together, we shut the garage doors, I gave an inspirational talk, and turned the team morale around,” Karam said. “When we went back out Monday, the car was perfect, and we had a time for P2. We ended up P8 anyway. The years they’ve been working, never seen a driver do that. Monday was huge, for myself and the team.”
We’ll see if SK$ will be rolling in a big amount on Sunday, or, crucially, if CGR and all his partners can continue to find more to provide him more starts in the Verizon IndyCar Series this year.