Sage Karam drew on his wrestling background during the early stages of the Milwaukee 100, which ultimately resulted in his maiden Firestone Indy Lights victory.
The 18-year-old high school senior-to-be from Bushkill Township, Pa., competed in the 138-pound class for Nazareth Area High School this past winter. Seeded second in the district tournament, he lost a decision in the first round but battled back through the consolations to place third and qualify for the regional event.
"When I won in Milwaukee, I gave credit to wrestling because how it has made me mentally strong and mentally tough,” said Karam, who started on the pole in the No. 8 Schmidt Peterson with Curb-Agajanian car.
Front-row starter Zach Veach led the first lap and led the next 56 before Karam made his move. He led the final 44 laps, winning by 1.0808 seconds.
"Some drivers when they get passed on the opening lap they'll start to unravel. Wrestling taught me to stay mentally tough,” Karam said. “You go through some crazy stuff in wrestling, the sacrifices you make to make weight. The team relies on you. I stayed composed and let the race come to me."
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Such determination has marked Karam’s racing career, which has advanced steadily through the Mazda Road to Indy ladder.
“There was one time when I couldn’t break the top 10 in karting,” said Karam, who enjoyed success in the World Karting Association and IRL Stars of Karting. “I think I was about 8 years old. My parents aren’t the wealthiest parents, so I didn’t have a lot of money to be doing the whole racing deal. It almost was like, ‘This isn’t the right thing for me. I don’t think I’m going to be a race car driver. It’s pretty much going to be over unless something dramatic changes.’
“My dad said, ‘We’re going to give it one more try.’ At North Carolina, he said, ‘If you don’t win, we’re done racing.’ Kind of a lot of pressure. I went into the race and I won Saturday and I won Sunday. It was huge. It was in the Stars of Karting event.
“At that moment I realized, ‘Hey, there’s a reason that I won out of nowhere.’ From there on, it’s almost like going back to that confidence deal. I knew I could win. That’s when we started winning championships and knew that this is what I could do.”
A few years later, Karam was the youngest driver to win the Skip Barber Karting Scholarship Shootout. In 2010, he earned the USF2000 National Championship and its Rookie of the Year award. Karam, who finished third (10 podiums) in the Star Mazda Championship in 2012, was the series’ Rookie of the Year in 2011 (two victories) in placing fifth.
With the Milwaukee win, he vaulted to second in the Firestone Indy Lights championship – 18 points behind Carlos Munoz of Andretti Autosport – heading to Iowa Speedway for the Sukup 100 on June 22.
Confidence will play a role on the .875-mile, variably-banked oval, where he’s won the past three seasons. Because of the nature of the Mazda Road to Indy system – and dating to the first iteration of Indy Lights – no driver has won four consecutive years at the same venue. Al Unser Jr. at Long Beach (1988-91) was the last in Indy car competition.
“It’s always tough going up to the next level, being a rookie in the series, going against good guys,” Karam said. “The first win is always the toughest. To get the first one, it's 1,000 pounds off my shoulders and it should give us good momentum going into Iowa with the win and two poles in a run.
“The big thing is you have to have confidence. You can’t be down in any sport you do. Confidence is huge. Right now, we’re seeing that with my season. I finally got that first pole at Indianapolis, and things have been rolling since Indianapolis. Hopefully we can just carry that momentum and that confidence. You got to have confidence in your team. Your team has to see that you have confidence in them and yourself. Your team is not going to work for somebody that doesn’t have confidence and doesn’t believe they can win.
“It’s good to have a good mood and good confidence going within the team, just give your best, and the team is going to give it back. That’s really been part of our success, is that even when times got rough I’ve always tried to have fun with racing, always stay confident and believe that good things were going to happen. So far, things have been going pretty well.”