He may not have as much track time as most of his competitors, but when Sage Karam climbs into his car for the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge practice on Sunday, he certainly has plenty of laps.
In the absence of fulltime NTT IndyCar Series duty at the wheel, Karam replaced the rush leading up to Indy – along with a few other sensations that are close to the real thing – through the wonders highly detailed computer software, video monitors, racing seat, steering wheel and pedals in his Nazareth, Pennsylvania, home.
It’s what you do when the chance to buckle into a real race car comes once a year, as it has been for the 24-year-old Karam. He qualified for his sixth Indianapolis 500 and will start Sunday’s race on the inside of Row 11 in the No. 24 WIX Filters Chevrolet for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. The one-off effort may lead to more racing this year if the team runs strong at Indy. Karam hasn’t raced an Indy car since he finished 24th in the 500 last year for DRR, but he certainly hasn’t remained idle.
He drove some national-level karting events in Las Vegas and Florida to get that G-force/wind-in-his-face feel. But mostly, he spent hours – upon hours and hours and hours – on a racing simulator in his home.
In one week alone this winter, he logged more than 3,000 laps on a video replication of the Brands Hatch road course in England and another 2,500 at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, site of the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series finale.
Ah, to be young, handy with a computer and a wizard with a steering wheel in a world known as “sim” racing.
“I’ve always used sim racing as kind of a training tool for my real racing,” said Karam. “And I’d do it for fun on the off days. But now I’ve kind of transitioned into taking sim racing a bit more seriously.”
Through the winter, his daily routine often was a workout in the morning, then the rest of the day (and maybe night) on the simulator.
“Basically, I sit in my room all day, every day, on my sim after my morning workout,” he said. “It’s impressive that my girlfriend still loves me.”
Sim racing became much more than a home game for Karam this offseason. He drove thousands of laps in the fall on virtual circuits at Brands Hatch and WeatherTech Raceway to qualify for a prestigious gathering at the Porsche SimRacing Summit. The 30 fastest to qualify over a two-week period were flown to Leipzig, Germany, for the event put on by Porsche and iRacing.
“I put a lot of time and effort into it, and I was there with some of the best sim racers in the world,” Karam said. “It got me really interested in sim racing and I realized that if I do this serious enough, I have the ability to be really good. It was a great experience.”
Like the Penske, Ganassi, Andretti and other teams in INDYCAR, there are teams in sim racing that search for top drivers and some sponsorship opportunities. Karam’s showing in Germany caught the attention of the Coanda Simsport team, which brought him onboard to drive a prototype in a simulated Daytona 24-hour race, which the team won. Karam also struck a deal with Heusinkveld Engineering, a Netherlands company that specializes in hardware for race simulators, that supplied him with a $1,500 set of pedals.
Karam regularly competes in sim racing leagues. Many of those events are available for anyone to view online via Twitch, a livestreaming video platform that gives a good sense of how realistic sim racing is and also allows viewers to communicate with the driver.
“Fans can interact with me more and watch how I go about sim racing,” Karam said. “It’s cool because they will message me and I’ll answer their questions in live time. I can give them insights that they usually don’t get on a daily basis.”
Simulated racing has become realistic down to fine details on tracks around the world. If there’s a difficult off-camber corner or a bump through a high-speed sweeping turn on the real track, those nuances are part of the simulation as well.
Even the sensation of entering Turn 1 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway at 235 mph is realistic.
“Except the fear of getting hurt,” Karam said. “That’s a pretty big difference. Also, you don’t feel the wind and stuff like that in a sim like you do in the real thing. You can’t simulate some things.”
Fellow NTT IndyCar Series driver Marco Andretti, who lives nearby in Nazareth, spent time on Karam’s sim setup over the winter to refresh himself on Circuit of The Americas and WeatherTech Raceway – tracks new to the NTT IndyCar Series this year.
“These guys take the sims really, really serious,” Karam said. “The manufacturers, Chevy and Honda, have sims that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and they really rely on those sims.”
A home setup can cost in the hundreds to a few thousand dollars, depending on how serious a person wants to be. Karam races with four video monitors, a racing seat and hardware to hold his steering wheel and pedals. He packed up some of his sim equipment and brought it with him to Indianapolis, just so he could get in “more laps.”
“I enjoy it,” Karam said. “If I can’t be in a real race car, it’s the next best thing.”
Karam will be in the best thing on Sunday. Race day coverage from NBC Sports starts with a two-hour prerace show from 9-11 a.m. on NBCSN. For the first time, NBC is broadcasting “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” with coverage commencing at 11 a.m. NBCSN then has a postrace show at 4 p.m.
Live coverage is also available on the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.