Sage Karam winning the American Red Cross Grand Prix

Dreyer & Reinbold Racing driver Sage Karam (No. 24 DRR Wix Filters Chevrolet) got the virtual INDYCAR iRacing Challenge rolling Saturday with a win from the pole in the American Red Cross Grand Prix at Watkins Glen International.

Karam led 43 of the 45 laps and beat Chip Ganassi Racing’s Felix Rosenqvist (No. 10 NTT DATA Honda) by 3.6174 seconds in the debut event of the six-race INDYCAR iRacing Challenge. Team Penske’s Will Power (No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet) finished third.

While this may have been his first virtual win against a full field of fellow NTT INDYCAR SERIES drivers, he is no stranger to victory lane in iRacing. It was his 144th iRacing road-course win in 533 starts and 165th iRacing victory overall. For the win, he will have a donation to American Red Cross made in his name by INDYCAR and earn a virtual winner’s trophy and ring from Jostens.

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Karam, the 2013 Indy Lights champion, has made 19 actual NTT INDYCAR SERIES starts over six seasons, scoring a career-best third at Iowa Speedway in 2015.

“It was nerve-wracking there at the end, for sure,” he said in reference to a late-race, near-miss with Indy Pro 2000 champion Kyle Kirkwood, who was subbing for Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay in the No. 28 DHL Honda. “That was a little too close for comfort (in Turn 10), a (scary) moment. I didn’t know which way he was going to go when he started to spin, so I had to quick rely on some instincts and picked ‘left’ and thankfully it was the right choice.”

Karam, one of the most experienced iRacing drivers in this field, applauded his competitors for investing the necessary practice time this week to make the inaugural online show entertaining for the fans.

“It was a lot of fun, and it was great that we could give the fans something to watch,” he said. “It’s the only sport that (the world) can really do right now. I’m happy that I got the win for Wix Filters and Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. The car looked pretty good out front so hopefully when we get to real racing, we can replicate that.”

The virtual event featured most of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES drivers expecting to be in the midst of the actual season had the coronavirus pandemic not occurred. The upside of being able to stage such an event was that it allowed seven-time NASCAR Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and two-time Virgin Australia Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin to participate against them.

Team Penske’s McLaughlin (No. 2 Shell V-Power Chevrolet) was strong, finishing fourth ahead of NTT INDYCAR SERIES rookie Oliver Askew (No. 7 Arrow McLaren SP).

Johnson, who has eyes on INDYCAR road racing in the future, started ninth and ran well in his INDYCAR virtual debut despite having a couple of incidents. He was collected in the first-lap accident that included Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi (No. 27 AutoNation/NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda), among others. Then on Lap 34, Johnson’s car drifted wide exiting the track’s famed “bus stop” section and hit the outside wall. He finished 16th.

The race featured the virtual debut of INDYCAR’s new Aeroscreen, a revolutionary cockpit-protecting device. The visuals provided by iRacing, the world’s premier motorsports racing simulation, gave INDYCAR fans a glimpse of the actual racing to come.

The action might have been online, but it wasn’t without significant effort on the part of the participants. Rosenqvist, an avid virtual racer, sounded tired afterward in his post-race interview.

“A long and sweaty race,” he said. “Good fun.

“It was hard to catch Sage. I think that was a very deserved win for him. I tried to take advantage of some lapping from the cars behind, but he always seemed to get through the traffic even better. He seemed to have (the lead) under control.”

The second of six events will be held Saturday, April 4, on the Barber Motorsports Park permanent road course. The event will be held at 4 p.m. ET and streamed through while INDYCAR’s YouTube and Facebook platforms as well as iRacing’s Twitch will serve as additional outlets for viewing.

Future events will be held weekly each Saturday through May 2 at the following sites: a “Driver’s Choice” track (April 11), “Random Draw” track (April 18), Circuit of The Americas (April 25) and a non-INDYCAR “Dream” track (May 2).