|Sage Karam won at Iowa last three years, Milwaukee last two years. We asked him why he was so successful on the short ovals. Said he loves driving a loose car – the sign of a good driver.|
THE MODERATOR: Welcome, everyone, and good afternoon to today’s INDYCAR conference call, which we’re going to talk about the races coming up at Iowa Speedway for the Firestone Indy Lights and the IZOD IndyCar Series. We’re joined by two guests today, Sage Karam, and later we’ll be joined by Ed Carpenter. Sage, welcome to the call. Thanks for joining us.
SAGE KARAM: Pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.
THE MODERATOR: Sage is currently second in the Firestone Indy Lights in points after getting his first win last Saturday. Has the win sunk in that you got that Firestone Indy Lights victory under your belt? How does it feel right now?
SAGE KARAM: Yeah, I mean, the first one’s always the toughest. To get that first one, it almost lifts a thousand pounds off your shoulders. Definitely feeling good and definitely having some good momentum going into Iowa with two poles in a row and a win. Definitely good feelings. But we have to put that behind us and just focus on Iowa now. It’s in the past; just hopefully we can carry that momentum.
THE MODERATOR: You made some history last weekend at Milwaukee. Besides your first victory, you became the first driver to win in the USF 2000 Championship, Pro Mazda Championship and Firestone Indy Lights. As a guy who has competed and raced in all three series in the Mazda Road to Indy, what does winning in all three mean for you and your career, how you think the Mazda Road to Indy has helped your career?
SAGE KARAM: It’s definitely a good feeling knowing we could be successful in all the cars in the Mazda Road to Indy. It’s good to know we were getting the wins early in each series. I’m sure that some IndyCar team owners taking notice of stuff like that. Hopefully we can get a ride going in IndyCar next year, hopefully keep that streak alive and get a win in IndyCar. It’s a great feeling. I think the Mazda Road to Indy prepares young drivers in a very good way. I’ve learned everything just in those cars starting in the USF 2000. That just got me going. That was a great car to learn in. Then we moved up to Mazda. Didn’t win the championship but won some races, and had some bad luck with mechanical failures. All these cars teach a driver the basics to an open-wheel car. Now we’re in the Indy Lights. Hopefully this is going to transition over into some good IndyCar.
THE MODERATOR: We’ll open it up for questions for Sage.
Q. In your rise and learning from the time you started racing to the level you’re at now, could you give fans the idea what it really takes, what you’ve learned along the way that really helped you step up to the next level.
SAGE KARAM: It’s always tough going up to the next level, being a rookie in the series, going against good guys. This year our biggest competition was Carlos Munoz. Everybody saw how he did in the month of May, getting the runner-up in the Indy 500. It’s tough going in there as a rookie. 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 so far. 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.
Q. Was there a point when you first started out that you thought you could do this?
SAGE KARAM: There were actually two points in my life. There was one time when I couldn’t break the top 10 in karting. I think I was about eight 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 racecar 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 I was racing at Charlotte. He said, If you don’t win, we’re done racing. Kind of a lot of pressure. I haven’t gotten in the top 10 before since then. I went into the race and I won Saturday and I won Sunday. It was huge. It was in the Stars of Karting event. Those are two parts of my life when racing almost ended. 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.
Q. Sage, there’s been some talk that you may not be going back to Nazareth for your senior year because of the bigger commitment to wrestling. What would be your senior year in high school?
SAGE KARAM: I’ll be back to wrestling my senior year, for sure. I’m just living out here in Indianapolis for race season. Should be back in October. I’ll be back in the room as soon as I can, finish out my senior year definitely with my friends.
Q. It would be tough to do football this year. You’re going to do school and wrestling then?
SAGE KARAM: I’m going to be wrestling. I won’t be doing football. I’ll be finishing up school online.
Q. Sage, you’ve gone from Indianapolis Motor Speedway to Milwaukee, now to Iowa. The tracks are getting smaller. What is your comfort level on these bullrings in an open-wheel car?
SAGE KARAM: I’m pretty comfortable on the ovals. I think our stats have shown that ovals are one of my best points of the season. I’ve done nine ovals. I think I’ve had five wins, two seconds and two thirds. I’m comfortable on ovals. Whenever I see ovals like Milwaukee and Iowa on the schedule, I’m pretty pumped up to go to those places.
I think what’s going to win the championship for us this year is good results on the ovals. We got the win at Milwaukee. That was huge for us. I think Iowa can be another good one. We won there the last three years. Hopefully we can make it a four-peat. Definitely comfortable when it comes to the ovals. I love them.
Q. Sage, I noticed you won Iowa the past three years. Now you won in Milwaukee last year and last week. Talk about what the bullrings you like so much? Why do you think you stand out on those types of tracks?
SAGE KARAM: I definitely think they’re definitely a track that requires full confidence within your car. We haven’t had much testing on the ovals, but I’ve always just been really, really confident on the ovals. I’ve always gelled well with the car. Whenever I had a loose car, an understeer car, I always have a little bit more of a comfortable level than my teammates or something. I think that’s what helped us win that race. Everyone’s car went loose in Milwaukee, and I was comfortable with the loose car there. That’s when we went really fast in the race. I’m just definitely confident on these ovals. I like the short ovals like Milwaukee where you have to lift and everything because that’s more of a driver’s oval, unlike Indianapolis where it’s more flat out, more of a guessing game who is going to win the race. Don’t get me wrong, I love Indianapolis, great track. I just think that Iowa and Milwaukee and stuff like that, you really see more of the oval drivers stand out than Indianapolis. It’s more drafting and strategy.
THE MODERATOR: You’re second in the standings. Do you feel at this point of the season you have to make a move on Carlos both at Iowa and Pocono or is it too early to be thinking about championship?
SAGE KARAM: No, I mean, it’s got to start now. It started at qualifying at Indianapolis, at Indy, getting that extra point on him, just chipping away. Then Indianapolis, obviously my main goal was to win, but my second goal was to beat Carlos.
Going to Milwaukee, we got the pole again. That was another point. We’re chipping away, chipping away. He didn’t have the greatest qualifying. My goal in that race was to win, do everything I could do to stay ahead of Carlos, hopefully get a few cars in between us. He drove crazy to get back up to second. But we still made some progress. I think we were 29 points going into Milwaukee, now we’re only 18. Definitely made some progress. We have to start getting some wins here and keep chipping away at him. I’d like to go into Pocono almost tied with him. I think that would be a good goal. Hopefully come out of Pocono in the lead.
THE MODERATOR: You mentioned you gained a lot of momentum since Indianapolis. What has made the difference? Has there been a change in the car, the team? What has been the difference? What has helped you gain this momentum?
SAGE KARAM: At Indianapolis, I got a new engineer with Tim Neff. Tim has been around for a while working with Sam on the Indy Lights team. I think the combination of getting him onboard with me, showing his experience, just me feeling comfortable on the ovals, getting a pole under me, knowing I have the potential to be with these guys, getting that full confidence. That was just the difference. I don’t think I changed much in my driving. My overall car didn’t change. We all share the same setups and data and everything. I think Tim just brought this new attitude for me to drive with. He’s been around for a while, so he’s seen a lot of these races, he knows how for me to handle. It’s good to have an experienced engineer in my corner.
Q. Sage, I’m curious to know whether the success Carlos had at the 500, does that push your timetable ahead? Do you think with the success you’re having, as well as what he’s done, that it will open the eyes of owners to give younger guys rides?
SAGE KARAM: Yeah, for sure, what he did at Indianapolis was pretty spectacular. I think that people started respecting the Mazda Road to Indy a little bit more, seeing that he was kind of groomed in Indy Lights to do that. I was rooting for him when he was there. The better he does, the better it makes our series look and everything. We’re definitely racing against good guys. To answer your question about my timeline, I’m not sure. I guess it just really depends on how the season goes. I don’t really let Carlos or anyone else distinguish when I go to IndyCar or something. It’s all sponsorship and how I perform. Hopefully we can win the championship. That would make it a lot easier to make that decision, but we’ll see how that season goes.
THE MODERATOR: Sage, I know the focus clearly for you right now is Iowa. Looking slightly past that, it’s Pocono. That’s your home race. Do you have to force yourself not to think ahead to that race? I’ll make you think ahead to that race. What is your anticipation with that?
SAGE KARAM: It’s pretty much been every day where I’m texting friends that I really haven’t been texting in a while that are asking, Hey, racing at Pocono? Yeah, I’m going to be going. So meeting up with new friends. It’s definitely a little bit nerve-racking knowing there’s going to be so many people there that I know. That’s probably going to be the one race besides Indianapolis that I’m really going to want to win. There’s going to be a big Sage Karam base there. I definitely don’t want to disappoint. Got to do whatever it takes to win that one.
THE MODERATOR: How big an adjustment do you think it will be for you to go from a bullring, the shortest track we have, to tied for the longest track and definitely probably right there with Indianapolis as the most unique track? The setups are going to be really different, one from Earth, one from Mars?
SAGE KARAM: Definitely the driving styles are a little bit different. Like you said, they’re a little bit tougher to drive, a little more driving that comes into them. These bigger ovals, it’s going to have to be a lot smoother, carry the momentum a lot more. I’m sure Pocono will be flat out in our cars, more like Indianapolis. You’re always trying to be pretty smooth on an oval. Anything on these big ovals when you’re going around 200 miles an hour as opposed to 160, like Milwaukee, things happen quicker. You have to be on your A game. It’s going to be fun. I can’t wait to be there.
THE MODERATOR: You have experience in other forms of high school sport. You’re unique in that sense. A lot of times when guys make the commitment to racing, it’s pretty much all racing. How has participating in team sports helped your racing? How has participating in racing helped your team sports?
SAGE KARAM: I’m finishing out my high school year next year. I didn’t ever want to give up team sports or any other sports just ‘cause you only live high school once. They teach you good lessons. I gave the credit to the win in Milwaukee to wrestling. I said in the press conference that I thought I won this race off of being mentally strong and tough, not because I was physically fit in the car. Some drivers, when they get passed on the opening lap, they know they’ve been having a perfect weekend, all of a sudden the guy who is in the lead will take off and pull out a five-second lead, I think wrestling has taught me to stay mentally tough. We go through some crazy stuff in wrestling, having to make weight, sacrifices for your team. I stayed mentally tough. Had to stay composed in the car. That’s what we did. Let the race come to me. Got the win. Team sports are different from racing, obviously. When you’re out in racing, it’s just you. Everybody’s watching you. If you make the mistake, it’s your mistake. You can get away with the little mistakes like in football because everybody is not really watching you. I think racing has helped me in team sports, they always say racecar drivers have these crazy good reflexes, hand-eye coordination. I’d say in football and wrestling, I probably have a little bit better vision with my peripheral, just quicker hands and stuff. Both benefits in both sports.
Q. Sage, you grew up in Nazareth. Coming from a place like that, the legacy of the Andrettis, do you think if you had grown up somewhere else you would still be doing what you’re doing? How much of that played into what you’re doing now?
SAGE KARAM: That’s a good question. I don’t know if I’d be racing if I lived anywhere else because my family became pretty good friends with the Andretti family. My dad was Michael Andretti’s physical fitness trainer when Michael was racing Champ Car. When they became friends, it was almost like I was growing up around racing. I became good friends with Marco. Me and Marco would go up to New York every weekend and race go-karts together. We became almost best friends. Honestly, I don’t think I’d be racing if it wasn’t for the Andrettis, just being brought up around them, seeing them race and succeed, just knowing, Hey, that’s what I want to do.
I’m pretty sure my parents didn’t know about racing before they met them.
THE MODERATOR: With that, Sage, we’ll thank you very much for your time. We wish you the best of luck in Iowa and Pocono.
THE MODERATOR: We’re pleased to be joined by Ed Carpenter, owner and driver.
Ed, thank you for joining us today.
ED CARPENTER: Thank you.
THE MODERATOR: Ed won the pole for the Indianapolis 500. Has a pair of top-10 finishes in the last three ovals. Has your 2013 season exceeded your expectations so far, matched your expectations, been less than? Give us a report card?
ED CARPENTER: It’s a bit of a mixed bag. When it comes to ovals, we’ve been strong. Don’t have all the results that we wanted, whether it was Indy or even Milwaukee last weekend. Milwaukee, especially I didn’t do a great job. Made too many mistakes. Should have been in the top 10 there. With the road and street courses, the pace has been a lot better this year, which I’ve been happy about. At the same time, same sort of story: haven’t gotten the results we’d hoped for. I’m not disappointed with the season, but I feel like we have more results to give here. Luckily we have a lot of races left to do that.
THE MODERATOR: Your victories in IndyCar have come at California, which is a two-mile oval, and Kentucky, which is a mile-and-a-half. You won the pole at the 500 this year, the longest track in the circuit. You grew up racing on short tracks. We know you love oval racing. Do you have a preference between the longer ovals and the shorter ovals or is it all good?
ED CARPENTER: They’re all good. I do like the speedways. I like going fast. I think I have a good feel for the car in a lower downforce setting especially. With that being said, I haven’t really had great finishes at Milwaukee, but I’ve raced really well there. We’re capable of running really well there. We raced early really well this past race. Same thing with Iowa last year. We raced our way to the front, had the fastest lap of the race. Whether we’re going into a short track or a superspeedway, I feel very confident either way.
THE MODERATOR: Iowa coming up we have a heat race format, which is unique for a lot of drivers, but definitely not for you because that’s what you grew up racing with in USAC. Does that give you any advantage?
ED CARPENTER: At this point I would say no because it’s been so long since I’ve been racing in USAC midgets and sprints. It’s the same, but it’s different. We’re still getting ready for a long race. The format this year is definitely more similar with one practice session. It’s going to be exciting. I definitely think this year with the way they changed the structure it should make the heat races a little more exciting. Appears we have a touch more downforce which hopefully will be good since we’ll be running more than in the daylight. But it’s an exciting format. I think it’s something different. INDYCAR has been good about trying new things. Especially at a place like Iowa, which is Sprint car country, it’s familiar for the race fans that are there.
Q. Ed, can you talk about the second year in terms of having a one-car team, what that has been like? Has it been easier? Put more pressure on you because you’re out there by yourself?
ED CARPENTER: I don’t think there’s more pressure. If anything, it’s been a little easier because we’re in our second year as a team. Last year it was a new collection of people. Through Indianapolis and even after Indianapolis we were still kind of getting to know each other, assessing our strengths and weaknesses. Since then, we’ve really come together and we have a great group of guys, really good chemistry. I think from that aspect, it’s made year two easier just because we’re working more as a unit. But with that, the expectations also rise all the time. We won a race last year. We want to be winning races this year, too. The expectations are probably a little higher also this year than they were last year. But I wouldn’t say there’s any more pressure. As a driver, you always put a lot of pressure on yourself to go out and perform and do your best to win races, from an owner side give the team all the tools we need to go out and be successful.
Q. Are you feeling more confident, maybe you found something that allows you to run strong on ovals of late?
ED CARPENTER: We have a good car and a good package. I mean, really, all of the races I think we probably, could have, would have, should have finished better than we did. That shows the competition in the series right now. You have to be almost perfect to go out and be on the podium. I think we have good cars, especially on ovals. They’re getting better on road and street courses. To be quite honest, the cars are a little better than I am on road and street courses still. I’m working hard to catch up and hold my end of the bargain at those places.
Q. Outside of Indy, you’ve been a little bit up and down as far as the qualifying. Do you think the heat format will help or hurt you this weekend?
ED CARPENTER: The heat race format will help if we come off the truck with a really good car. Anybody that comes off the trailer with a good car, it’s going to be advantageous in the heat races just because there’s no other practice. If you’re struggling in that first practice session, chasing that car, making changes, you only have a one-lap qualifying run to try something, which is really hard to do. I think it will be good for us. Like you said, we have struggled in qualifying at some places. Some of that we have answers for, others we don’t. Some of it could be a one-car team, not that we use that as an excuse for anything. If we roll off the truck, we were strong at the race at Iowa last year, had the fastest lap of the race, we passed the leader to get our lap back. I expect to come off the truck fast and be very competitive.
Q. Are you a strong believer in momentum, like the pole at Indy? Do you believe also that in racing, almost everything has to go right for you to win or get a podium?
ED CARPENTER: Well, firstly, I do think success breeds success. We felt that coming off of a win last year. It really helped motivate the team through the off-season. Having success at Indy and winning the pole, we didn’t achieve our ultimate goal of winning the race, but when we step back and look at the month of May, it was a successful month for the team. I think when you get results like that, have success, it not only gives the driver confidence but it gives the whole team confidence. It also just affirms to everyone and all the mechanics and engineers that put in so many hours and hard work, that the work they’re doing it paying off. It motivates them to continue pressing harder and trying to find more ways to be better. Success breeds success. The second part of your question, the competition in the IndyCar Series is so high. The quality of drivers and teams are so high that you really do have to be flawless pretty much to win races right now. You could have one little slip-up and not even be in the top five. That’s exciting. That’s what you want as a driver in a series. You want to be racing against great competition, not only from drivers but teams as well. That’s something that the IndyCar Series has going for it right now.
Q. Ed, listening to you, it sounds as though the driver in you is looking forward to the heat races on Saturday. What about the owner’s perspective on these heat races? Is it sort of not worth the return, I suppose?
ED CARPENTER: I don’t really think of it that way. As long as it’s good for the series, the promoters, TV, I’m all in for that. If all those things are successful, it’s going to be good for our business. From a risk standpoint, I don’t really worry about it. Whether we’re out running a heat race or a practice session, you’re pushing hard and things can happen whether it’s your own doing or someone else’s in any of those sessions. I don’t really worry about that. Even part of me from the driver perspective, the heats are important, because they pay points. This is the second highest points race outside of Indianapolis. It’s hugely important. At the same time you’re still really after the race win, the future we’ll call it. From that regard, even as a driver, part of me would just rather have another practice session to continue working on the car instead of being rushed into a heat race. The one thing that does remain, it’s the same format for everybody; everybody has the same amount of track time. We all have the same opportunity to go out and perform one way or the other. That’s all that really matters. We’re all in the same boat.
Q. Ed, you said a little bit earlier you had never used the fact that you’re a single-car team as an excuse. Would you rather be a single-car team at this point or do you feel an overwhelming need to have a teammate?
ED CARPENTER: I don’t feel an overwhelming need. We obviously want to have a second car. We want to grow our program at Ed Carpenter Racing. With that being said, it needs to be the right situation. We need to do it the right way, have the right second driver, have the right sponsors, have it all work to be successful. Just to have a second car to say we have a second car, think it’s going to help us, it could go the other way, too, if you’re not set up to do it properly. We do want to be a two-car team, a multi-car team we can call it. Hopefully that happens soon. We don’t want to force it to happen. We want it to be the right situation so that it helps our effort. There are positives to being focused on one thing versus having our resources stretched.
Q. What do you think you’re missing by being a single-car team? Basically data?
ED CARPENTER: Just the opportunity to try more things, and also have another driver to compare to. There are times where you may go out for another session, a second session in a weekend, the track may be a lot different. The one-car team, it can be harder to distinguish if a change you made on the car has hurt you or if it’s just conditions. That’s an example. When you have a multi-car team, if the other car doesn’t make a change that my car did, they’re still struggling, too, you would know the conditions are having a dominant effect. There are a lot of things. But more than anything, more data, the ability to test more things in a limited amount of time. Iowa is a perfect example. There’s one practice session, then we qualify on a heat race. If you did have a second car there, we would have the ability to test and try more things in that one practice session, be it for qualifying or the race. That’s the biggest thing. You can double the amount of time you get on track basically.
Q. How critical is starting position on a track like Iowa versus some of the other places you go?
ED CARPENTER: Well, I think it didn’t used to be as big of a deal on the ovals just because you could work your way through the field if you had a good enough car. Like we talked about on this call, the competition level is so high, there are so many good cars, that sometimes it can just be hard to work your way through. One concern that we have with the Iowa race this year, it’s a day race. It’s been a night race in previous years. With the night race, cooler track temperatures, more grip, it can be easier to get the second groove working with better track condition. If it’s a really hot day, the track temp is high, it may make it a little bit more of a one-groove track because it will be slicker. That’s where having a better starting position and getting a good result through qualifying and your heat races becomes really important. If you start at the back and it’s a quick pace, you may not have everything sorted out at the beginning of the race, you could lose a lap before you know it.
THE MODERATOR: Ed, last year with the new car, you won a race. It seemed like most of the season was dominated by Penske and Ganassi drivers.
ED CARPENTER: You can’t leave out of Andretti.
THE MODERATOR: True. This year you’ve had Penske win one race, Ganassi has win one race, Dale Coyne won a race, A.J.’s team won a race with Takuma. Why do you think there’s a wider net this year already halfway into the season with more teams and the competition level not only being higher but spread out among more teams?
ED CARPENTER: We didn’t really have any change in the car or rules from last year to this year. So I think last year leveled the playing field to a certain degree going from an old car to a new car. Having more cars, just being bigger teams with more resources, I think they got their car dialed in and their packages all sorted out quicker than other people. For sure, we didn’t have our hands around the car early last year. We felt like we made a lot of progress late in the year. Over last season, it’s allowed teams with fewer resources to learn more about the car, catch up, have more time to do development, get things sorted. Since there weren’t really any rule changes or anything new introduced, there wasn’t as much for everyone to work on. I think it just allowed the field to tighten up overall.
Q. Derrick Walker recently left your team to go to INDYCAR, the sanctioning body. On one hand you have to be proud he’s taken that position on the other hand I wonder what that’s done to your schedule?
ED CARPENTER: We’re happy for Derrick. He’s going to do a great job for INDYCAR. He’s had the credentials for that type of job for a long time. On the competition side of INDYCAR, everyone has confidence with things going forward in his hands. From our perspective, Derrick did a really good job of helping build our foundations. We have a great group of people in place. I think the way we are set up largely are in part to his leadership has allowed for a smooth transition. We have Tim Broyles here, has been team manager, assumed more responsibility since Derrick left. The whole team top to bottom has a lot of great people. I think if you’re set up right, one guy coming or going shouldn’t make or break the organization. Thankful he helped build us in a sound way, lay a really good foundation for us to be successful now and down the road.
Q. How bad did the Derrick Walker leave hurt your team? Are you coming up to the Pocono for the test on the 25th?
ED CARPENTER: I will be at Pocono for the one-day test. Looking forward to it. I was there for the announcement last year. Looks like an amazing track. Never driven a car on it. The first part of your question, I don’t feel like we’ve been hurt by Derrick leaving at all. If he didn’t have the opportunity to go to IndyCar, he would still be a part of our team. With that being said, I don’t feel like we’ve been hurt. I don’t think we’ve had any struggles or difficulties so far with him being gone. I think when we will probably miss his experience the most is when we get to a point where we can add a second car, have some of his guidance through situations like that. At the same time, you know, I have 100 percent faith in the group that we have and the leadership that we have. Derrick was a great mentor for me the year and a half that we worked together. I have just as much confidence in the whole team now as I did before.
THE MODERATOR: Ed, we thank you for your time. We wish you the best of luck at both Iowa and Pocono.
ED CARPENTER: Thank you very much.