Q&A with IndyCar rookie sensation Sage Karam

Sage Karam

THE MODERATOR: Welcome, everyone, to today's IndyCar media teleconference. We're pleased to be joined today by Verizon IndyCar Series rookie Sage Karam of Chip Ganassi Racing. Sage, welcome to today's call.

SAGE KARAM: Thank you for having me.

THE MODERATOR: Sage is the driver of the No. 8 Comfort Revolution/Big Machine Record Chevrolet and is second in the season-long Sunoco Rookie of the Year standings. He scored his first podium in the Verizon IndyCar Series at the Iowa Corn 300 on Saturday night.

Sage, it's been an up-and-down rookie season for you. What has the year been like for you coming off the high at Iowa?

SAGE KARAM: It's been really difficult at some points, but it's also been really good. So I just got to thank the whole Chip Ganassi organization, all the sponsors, Revolution, Big Machine for keeping with it because we started out pretty rough. Things were definitely at a low. I didn't have a lot of confidence.

Finally we picked up, got some good results. Now we've been in the top five two of the last three races. Things are looking good. The momentum's definitely on our side.

THE MODERATOR: Next race is back to the road courses, the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio. What kind of performance do you expect from the 8 car and Chip Ganassi Racing, given the team's recent success there?

SAGE KARAM: The 8 car right now has some really good momentum. I'm really clicking with the team. But the big thing is going to be everything we can help out Dixie. I don't think we're going to help him out much at Mid-Ohio. I think as long as we keep all four cars running next weekend, we can get Dixie some points, put myself in between other points competitors and stuff like that, I think that's going to be a solid weekend.

I think the rest of the season is going to be everything we can do to help Dixon win this championship.

[adinserter name="GOOGLE AD"]THE MODERATOR: I would be remiss if I didn't ask. Saturday night after Iowa, there were some strong words for you from Ed Carpenter and Graham Rahal. Have you spoken to them yet after the race?

SAGE KARAM: I have not spoken to them yet. Just after the race is the only time we communicated.

THE MODERATOR: Let's open it up to the media for questions for Sage Karam.

Q. Sage, everybody wants to ask about the scene after the race. Can you fill us in on what Ed Carpenter said to you and what your reaction was? You seemed to listen to him, take it pretty well.

SAGE KARAM: Yeah, no, I mean, he was just a little angry I guess with my driving. He pretty much just came up to me and just said I needed more respect, that I needed to grow up. He was just yelling at me and stuff.

At the time I really wasn't having any of it. I was just a little too tired to be going back at him. I was also just pretty happy that I just got my first career podium. I wasn't really looking to go back at him.

I figured if I did go back at him, it probably would have escalated to another level. I was chilling out, sitting there, taking in what he was saying.

Q. Looking at the way everything has transpired since Iowa, do you like being in the role of the villain? Is that something you would like to have a brand, kind of a Paul Tracy in training?

SAGE KARAM: I mean, I don't think I'm like a villain. The only thing I do is I just drive hard. I drive like a rookie, I guess you could say. I drive out there like I got something to prove, because I do have something to prove. I take risks. I take every risk as a calculated risk.

But I think to be the best in the sport nowadays, it's going to be the drivers who can take the risks, successfully take those risks.

You look at the greats back in the day and stuff, they never really had a lot of friends. They've always been the ones that have taken the most risks. I think that's what I'm going to do and that's what I'm going to continue to do.

Q. Sage, now that you've had the luxury of some time, you're not on the track, 72 hours ago, do you think Ed Carpenter may have had a point on some level or do you look at it as you were driving hard and you didn't do anything wrong?

SAGE KARAM: I mean, that's a good question. But in my mind, if I were to go do the race over again, I wouldn't change a thing. I think I just raced him hard. I gave him room. It's 20 laps to go in the race. I raced him like it was 20 laps to go in the race. If I did that the first 20 laps of the race, then I could see why he'd be mad. It's 20 laps to go in the race, so…

That's just protocol. Like I said, if I were to go do it again, I'd do the same thing.

Q. Sage, looks like we're on the Ed Carpenter thing. I was talking to Mario a little while ago. He says he thinks that Ed Carpenter is a level-headed guy who really would bear listening to some of the comments that he has. How do you feel about the respect of the other drivers, taking something from them to improve your situation?

SAGE KARAM: Like taking something from Ed or Graham?

Q. Not only them, but it could be Dario Franchitti, because he seems to be the guy on your team that really gets with you. Did he mention anything about that after the race on Saturday?

SAGE KARAM: Yeah, I talked to Dario actually Sunday, the next day after the race. It was plenty of time since the race. He said he watched the race again. He watched the replay of me and Ed those last few laps we were battling. He said he thinks I did nothing wrong.

He's the guy who will tell me if I do something wrong. He'll be the first guy to tell me that. He's not scared to be that guy to tell me if I'm driving bad or if I need to be doing something differently.

I haven't pleased Dario a lot this season, but there's been a select few times. He said Iowa was probably the most pleased he's been with me. About the whole Ed Carpenter situation, he just thinks that's hard racing and I shouldn't have done anything different.

Q. So do you feel there will be no conversation between you and Ed Carpenter or you and Rahal before Mid-Ohio?

SAGE KARAM: I spoke to Ed Carpenter briefly after the race on the plane. We had open seating. He was walking on. I had an open seat next to me. He saw me. I saw him. He pretty much said he's still mad at me. I said, Well, you can sit next to me. I have an open seat here, we can talk about it. He said, No, I have three kids I got to go take care of in the back, I don't need to take care of a fourth.

Instead of sitting with me, he sat with the rest of my crew. I don't know if that was smart of him to do (laughter).

That's the only communication I've had with Ed, and I haven't talked to Graham.

Q. The heat of the moment was still pretty strong with him at that point, is that what you would say?

SAGE KARAM: Yup.

Q. If you look at the last two races, Milwaukee excluded, you started the year with low finishes. Was there a point where you and the team found something or something clicked where it was like, Okay, now we can run up top?

SAGE KARAM: I think it was just finding myself really in the car. I started out the season on a totally low note, probably the lowest I've ever been mentally going into a season. I was actually really high going in, and then once you broke my wrist, I went to a really low part of the season.

It took me races just to get this whole wrist thing worked out. We had awful luck. At NOLA I was really fast in practice, third in practice, then we go to qualify, of course qualifying gets canceled, I got to start 20th. I have an awful race. Obviously I'm still going through all these lows.

Indianapolis comes along. That's where I think I started to find myself, was Indianapolis. I was running up front the whole month basically. Then another bad-luck situation, we get taken out. It's pretty much been the story of bad luck this year. Qualifyings getting canceled, little things like breaking a wrist and stuff.

I think after Detroit I knew I could run up front. I went into Texas with that mentality, but still just made a few mistakes with pit speed violations. That screwed up that race. I knew if I could put a race together, I could have a good result. That's what we did in Fontana. Even in Fontana I took a front wing off and we still finished good. I knew I could run up front.

Milwaukee, we didn't have a great racecar. We had a good qualifying car. I was kind of expecting it was going to be a tough race.

Iowa we put everything we had together, all our minds, all the efforts together. I think that was the weekend that the team gelled the most, and it showed.

Q. Sage, you have a history with wrestling, with Nazareth High School. How has the past in wrestling helped keep you physically fit?

SAGE KARAM: When I was wrestling in high school, like last year and stuff, I would always go into the season in the best shape of my life because wrestling season would end in March, race season would start in March. I'd always be kind of like a head start on my competitors in physical fitness.

I think wrestling is probably some of the best training you can do to get in shape. It's a big cardio thing and also strength. When you're training in a room that's about a hundred degrees, it simulates really well what it's like in the car as far as the heat goes and everything. I think that gives me an advantage, for sure, in a race like that where it was really, really hot and really physical. But I was really tired.

This year I didn't wrestle a lot like I have in years past in high school, obviously. As much as I can I try to get on the mat because I know it's a great advantage for me.

Q. Since your IndyCar debut last year, you've seen a lot of big ups and big down downs. How much has your life changed since that debut?

SAGE KARAM: I think I got a couple more Twitter followers (laughter). I wouldn't say, like, my whole life has actually changed too much. I still like to be a humble kid. I still like to be 20 years old.

I think people sometimes forget that I'm only 20 years old. I like to be just a normal kid. I'll go home after I go to the race shop, I'll play XBOX the rest of the night, just hang out with friends. I like to do things that a regular 20-year-old kid would do.

It hasn't really changed much. I'm just having fun. The only thing I could say is I'm doing what I love. I wouldn't trade that for a thing.

Q. Sage, about your rise into the IndyCar ranks, which is no easy task, what has been the most challenging for you so far? What has been the most fun for you at this level?

SAGE KARAM: Well, I think obviously it's a long road to get to the IndyCar Series. There's been a lot of times where we thought we were going to fail and we should just hang it up. We don't because something happens. We stay because we win a big race, we find a new sponsor. Sponsorship has always been really, really difficult. I would say finding sponsorship was always the hardest thing. There was never holidays, like Christmas and stuff, that were actual holidays. It was more worrying to see if I was going to have a ride in March.

A lot of the deals I got done, like Indy Lights, I had that deal done like the second week of March. I had one day of testing before St. Pete, and we won that championship. That was just the nature of my whole Mazda Road to Indy. It was late, trying to get the deals done, stressful and difficult.

I would say the most fun part now, I wouldn't say this year was fun to begin with, but now it's getting fun. When you can run up front with these guys that you used to watch every Sunday growing up, it's a really cool feeling. I think Iowa and Fontana were probably two of the most fun races I ever done. I credit that mostly to being up front. It's really cool when you're running up front, you're coming to your pit stop and you know you have a chance to win the race.

Q. Are you learning from veterans, helping with your progress?

SAGE KARAM: Yeah, I think the people I'm learning from the most are my teammates obviously, and Dario Franchitti. I look at Dixon's data the most probably out of anybody. I would say we're probably the most similar out of all the drivers. Some of the stuff he does on data is pretty incredible.

I like to watch what he does. And Dario helps me a lot with on- and off-track things. He's always in my corner, on my pit stand a lot. He's talking to me while I'm in the car. He's been a big help.

Q. You're getting a chance to work with Scott Dixon, Dario Franchitti, Tony Kanaan. If you had to take away one thing from each of them, what is the most important thing they've helped you with?

SAGE KARAM: So Dario, he's just really taught me that you've got to be so serious. I think I came into this year with the thought that it wasn't going to be as hard as it actually was going to be. I think that's what kind of led to some early troubles for me.

[adinserter name="GOOGLE AD"]Around Texas, Detroit kind of region, I think that's when I had a real attitude change as far as how much I need to take this seriously. He really laid into me. After that, the results started to come. I've been taking it a lot more serious. I've been working out a lot harder. I've been spending more time with the engineers and stuff. Dario has taught me a lot about that. He's taught me the most.

Scott, he teaches me more about the actual driving because I get to see what he does, his data and stuff. He's just amazing with some of the stuff he does with fuel conservation and stuff. That's been the biggest thing for me this year, learning fuel conservation. Dixon is the best in the business at that.

I learn you can't give anything to Tony Kanaan, like your car keys, because then your car will come back pink (laughter).

But, no, T.K., he's pretty much along the lines of Dixie. More on-track stuff. He's pretty much showed me that the high line can work on starts and restarts. He's the best at it.

Q. Sage, I was wondering, you were talking about working with Dario and stuff. As you reviewed the last part of that race the other night, what did Dario tell you that he liked and what did he tell you he didn't like?

SAGE KARAM: We'll start with what he didn't like.

The only thing he says he didn't like was I missed my marks on my last pit stop by like a foot or two which made the pit stop a little slower. It threw my right front tire changer off a little bit. That's my fault because I stopped a little long.

Other than that, as far as the on-track racing, Dario said he liked it and there was nothing wrong with it.

Q. You watched it. Did you see anything yourself that you would have changed as you reviewed it? Obviously it's hard to stay real low on that track, you're going to drift a little. Anything you would change as you reviewed it?

SAGE KARAM: Nope, nothing I would change. If I were to go back, there were 20 laps to go, I'd race them the same way. I'd race anybody the same way. I think the only person I wouldn't race the same way would have been Dixon in that situation because he was my teammate going for a championship.

Q. What is it like to be in your seat, to be sort of this rising star, you know people have expectations of you, and now you have this, for want of another word, a reputation for the way you raced open Saturday, both aggressively, and some of the veterans said too aggressively? What is it like to be in your seat now and people know who you are? Do you understand what I'm saying? You've already carved a niche in this series.

SAGE KARAM: Yeah, no, it's cool, you know, to be known and talked about. I think it's good for the series, too. Anytime you can get people talking about the race, it's 72 hours after the race, I think that's good for everyone. That's my job. It's my job to go out there and do my absolute best and try to help the series grow, help my brand grow. I'm just doing what I'm supposed to do. I'm just going out there, having fun, and I'm racing hard. That's it.

Q. Bringing the young fans into the fold a little bit. In the last 72 hours, have you noticed even more Twitter followers? Have you noticed more people paying attention? Do you feel like in some ways you are bringing that young fan to the television set and maybe to the racetrack?

SAGE KARAM: Yeah, I think so. I've definitely gotten more Twitter followers. I think from when the season started, I've probably gained close to 100% on Twitter, Instagram followers and stuff. Especially after this race, we gained a little bit because it's made some news stations and stuff. So that's always good. Keep growing the brand, keep growing the series, and hopefully in a few years' time it's more we're running up front every weekend and building kind of a legacy.

Q. Sage, you only have two more races left in the season with Mid-Ohio and then Pocono. Are you already looking forward to next year? What are you going to have to do to make next year be a full-time thing from the start?

SAGE KARAM: At this point I'm just kind of taking it race by race because I still have things to prove, still my rookie season. I feel like every time I go out there I need to prove something. I'm honestly just looking at Mid-Ohio. I haven't had any discussions yet about 2016.

But, yeah, I'm just taking it race by race at this point.

Q. I don't remember whether the Lights cars raced at Mid-Ohio. Do you like that facility? Have you been on it?

SAGE KARAM: Yeah, I raced there in Lights. I was fast. It's a good track for me. I definitely like it. It's a track that you have to take risks at. I guess from the past week, people think I take a lot of risks. Hopefully it plays out well.

Q. Because you missed one race, is that probation still on or is that gone now? How does that stand?

SAGE KARAM: I'm not very sure. Honestly, when I went out there and raced, I didn't think about probation, I still just raced. I know they said it was like five races or something. But, yeah, I mean, that's when I talked to IndyCar officials. They said I didn't do anything wrong in that race with Carpenter. They said maybe it was a little too close, if something did go wrong, I could have been in a little bit of a trouble.

I don't really think about it. I just go out there and drive.

Q. You can't be thinking about those kind of things. You want to be aggressive, smart, not aggressive thinking about a lot of other things. Is that true?

SAGE KARAM: Yeah. You got to take calculated risks. It's a sport that's very dangerous and stuff. Risks need to be taken. But they need to be calculated. I think if you're taking calculated risks, you're driving with confidence, and you're taking risks. But when you're not taking calculated risks, you're doing it week in, week out, causing accidents, running into cars, you're being reckless, and no one wants to be reckless.

Q. Are you coming to Nazareth before Mid-Ohio or no home trips this time?

SAGE KARAM: I'll be in Nazareth after Mid-Ohio until Pocono.

Q. Sage, I know you said you're focusing on the next race, Mid-Ohio. Can you talk a little bit about what it's going to be like for you to be running at Pocono. You ran the Indy Lights there a couple years ago. What do you think it's going to be like running the big series car there?

SAGE KARAM: I think it's going to be very challenging, especially with these aero kits. I think the race itself is going to be very challenging. These aero kits, they make the cars very loose when you're following somebody.

It's very, very difficult to drive these things. I'm going to have fun that weekend, I think, driving in front of my home, a lot of friends are probably going to come out, family. It's going to be a fun weekend for me.

It's going to be a fun weekend for Marco, as well, being the two hometown guys. I think we'll have a pretty good fan base there. We'll probably be some of the favorites in that race. So to be a favorite in a race I think is going to be pretty cool, too.

We'll see. It's going to be challenging. Obviously you don't really know what it's going to be like until you get there and start turning laps, but I imagine it's going to be very challenging.

Q. You mentioned you're going to have fun. Is there extra pressure because it is your hometown track? Have you dared to dream what it might be like to take a checkered flag there?

SAGE KARAM: I don't think there's any added pressure. It's just another race. It's a big one for me obviously because it is my hometown. I don't really get too nervous before races. I just go out there and do my thing.

Yeah, no, I think about it, what it would be like to win there. I think it would be cool. It would be cool to win there and to be able to walk off the podium, get in your car, drive home, bring your home team with you, throw a little victory celebration. I think that would be fun.

Q. Sage, before you came into this season you had that one IndyCar start at Indianapolis last year. What has surprised you, whether it be who you're racing against or the tracks you're racing on? I know at Texas you were taken aback by the banking at the track. What surprised you so far this season?

SAGE KARAM: Like how hard you actually need to race to be up front. I was racing hard in the beginning of the season, but I wasn't pushing as hard as I should have been. Then once I started figuring it out a bit more, that's when I started running up front, the speed started to come.

I made some mistakes like in Detroit. I had some avoidable contact issues and stuff. But, you know, once I found out how hard I needed to push, how much risk you needed to take, I think that was the biggest wakeup call for me. Then I figured that out. Now it's showing on the ovals. I think if I were to go back and start the season over, the beginning of the season would be a heck of a lot different than it was.

Q. You got to lead your first career laps at Fontana earlier this month. What was that like?

SAGE KARAM: It was a really, really cool feeling. It was the first time in a race this year where I actually had, you know, that kind of feeling of butterflies back in the stomach in the late stages of the race because you have an opportunity to win the race. You get the butterflies. Your mouth gets dry. You're kind of just totally after it.

You're on edge. I haven't had that feeling all season. To get that in Fontana and again in Iowa, I mean, the speed's there, it's there. We had the fastest car at Iowa. We kind of got messed up. I screwed up the last pit stop which put us behind two lapped cars. The restart really hurt us.

I just need to put a race together where I can go 110%, make no mistakes, and I think we can be higher up on the podium.

Q. Sage, you've had the opportunity to work with two very fine engineers, Mark (indiscernible) and Eric Cowdin. What do they bring to your activity on track and how much do you depend on them and how much fun is it to work with Eric, who used to work with Tony Kanaan for so long?

SAGE KARAM: Yeah, no, you know, working with Mark and stuff, we only worked for a race. We didn't really get to have more of like a personal connection, that we'd figure each other out as much as we'd like. It still went very well, definitely good.

But Eric, me and Eric, we've become more than just driver and engineer. We've become kind of like friends now. I can almost come into the pit box, look up, he looks in my eyes, he can kind of tell what I need. I don't really need to talk. That's how it goes now.

He's got so much experience because he's worked with Kanaan for so long that he's seen it all. Now he's figuring out me. I feel bad for him because he had to deal with Kanaan for so many years, he's had it kind of rough (laughter).

He's got a lot of intelligence. My car in Iowa was pretty much almost perfect. It's almost impossible to have a perfect car, but I credit him for that. He made some executive decisions before the race that we talked about, he made the decisions, and they ended up being the right ones.

Q. Back to Iowa. What was said between you and your teammates regarding what happened on and off track with Ed Carpenter?

SAGE KARAM: I mean, my teammates just said, Congratulations for getting on the podium. T.K. texted me and said, Welcome to the podium club. Dixie, the same thing. They pretty much left after their days were over. I don't blame them. They just texted me.

I saw Dario. Dario said that I did nothing wrong. Obviously after the race, feelings are high. Ed came up and talked to me, which I liked. I think that's good. That's good for the series. That's what we need. We need some drama. But I don't think anything was wrong. I don't think I drove wrong. I don't think the way he came at me was wrong and I don't think the way I handled it was wrong.

I think if I would have came back at him with a high voice or something, you know, things may have changed and it would have been escalated a little bit. I was happy I got my first podium, remained calm, that was it. Just a small confrontation and we're on to the next one.

Q. Having the dry mouth, being up front, going for it kind of deal. What is that like? Explain to me your mindset, et cetera, when you have a shot. How do you change from how you were maybe an hour earlier from the standpoint of going for it, so to speak?

SAGE KARAM: Yeah, well, early stages of a race you're driving 85%, 90%. You're cruising around, like at Fontana, get the first 450 miles out of the way basically and put yourself in a position up front to have a fighting chance. Once you get to the last few laps after your last pit stop, you're running up front, like I said, the butterflies start to come a little bit, especially if you're under yellow, the butterflies start to come. You start thinking about stuff.

When you're actually driving, it's more like your mouth gets dry and you're still so focused. I can't really think about what I actually think about when I'm out there. But when you're under yellow is when the butterflies come in the most and you start thinking about stuff like, What would happen if I won this race? In Iowa, I was in third starting that last restart, I remember saying to myself, Third's great, but I want to win because I know I have a good car and I can win. I wasn't content with finishing third, but after the race was over I was happy with it. I knew I could have finished better.

Q. When did you notice as a kid, as a wrestler, when was that moment or that stage in time when you realized that not only did you have aggressive thoughts like that, but you were willing to go for it? You understand what I am saying? You were willing to go for a crease to pass. A lot of guys never get past that. When did you realize you had that in your DNA or makeup?

SAGE KARAM: I think probably around eight years old when I was starting to race around the country in go-karts. I was always aggressive in go-karts. If you want to be successful in this business, if you want to be good on the track, you need to be aggressive. You need to take risks. There's never been a champion that's just kind of sat back and not taken a risk or not been aggressive.

Some of my biggest idols in life, like Senna, Alex Zanardi, they've been probably the most aggressive drivers to ever come through motorsports and they're legends. I think that's how I'm going to take it and that's how I'm going to continue to go about driving.

I think my aggressive nature is me and that's just how I've been.

Q. At Iowa you found yourself racing Carlos Munoz for a spot on the podium. Looking back, do you feel any gratification beating him for a spot on the podium again?

SAGE KARAM: He's just another driver. It wasn't like when I was behind him I'm going to be like, Oh, I need to pass him because I passed him two years ago at the same spot, I need to do it again.

No, I was in fourth at that time, I'm going for third. I don't care if it was Carlos Munoz, Helio Castroneves, Gabby Chaves. He was just another guy.

Q. When you're a rookie and you have such limited testing time, how much of a challenge is that? Dixon and Dario, when they were rookies, had way more testing than you do.

SAGE KARAM: I was talking to Dario about this in Iowa. He was talking about when he drove he had so much testing as a rookie compared to me. He says he's really impressed with how far I've come for the limited testing, especially in my case, crashing in Alabama, I missed the two- or three-day test there. I missed two days after that in NOLA. I missed four or five solid days of testing that everyone got over me. That hurt me so much. I only had I think about two or three, maybe four solid days of testing before St. Pete.

At the beginning of the season, I don't think people realize this was almost completely new to me. I was coming into a really great team at such a young age, with almost virtually no testing basically, and hurt.

I think once we got past the injury, I got a little bit more seat time, thinking now the speed is starting to show, we're showing that we can run up front.

THE MODERATOR: Seeing as we have no more questions for Sage, we'll thank him for his time today and wish him the best of luck at Mid-Ohio.

SAGE KARAM: Thank you.

THE MODERATOR: That will wrap-up today's IndyCar media teleconference.

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