Sage Karam: Love Him Or Hate Him?

This past Saturday night at Iowa, we saw Ed Carpenter go to the trouble of taking his left hand off of the steering wheel just so he could give Sage Karam the good ol’ one-finger salute. Just a little later, he shook the same fist at Karam before Ed backed out of the throttle and let him by. Karam ended up on the podium for the first time in his career, while Carpenter settled for sixth.

Just after the race, Carpenter stormed down to Karam’s car and chewed him out with a camera showing it to the live broadcast audience. Later on in the evening, Carpenter said that Karam has no clue. When Karam was interviewed, he didn’t back down or show remorse for his driving. He said he’s a professional and he’s going for wins. He finished up by saying “tough luck” for Ed.

Social media on Saturday night seemed evenly divided. Some portrayed Sage Karam as nothing more than a punk, while others said that Ed was coming off as a whiner with a sense of entitlement and was just mad that he was getting passed by an upstart.

Many drivers have complained about the twenty year-old Karam’s driving style throughout the season. Carpenter was not the only driver griping about Karam after Saturday night’s race. Graham Rahal concurred with Carpenter and said that Karam was a very careless driver.

Young and talented drivers are nothing new. So many have come and gone just in the past decade. Alex Lloyd, Wade Cunningham, Martin Plowman, Rafa Matos and Jaime Camara are just a few names that begin the list. They all had talent and all spent time in an IndyCar. But there are two things that separate those drivers from Sage Karam – a brash attitude and top-level equipment.

Rafa Matos was probably the closest thing to a cocky driver among that group, but many believe he didn’t begin to match the brashness that Karam has displayed.

Sage Karam may have come by it naturally, but I don’t know that. But if he didn’t, running in your first Indianapolis 500 before you graduate from high school would tend to foster a cocky attitude in anyone – especially when you finished ninth and narrowly lost Rookie of the Year to Kurt Busch. Karam had almost an entire year to rest on those laurels and hear everyone proclaim him as the hot new talent in IndyCar. Tell me what recent high school grad wouldn’t let some of that go to their head.

Karam’s fans say that the kid has it all – youthful exuberance, good looks, a bullet-proof attitude and talent…tons of talent. On top of that, he’s an American. And make no mistake; Sage Karam has many fans.

But Karam also has his critics, and there is no shortage of them either. Not only do drivers not appreciate his fearless approach to his driving, many fans are turned off by his brash and cocky attitude. Many think that he comes off as nothing more than a punk. His teenage demeanor the other night did nothing to disprove that. There are also those that resent the fact that he is immediately stepping into a Ganassi car without earning it. Tony Kanaan drove sixteen seasons before stepping up into his Ganassi ride. Dario Franchitti drove in eleven Indy car seasons before he drove for Ganassi in IndyCar. Kanaan is twice as old as Karam and is old enough to be his father, yet there is Karam already in a Ganassi car. It’s the old adage that he hasn’t paid his dues.

Kanaan certainly paid his dues. He toiled with Steve Horne’s Tasman team in CART before it shut down. Then it was a hybrid Forsythe team before he moved on to Mo Nunn. He finally got his break with Andretti after five full seasons in relative obscurity. Josef Newgarden signed with Sarah Fisher as a rookie. Together, they have built a successful team to the point that Newgarden is having his breakout season in Year Four. Karam’s big break came right out of high school.

But you know what? Not everyone has to pay their dues – not in racing or in life. It just happens that way for some. Many old school country music fans here in Nashville always begrudged Taylor Swift because she didn’t pay her dues. She was predicted to flame out after her debut album in 2006 went multi-platinum, when she was at the ripe old age of sixteen. Critics scoffed at her and waited for her to fall on her face. It never happened. Nine years later, she’s recognized as one of the world’s biggest stars and her trajectory is still upward.

Did Rick Mears pay his dues? He drove a few races for Bill Simpson in 1976-77; but by 1978, he was driving for Roger Penske. He too was the young hot-shot daring to mix it up with teammates Bobby Unser and Mario Andretti. By 1982, Mears was Penske’s lead driver and a legend in the making.

How about AJ Foyt? He paid his dues on the sprint car circuit, but did he really in the big Champ cars? It’s a little known fact that AJ Foyt got his first Champ car (Indy car) ride from a Nashville-based owner. Johnny Wills owned the Hoover Motor Express Special and had his shop in Nashville. Wills spotted Foyt driving sprints and put him in his Champ Car for the last five races of the 1957 season. In five races, Foyt produced three Top-Ten finishes along with an eleventh place finish and crashed once. For 1958, Foyt was in the Dean Van Lines Special, which was a top tier ride. The rest is history.

Mario Andretti came up through the ranks driving in the bullrings. But fate introduced him to Clint Brawner, who put him in his Champ car. Andretti did not toil with any second tier team throughout his entire career. Was he unworthy because he never paid his dues?

Paul Tracy is a more recent example. PT drove in the old American Racing Series for a few seasons, but he drove in only one race in IndyCar for Dale Coyne before Roger Penske came calling. His arrival slightly overlapped the retirement of Rick Mears. In two stints, Tracy went on to win eleven races for The Captain before moving on to Team Kool Green and Gerry Forsythe’s organization, where he finally won a CART championship.

All of these drivers were looked upon as brash newcomers that had no respect for their peers or elders on the track. They all ruffled the feathers of the old guard of their respective eras. Rick Mears wasn’t necessarily cocky, but he greatly irritated teammate Bobby Unser constantly – not so much for his brashness, but because Unser didn’t think Mears approached his job seriously. Foyt was as cocky as they came off the track, but no one ever questioned his ability on the track, Mario? That’s a different story. He was considered the cocky little Italian that scared the daylights out of his competitors in his early days. Like Karam – he drove with no fear, and that’s not always a good thing.

Am I comparing Sage Karam to Rick Mears, AJ Foyt or Mario Andretti? Absolutely not. It’s way too early to pass judgment one way or the other on his talent. For every Rick Mears or Paul Tracy that Roger Penske gave a break to; there’s also a Kevin Cogan who never met with much success. Karam has talent. There is no denying that. How much and how it is used is what is still in question.

And driving for Chip Ganassi is certainly no guarantee for success. Nick Minassian and Tomas Scheckter can vouch for that; as well as Ryan Briscoe, Darren Manning and Graham Rahal. While Ganassi teams have enjoyed streaks of domination, to suggest that signing with Ganassi makes a career is a bit of a stretch. Briscoe went on to win seven races at Team Penske in between two short and unsuccessful stints at Ganassi. Rahal is finally enjoying a strong season this year, but his stint at Ganassi was a bust. Manning went on to be just as unsuccessful at Foyt’s team, while Minassian lasted only a handful of races in 2001.

This short history lesson and these comparisons are not intended to give the impression that I think that Sage Karam is the next IndyCar legend, or that I think Ed Carpenter was completely unjustified in his criticism of Karam. Unless you were on the track Saturday night, or at least in the stands – I don’t think anyone would have any real way of knowing. From what the television replays showed, I couldn’t tell that Karam had done anything so egregious to Carpenter. Then again, we viewers came into it just as Ed was giving him the finger. We never saw what caused that middle digit to extend in the first place.

I do know I saw Karam darting violently in and out of the crowd of cars on the seven-eighths mile oval many times that night. But I also know that he was able to pull off these moves without causing a crash. Is that because he has the ability to thread a needle and put a car wherever he wants, or did the cooler heads of the veterans prevail as they backed out of the throttle and let him go?

Keep the age difference in mind, also. Ed Carpenter is thirty-four and has a family. Sage Karam is twenty and single. Twenty year-olds tend to think they are invincible. On the other hand, Ed has been on-track twice when drivers lost their lives in crashes. Karam has never experienced the tragic consequences of racing that closely. With age comes wisdom. Seeing first-hand how quickly things can happen and having a family and a business dependent on your well-being; Ed has a different perspective than Karam or most any other twenty year-old.

One more thing I know – any car owner would prefer having a driver that they need to hold back every now and then, rather than one they need to give a kick in the pants to get them to speed up. All the great drivers I know of over the years had to take chances from time to time. They had to make themselves uncomfortable and take a car to the edge in order to win. Mario Andretti is famous for saying that if a driver is comfortable in a car, they aren’t going fast enough.

So which side is right? Is it the group that says that Sage Karam is a young punk and if he doesn’t dial it back, he’s going to kill someone? Or are Karam’s fans correct when they say that he’s the next great American driver and that the veterans had better watch out? Only time will tell which answer is correct or if the answer lies somewhere in the middle.

I don’t know the answer, but I do know that the Verizon IndyCar Series needs a villain and that Sage Karam seems more than willing to step into that role. But it’s not just a role that has been contrived and manufactured for him for the made-up #IndyRivals. He genuinely doesn’t seem to care that the veterans don’t care for him. That makes him a villain to the drivers. He also doesn’t pay the established veterans much, if any, respect. That makes him a villain to a lot of fans. But those that are fans of Karam embrace this role for him.

For too many years, drivers have been too nice. The original Andretti-Green quartet of Dan Wheldon, Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti and Bryan Herta used to kiss each other on the cheek whenever one would win a race. Seriously? I can only imagine how AJ Foyt, Parnelli Jones or Bobby Unser viewed that every time it happened, which was quite often in 2004 & 2005.

Scott Dixon and Ryan Briscoe are considered boring by many. Helio Castroneves always has a smile on his face. James Hinchcliffe and Josef Newgarden are funny and extremely likable. Marco Andretti isn’t likable, he’s just there. You don’t really hate him, you just don’t really like him. Ryan Hunter-Reay is too golden to not like. His car, his hair and the hair of his wife and children all have a gold tint. What’s not to like?

Until now, the closest things we’ve had to villains have been Will Power with his short-fused temper, and Juan Montoya who doesn’t really care if anyone likes him or not. Still, they aren’t people you really root against. As odd as it seems, IndyCar needs a (good) driver for people to root against. It’s one thing to have drivers that people love, but they also need a couple of drivers that people love to hate. Of course, now that IndyCar has come up with the already infamous Rule 9.3.8; villains will more than likely be completely outlawed. More thoughts on this ridiculous rule later this week.

In the sixties, I was a Foyt guy. That meant that, by nature, I pulled against Mario Andretti every chance I got. That’s the kind of intensity and passion that stirs up fans. And if the Verizon IndyCar series needs something, it needs someone to stir the fan base.

So whether or not you are a fan of Sage Karam, you’d better hope he stays in the No.8 car for not only his scheduled remaining two races of this season, but for several years to come. It’s good for business.

George Phillips

32 Responses to “Sage Karam: Love Him Or Hate Him?”

  1. Ron Ford Says:


  2. Indycar needs Karam. More importantly Indycar needs competitive rookies/new drivers rather than having the same people winning in 2015 as in 2008. I think in the end though that Newgarden may be slightly better, but a future where Indycar championships are a Karam vs. Newgarden battle would be a miracle. I don’t think Karam works as a villain though. If nothing else when you’ve only got a few American drivers they’re all going to end up as heroes to many. To me Dixon and Power fill the villain role. Both have a fairly aggressive driving style and have been in plenty of on track incidents.

  3. This is a tough one, Indycar needs him to run well, but also, he seems like just another lucky kid in a good ride.

    The pros for him – He got a podium with the 2nd tier Ganassi team that has always been a step behind the main cars. People want an American kid to run well.

    The cons – The older drivers have what was dubbed in the comments last week (in response to what I said) as “Dan Wheldon Syndrom” where they are scared to drive and make daring moves for fear something might happen. He has money issues that may keep him out of the seat. He seems unlikeable.

    Ultimately, I am tired of hearing about him and Daly. I like that there are American kids trying to make something of it but I have grown tired of hearing about both of them. I personally don’t think RHR gets many props and Josef is just now getting his turn.

    I think Ed really looks entitled in all of this, wiping away a few years of respect that I had gained for him. But Sage also looks like a brat.

    I prefer to love and hate Will Power and view Kanaan and Helio as fake, so I guess that is a villian relationship for me as well.

  4. Doug Gardner Says:

    Sage has talent. Unfortunately, talent doesn’t get it all anymore. You need sponsors. They shy away from brash and cocky. He will be around awhile but soon it will be in mid-tier rides then out. It is the same in NASCAR. Kurt Busch has tons of talent is a past champion and still wins. If not for Gene Haas he would not have a ride. Kyle Busch same situation, but he learned to tone it down before he lost his top tier ride. Unfortunately, Sage will burn his bridges for $$. Winning does not counteract that. Ask Indy 500 winner Buddy Rice.

  5. Overall Karam is good for the sport in that he creates conflict. BUT, since IndyCar driver’s can self-police (i.e. hip check the little bastard into the wall when he needs it) without literally risking their lives, they need a race control that restrains crazy driving during the race and not some farcical Wednesday-after meaningless fine. Otherwise, as Ed said, the guy who prevents the possibly fatal crash gets eighth and the guy who nearly caused it gets third. If Karam was driving in NASCAR, I guarantee he’d be calmed down by now because he’d have also been punted a few times by now.

  6. This is clearly a risk vs. reward business and there is one major difference: Ed Carpenter has crashed (and crashed hard) and Sage Karam has not. There are significant psychological effects to that. There is also the maturity and age disparity between the two. The way the racing lines converge at Iowa on the so called, straights, somebody has to give in and it borderlines courage and stupidity. Sage Karam showed he has plenty of both on Saturday night. It borderlines disregard for ones self and others to drive like he did. Sage should ask his driver coach what it is like being introduced to the catch fence, that is if Dario has not yet offered. What if Sage Karam’s career ended due to injuries he sustained on Saturday night? I’ll bet that would change his perspective. Ed has crashed and knows the consequences, Sage does not. Other differences: Ed writes checks for crashes (his money or not, not sure) Sage does not. Ed has a family, Sage does not.

    I have to agree with Ed Carpenter. Sage has no clue. Much of that has to do with his age.

  7. jhall14 Says:

    If you listened to Karam last night on Trackside, you heard a “very confident” Sage Karam, as a guest on the show. He was also interviewed on WNDE, 97.5, Query and Schultz show, I would encourage you to listen to this interview. Karam has more sense than a lot of people want to give him credit for. Whatever the issues, the last 3 oval races have been great, and we are still talking about them. Karam is just another reason to watch INDYCAR. Now if somehow Conor Daly can get a ride for 2016, INDYCAR would be in an even better place. Let’s hope.

  8. Brash and cocky 20 year old punk with a sense of entitlement. Ah… what sport doesn’t have them? They make for good stories, but yeah, Ed and others have a point. Being young and stupid can get you killed in Indycar. Not the same as the NFL, NBA, MLB, etc…

    I’ve been critical of Ed and his demeanor this year, but I don’t defend Karam. Enough drivers have commented on him during the course of the year that I have to believe where there’s smoke there’s fire. And let’s not forget Karam was placed on Double Secret Probation by Dean Wormer after Detroit.

    A five race probation that lasted through Iowa!!! Oooooo… another ridiculous “punishment”. Just like the recently released gag order that requires all driver interviews to include Rainbows and Unicorns.

    People say Indycar doesn’t have any “black hats”. I disagree, the series management has been filling the role of Villain quite nicely for the past several decades.

  9. I dunno. I didn’t see Sage do a whole lot on Saturday that I thought was too far over the line, if over the line at all in the first place. And this is coming from a guy who actually thought he was more to blame for his crash with Takuma Sato at Indy.

    • Even if the fault were all Sato’s, the ridiculous block he threw on Sato the next week in Detroit was uncalled for. Wish I could find the replay

      • Oh, that I couldn’t agree with more (I forgot about that). He’s got to cut that crap out, but I don’t think he totally deserves the rap that he’s gotten this year. I’ve seen other guys (some of whom are race winners this year) do plenty more than he’s done so far.

  10. billytheskink Says:

    Much has been said about Indycar’s need for a “black hat” or “heel” and the potential of Power or Rahal or now Karam to play that role, but relatively little has been said about the villain being only part of the formula.

    Why do so many NASCAR fans root against the Busch brothers? Why did George root against Mario Andretti in the 60s and 70s? Why did I consider Timothy Peters to be the scum of the earth after a truck series race at Bristol a few years back?

    Because they rub us the wrong way with their behavior and demeanor, yes.
    Because they race recklessly and not always clean, that too.
    But above all of that, we root against drivers because they threaten to take positions and victories away from drivers we root for. We have to care about who wins in order to stay engaged in caring that someone specific loses.

    The Busches win, at the expense of Stewart, Earnhardt and other fan favorites. George cheered against Andretti because he could keep Foyt out of the winner’s circle. I can’t stand people named either Timothy or Peter because the #17 (quite deliberately, I thought) checked Ryan Blaney into the outside wall in a battle for the lead.

    Sage pushed the envelope at Iowa, as he has done many times this season, but he won’t be much of a villain if he’s not keeping heroes off of the podium (this business with Ed is a “good” start). I think Karam is talented enough to find such success, but Indycar needs a lot of people to care about Karam’s competitors too for this whole “black hat” thing to work.

    • “we root against drivers because they threaten to take positions and victories away from drivers we root for.”

      You hit the nail on the head. I have disliked racers such as Will Power because they punted out racers I’ve liked and were unapologetic (and sometim&es lying).

  11. I belive he is good for the seris! I hope continues to grow in the seris and bring the 18 to 35 demographic back to open wheel racing. the crying by certain drivers will be there. no names will be used. lol! people often people forget how aj and Mario were reguarded when they started. so instead of trying to run this kid out of the seris he should be embraced and sold for wat he will be the next youg American superstar!

  12. Karem has fans? That alone surprises me. He barely has had a cup of coffee in any form of racing. You also went the whole post without mentioning his bizarre feud with Takuma Sato. I am sure the teenager knows better than a vet of 90 F1 starts and 88 IndyCar starts. His attitude is silly. He won Indy Lights when there was half a dozen full time cars. There is more to learn than just being quick–which he is. He should be racing Lights, GP2, or Formula Renault. I’d say the same thing about Max Verstappen. What is the big hurry when you are a teenager?

    As for Carp’s opinion, who I am not a fan of, he is correct. Karem will learn and it will be painful for the car and maybe even him. Kevin Harvick would have already dumped him. Sometimes it is a shame you cannot do that in IndyCar.

  13. Yannick Says:

    Having not watched Sage Karam in IndyLights, I cannot say much about him, except that he is a rookie and it shows at times, like it does with most every other rookie, too.

    His performance (or lack thereof) at NOLA must have been quite the wakeup call for his fans, though.

    He is really good at Indy and he sure knows his way around Milwaukee, too. Yet, for my taste (and it is just taste), he has been doing an awful lot of “weaving” at Fontana and Iowa. As in not holding his line. If Coletti is on double-probation by IndyCar, race control might want to consider putting Karam on single-probation now, after all of his “weaving” at Iowa.
    He needs to become a clean driver, one who is not afraid to stick to his line and has the confidence to stay upfront anyway, one who does not fear he might lose position of he does not “weave”.
    Knowing nothing about driving these cars, I still guess the best way to try this is to just not “weave”.

  14. You needed an all the above box.

  15. In my mind, Karam is OK. He’s a brash young kid with balls the size of basketballs.

    Ed comes across as a spoiled brat, and a guy who has only a few wins to show for all his years. “Oval specialist”….that just means he can’t drive road and street courses. Ed is a whiner, so anyone who stands up to him and tells him off (We ain’t racing go carts here, this is Indycar) is all right in my book. The other big complainer? Rahal, another guy with a reputation as a whiner.

    I’m hoping for lots of success for young Sage. Plus, he grew up just a few miles from my old stomping grounds in PA, and was a neighbor of Mario, so I’ve gotta root for the kid.

  16. Ron Ford Says:

    One can generally find the commenters here insightful and respectful. I think we can give George credit for setting the tone here. But elsewhere, geeze!

    There was one clown commenting on the story about this matter who kept saying over and over that he wanted to punch Ed. Punch Ed Carpenter’s lights out. Some anonymous guy punching away at a keyboard is so upset he wants very badly to punch Ed.

    After descending into some other comments sites I feel myself gasping for fresh air and wanting to take a shower.

    This may not be go-carts as a wise Sage said, but it aint’ WWE either.

    • As Karam said, IndyCar racing is far beyond kart racing (and thus has more adverse effects when racers crash). Hinch and Franchitti can clue-in Karam.

      “One can generally find the commenters here insightful and respectful.”
      I enjoy almost everything you write here, often from your longtime, personal experience. And yes, the ‘tone’ here is usually pleasant.

      Thanks, George, for another thoughtful, evenhanded blog post. You don’t try to whip us into a frenzy about a topic or gather a virtual lynch mob to attack (online) an IndyCar employee or a racer.

      • Ron Ford Says:

        Thank you Brian, and thank you for adding the disclaimer “almost”. There are indeed times when I think to myself after clicking “post comment” that what I wrote was better left off the page. I enjoy the tone and style of Curt Cavin’s writing, but he has an editor. Maybe I need an editor.

  17. Why are people so eager to turn this into a good-guy/bad-guy thing? Why is there so much bandwagon thought on the supposed “need” for a black hat? Why is “villainy” a must for the series to be “enjoyable”?

    I don’t get that. Negativity is needed for a sport to entertain us?

    I’m just boggled by the thought that a villain in a motorsport – especially such a high-speed one such as open wheel – needs to be a person. The real villain has always been death. It’s accomplices are sudden loss of grip, suspension failure, debris, walls, momentum, bad weather, and all other things you can think of that has killed drivers. All those are enemies, but dying has always been the main antagonist. It’s an implacable villain that’s been there from day one, hasn’t gone and will probably never go away, and is constantly fought by every single team and every single driver race after race.

    The absolute worst a human can be is a willing henchman of that. And be honest: Do we *really* see either the Busch brothers, let alone Sage Karem, to be anywhere near that level? No, not even close.

    It just seems so contrived to need a villain in order to enjoy Indycar. It’s as if the real drama isn’t the human skill vs. the physics of high speed, or the conquering of the unnatural state of running fast and working to the edge of your reflexes, senses, and experience in keeping a car composed. It’s as if you could only enjoy something if there was someone else there trying to take that enjoyment away. Since when has that been the case?

    Would mountain climbing be more enjoyable if there was some jerk on a ledge trying to boot you off? Think about it: Why does the saying about there only being three sports – bull fighting, motor racing, and mountaineering – with all the rest merely being “games” resonate so strongly? (Aside: I know it’s attributed to Hemingway, but there’s no evidence he actually said it.) Sure, the bull can be seen as an enemy, but why mountaineering? I’d say it’s because the real distinction between sport and games in that statement is the element of fatal risk rather than the notion of human opposition. And what the bull represents is less the main antagonist and more the ultimate price. Ditto what the mountain represents: It can never be villainous because it’s not sentient. Risk of death is the real enemy.

    Sorry, but I can’t get on board with the idea that villainy in Indycar is a good thing. That’s a concession to letting fictional conceits color your opinion of the real world. That’s taking away from the **motor sport** aspect and turning it into a soap operatic “As The Wheel Turns” spectacle. That’s also misrepresenting the current clash between Sage and Ed as being one of right vs wrong instead of the ages old reality of conflict between two rights: The young kid driving hard and learning to win by not giving way, and the old hand’s experience and wisdom seeing problems and potential tragedy with that approach. When we try reaching for a black hat, we start attributing malicious or selfish motivations to otherwise explainable and maybe even laudable displays. And we start seeing things not as they are, but only as we wish them to be, stripped of nuance and understanding and reduced to just stereotypes of behavior.

    So, does Indycar really need human villains? Does it truly need “hate”? Do some drivers really need to be the bad guys? Isn’t it enough to see a bunch of the most skilled drivers out there cheat death at 200MPH? Do they also need to wear white and black hats so we know who to root for? I don’t know… I’m just tired of contrivances. There are more than enough in any sport as it is.

  18. Bruce Waine Says:

    According to an interview with Sage, Sage’s coach congratulated Sage on his great race at Iowa…………………

    ………………..And Sage’s coach is who ……..?

    …………… None other than Dario Franchitti

    • Chris Lukens Says:

      What else would expect Dario to say, he’s on Ganassi’s payroll.

      • In that same interview, Sage also mentioned that Dario was the first person to tell him that he drove like an idiot at Detroit. I hardly think that you can describe Dario as a “Ganassi yes-man”.

  19. I think good guys and bad guys attract fans and what happened last week was great for IndyCar.

    Also, Sage said that Dario hasn’t been pleased with him much this year, so if Dario is ok with it then so be it.

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