A Very Curious Choice

One man’s loss is another man’s gain. That’s what best sums up what has happened at Carlin Racing this week.

The strange saga of Pato O’Ward took another twist this week, when it was announced that he would be replacing Red Bull’s Dan Tricktum for the remainder of the season in Japan’s Super Formula. Last fall, it appeared that O’Ward was on the fast track to be the newest star in the NTT IndyCar Series. He would be partnering with the other young sensation, Colton Herta, at the fledgling Harding Steinbrenner Racing.

O’Ward turned heads at last year’s season finale at Sonoma, when he qualified fifth in one of (then) Harding Racing’s two cars. He drove like a seasoned veteran and finished ninth in his IndyCar debut, just two weeks after winning the Indy Lights championship. Herta struggled that weekend, but it was learned that O’Ward had been given the preferred dampers from Andretti Autosport while Herta was struggling with the standard dampers that Harding had been using all season.

Shortly after the season finale, the two were announced as teammates on the newly renamed Harding Steinbrenner Racing (HSR) amidst great fanfare at Yankee Stadium. However, it was not to be. HSR was still unable to secure a sponsor for the 2019 IndyCar season and was struggling financially. O’Ward could see the writing on the wall that they could not sustain two cars and he sensed that he would be the odd man out. In order to give him a chance at finding other opportunities, he asked for his release just before the start of he season.

After missing the season-opener at St. Petersburg, O’Ward found such an opportunity at Carlin, in the car that Charlie Kimball would only be driving in only five races for the 2019 season. I never really knew how much, if any, money that O’Ward brought to the program; but it kept that second car running thereby making it eligible for IndyCar’s Leaders Circle program to pay out the significant bonus to a team for a car running the entire season.

It also snagged a promising and talented driver to pair up with the struggling Max Chilton, so it made sense. For the first few races, the move seemed to be working for all parties. O’Ward had a spirited drive at COTA where he finished eighth. Things didn’t go so well at Barber, but O’Ward rebounded at Long Beach with a decent twelfth-place finish. The IndyCar Grand Prix was a struggle from the beginning of the weekend. It got worse when O’Ward punted Alexander Rossi on the start and O’Ward only managed a nineteenth-place finish.

But things really unraveled when O’Ward crashed in practice for the Indianapolis 500. The crash put them behind and O’Ward ended up missing the race, along with Chilton. Kimball was the only Carlin car to make the race. Two cars missing out on an expected payday, along with a destroyed car really put Carlin in a financial bind. O’Ward had unspectacular runs at Belle Isle, but with no more money coming from O’Ward’s side, Carlin opted to put Conor Daly in the car at Texas where he gave them a solid eleventh-place finish.

O’Ward was back in the car for Road America, but could only manage finishing seventeenth. Then last weekend, we learned that O’Ward had landed the ride in Japan for the season and that he would not be returning to IndyCar in 2019.

In order to keep the No. 31 car eligible for the Leaders Circle money, it was obvious a replacement would have to be found for when Charlie Kimball would not be in the car (numbered 23 when Kimball is driving it). One would have thought that Conor Daly would have been rewarded for his Texas drive and given first crack at the car in Toronto. Instead, we found out yesterday that Sage Karam is being tabbed by Carlin for the Honda Indy Toronto to be run July 12-14. Karam will pilot the No. 31 Carlin car with sponsorship from SmartStop Self-Storage.

Karam 1

Karam 2

Am I the only one perplexed by that announcement?

I will ruffle a few feathers with this because at one time, many considered Karam to be the next great thing, just like they do now with Pato O’Ward – but I’ve never been very impressed with Sage Karam.

Like O’Ward, Karam came onto the IndyCar scene one year after winning the Indy Lights championship. Like O’Ward, Karam made a big splash for a rookie – scoring a ninth-place finish in his IndyCar debut. The only difference was that Karam’s debut was in the 2014 Indianapolis 500, and he drove in no other races for 2014.

But for 2015, Karam got a seat with one of the best teams in the business – Chip Ganassi Racing. It was billed as a part-time ride to be split with Sebastian Saavedra, but Karam drove in all but four races of a sixteen-race season that year. By the mid-point of the season, Karam had scored nothing higher than a twelfth-place finish. He began the season with a nineteenth at St. Petersburg and an eighteenth at NOLA. He sat out Long Beach, but had another eighteenth at Barber. He was out of the car again at the IndyCar Grand Prix and finished thirty-second in the Indianapolis 500. His double-header weekend at Belle Isle started off finishing sixteenth in Race One, before getting the then-season high twelfth in Race Two.

In fairness, Karam closed out a much better five-race stint in the last part of his season. He had a fifth at Fontana, a third at Iowa and a fourteenth at Pocono sprinkled in with a nineteenth at Milwaukee and a twenty-second at Mid-Ohio. But even in those races with good results, Karam was incurring the wrath of many veterans with his erratic driving style.

Since the 2015 season, Karam has been an Indy-only driver. Aside from his ninth-place finish as a rookie in 2014, Karam’s five Indianapolis 500 finishes have been thirty-second in 2015, thirty-second in 2016, twenty-eighth in 2017, twenty-sixth in 2018 and nineteenth in 2019.

Since he first came onto the IndyCar scene in 2014, fans have been chirping about what a great driver Sage Karam is and how he is most deserving of an IndyCar ride. I’m sorry, but I’m not seeing it. What is it about Karam’s history that indicates he is deserving of another fulltime ride in the NTT IndyCar Series?

While many fans still seem to be impressed with Karam’s driving ability, no one seems as impressed with Sage Karam as Sage Karam. I don’t mind a brash driver. I’ve long thought that IndyCar needs a villain that comes off as brash and unlikable. But there’s a caveat to that. The brash driver needs to have some results to back up his swagger. Otherwise, fans are just left with a cocky jerk with no basis for the cocky part.

To his credit, Sage Karam seemed a little more subdued at Indianapolis this past May. Perhaps being in Sunday’s “Slow Six” humbled him and took him down a few notches to where he realized he wasn’t the second coming of Bobby Unser. When he finally made the race, he seemed genuinely thankful that he had made it. To use the word again – Karam seemed humble for the first time I can remember.

But a change in attitude does not make you the best person for a struggling team to try out. Karam has not turned right in an IndyCar since Mid-Ohio, when he finished twenty-second almost four years ago. What was it that convinced Carlin that he’s the best driver available? One might think that perhaps Karam is the one that brought the SmartStop sponsorship to Carlin. But if you heard Karam on Trackside last night, he explained that it was simply a case of SmartStop expanding into the Toronto area and looking for exposure. It has nothing to do with him driving the car.

Perhaps this is the beginning of a new Sage Karam. Based on his interview last night, it certainly sounded as if he’s grown up. He spoke of wishing he knew what he knows now, when he was making the mistakes of a few years ago. That’s the sound of someone who has matured. He sounded like he knew he was running out of opportunities and wants to make the most of this one. If he can turn this opportunity into something long-term, more power to him. For the first time, last night Sage Karam sounded like someone I could root for.

A few weeks ago, I wrote that maybe Alexander Rossi can become the villain that IndyCar needs. I’ve since read where Rossi is not really that anxious to fill that villain role. If Karam can start getting the results that he desperately needs, I don’t think he would have any problem filling that role.

But I wonder, with all of this said…have we seen the end of Pato O’Ward in IndyCar? I certainly hope not.

George Phillips

Please Note: Since most of the working world (except for me) will be off on the Friday after the Fourth of July, I will have no post here this Friday. There is not much point in writing something and putting it up here, if no one is going to read it. So there will be nothing here on Friday July 5, but I will return on Monday July 8. I hope everyone has a safe and happy Fourth of July. – GP

7 Responses to “A Very Curious Choice”

  1. billytheskink Says:

    – Four drivers that Karam beat for the 2013 Indy Lights championship have made more Indycar starts than he has (Munoz, Chaves, Hawksworth, and Veach). In fact, each of those four drivers has made, or by the end of this season will have made, more than twice as many starts as Karam has.

    – Karam finished on the podium and in the top 5 in Ganassi’s second set of cars at a higher rate than any driver other than Graham Rahal, a group that includes Ryan Briscoe, Charlie Kimball, Max Chilton, and Sebastian Saavedra. In fact, his first 17 starts compare quiet well against Ryan Briscoe’s, and Briscoe was in a Target car much of that time.

    It is fair to not be impressed with what Sage Karam has shown so far as an Indycar driver and fair, if a bit harsh in my opinion, to believe that he has been given a reasonable chance to prove his worth. However, those who fail to see why someone might hold a contrary opinion quite clearly ignore things such as what I have written above.

    I actually do find this to be a very curious choice as well, largely because Karam has been efforting for some time to race outside the 500 and has yet to find a seat. That he put a struggling car into the Indy 500 field while Carlin foundered there perhaps turned some heads down in Florida. That he was chosen over Conor Daly is curious as well, but I am sure there is a very reasonable explanation that will likely never leave Carlin’s shop (Sage may have come cheaper, etc.). I welcome this, because Karam, for all of his warts, has a clear desire to race Indycars and I can appreciate someone with such a desire getting as many chances as they can get.

  2. Yannick Says:

    I’m surprised that Carlin has not chosen a street course specialist for the Toronto round for the #31 car. Since the ride is reportedly fully sponsored, the team could choose whoever they wanted. Carlin looks like they need somebody to help them with car development on the ovals. Karam surely could do that given his experience. It would not surprise me if he were racing for the team again in the other car (of Max Chilton) at one or all of the upcoming ovals. However, if the team chose him based on his oval experience, they must consider him a better development driver than Carlos Munoz who has got the best oval results of any currently avaliable driver.
    I must say it is indeed a surprise to me that Carlin did not choose Conor Daly again for Toronto, in spite of his past successes at street circuits. The fans are unlikely to find out if these drivers were considered.
    I’d rather see Karam in a Dreyer & Reinbold car at Toronto but Karam’s regular team is Indianapolis-only for the time being so it won’t happen this year. Karam probably knows he must look elsewhere if he wants to return to full season competition. Here’s wishing a good racing weekend to this new combination of Karam and Carlin.

    Given the fact that the Carlin cars are now occupied on a race-by-race basis, it would not surprise me if they had a different driver for each remaining race of the season. Hasn’t RC Enerson tested for them prior to the season? Karam could even turn out to be the least surprising choice amongst the drivers who will have run the car at the end of the season.

  3. I typically keep my thoughts of Sage to myself, and I mostly will here as well. I agree with George, I’ve encountered Mr. Karem several times in the paddock and I’ll just say that every single time I’ve walked away unimpressed and probably with a scowl on my face. I did not hear him on Trackside but it does sound like he’s matured and as Billy said I can appreciate someone with the desire to mature and to race IndyCars so I will not close the book on him, but it will be awhile before my mind is fully changed. End of the day it’s another butt on the grid and that’s a positive.

    Genuinely puzzled why Daly keeps getting the cold shoulder. He’s proved his worth with sponsors and on track many times, it is a huge shame and loss that he is not a full-timer on the circuit.

  4. James T Suel Says:

    I have to take Karams side on this. True enough he has not shown as a lot of people though. I dont belive he had a fair chance in Chips team. I belive he has comed down. Dont know if he will ever get the right shot now.

  5. yes.
    the end.

  6. I think Sage has grown up a lot in the last few years and I was impressed with his maturity and genuine emotion at Indianapolis. I do think it odd though that he is The Choice for Toronto as I think his strength is on ovals. Conor has been doing very well and I was hoping he would continue to have that ride till the end of the season.

  7. O’Ward “sensed that he would be the odd man out” although he was the recent Indy Lights champion who had pedaled an Indy car in Sonoma okay?
    He had a million dollars attached to him as the Indy Lights graduate, correct?

    I will always remember “SK Money” in a Lexus coupe brake-checking Katherine Legge … and not winning races.

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