A Curious Choice by Dreyer & Reinbold

The 107th Running of the Indianapolis 500 is still almost six months away, but the dominos continue to fall as available seats continue to fill up. One such seat was filled a couple of weeks ago, and I’ll admit it caught me by surprise.

Sage Karam has nine Indianapolis 500 starts on his resume. Eight of those starts were with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing (DRR), a one-time fulltime team in the NTT IndyCar Series that has been scaled back to appearances at IMS since 2013. DRR ran Karam as a nineteen year-old rookie in the 2014 Indianapolis 500, where he turned heads with a ninth-place finish. The following year, he shared driving duties in the fulltime No. 8 Chip Ganassi entry; splitting time with Sebastian Saavedra. Karam and Ganassi parted ways at the end of the 2015 season for reasons other than his on-track performance, and we’ll just leave it at that.

Since 2016, Karam has been a regular with DRR at the Indianapolis 500. His best finish for the team in eight starts was in 2021, when he finished seventh. He has had JR Hildebrand and Santino Ferrucci as teammates for a few of those years, but Karam was always the constant – until now.

In mid-November, we learned that Sage Karam had been told he would not be returning to Dreyer & Reinbold. Instead, they have forged a relationship with Cusick Motorsports and driver Stefan Wilson.

I normally don’t seek out controversy, but what I am about to say will sound like I am – because some will silently agree with me, while others will find my opinion somewhat unpopular.

While he is widely popular, Stefan Wilson is a marginal driver, at best. He is the brother of Justin Wilson, who was fatally injured in a crash at Pocono that was initiated (ironically) by Sage Karam.

People complain that Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan continue to hang on and prolong their careers, thus preventing young and very qualified drivers from getting rides. Yet they have no problem with a very mediocre Stefan Wilson annually taking up a seat in the Indianapolis 500 that could go toward jump-starting the career of a much more deserving driver.

I have been told that you will not meet a nicer person than Stefan Wilson in the IndyCar paddock. When he qualified for the 2016 Indianapolis 500, less than a year after his brother’s tragic death – I thought it was a wonderful story. He had fulfilled his own dream while perpetuating his late brother’s legacy. Two years later, he actually led four laps from Lap 193-196 before having to dive into the pits for fuel creating another great story.

But being the nicest guy in the paddock doesn’t count for much in fielding a car for the Indianapolis 500. For the last couple of years, Wilson has become little more than a field-filler, in my opinion – starting twenty-eighth and finishing thirty-third in 2021, and starting thirty-third and finishing twenty-seventh this past May.

Granted, it’s unfair to judge any driver under the circumstances of his 2022 entry. In order to fill the field at thirty-three, Cusick Motorsports put together a partnership that also involved DragonSpeed and AJ Foyt’s team. They thrashed a car together that had little track time before qualifying. Wilson was credited with qualifying in the thirty-third starting spot, but he officially posted no time because his qualifying run was incomplete. He probably deserves some credit for nursing that creation around all day and still running at the end. Wilson was not even the last car running; that honor went to Dalton Kellett.

The younger Wilson’s record at the 500 is not awful, but it certainly is not eye-popping. Alexander Rossi won the 2016 on fumes and Wilson came within four laps of doing the same thing two years later. Rossi is now in Indianapolis 500 lore, while Wilson is little more than an afterthought. That’s how cruel fate can be sometimes.

But getting back to Dreyer & Reinbold’s decision for the 2023 Indianapolis 500 – this is a perfect example of money having more of a say, than results on the track. I’ve never considered myself a huge Sage Karam fan. However, I think Karam is a much better and accomplished Indianapolis 500 driver than Stefan Wilson. But Wilson continues to get rides for the 500, when there are far more qualified drivers available and sitting on the sidelines.

As I said earlier, I will receive flack for this opinion from some for throwing shade at the popular not-so-young little brother to the late Justin Wilson, but I also know many will agree with me, even if they won’t publicly acknowledge it. I have been unimpressed with Wilson’s driving ability for a while, but I kept silent about it – not wanting to ruffle the feathers of his many fans. I figured why stir things up, over a very popular driver who lost his brother to racing a few years ago. But after seeing Sage Karam brushed aside in favor of a driver whose best finish in the Indianapolis 500 was fifteenth in 2018 – I felt it was time to publicly question, why?

We all know that there is more to landing a lower tier Indianapolis 500 ride, than driving ability. It is just as dependent on a driver’s ability to raise money, as it is to turn left with their foot on the floor. But it bothers me to see cash being the overriding factor with Dreyer & Reinbold, as they end a long-term relationship with a more proven commodity like Sage Karam. I found this to be a very curious decision by DRR, but I guess I’m just being a little too naïve.

George Phillips

11 Responses to “A Curious Choice by Dreyer & Reinbold”

  1. Money talks, ……………. I’ll bet there are numerous more stories of highly talented drivers who sat on the sidelines because a less talented driver hooked the team up with more cash.

    “King” Hiro Matsushita is a perfect example. He is the grandson to the founder of Panasonic.

    Lance Stroll in F1. His dad finally bought an F1 team for him to be a back-marker driver.

  2. This won’t be popular to say but Stefan Wilson is a nobody who has ridden on the coattails of his beloved brother for years. (Yes, before someone says it, I know that I too am a nobody and I don’t really care) He has the popularity a driver like Karam or Ferrucci should have for their aggressiveness. It just proves how fickle race fans are, we should want to see these drivers going for it. Instead, though, we settle for hacks like Wilson and Daly. I guess someone will have to be 25th on back in May though….

    • billytheskink Says:

      It is an interesting thing when a middling driver finds a wealthy patron when there are more accomplished and/or more promising drivers sitting on the sidelines, especially when they don’t have a family connection or nationalist connection to the driver. Not that I don’t understand the power of relationships and sponsorships, but it is odd that so many of these patrons don’t seem to care too much about results, or lack thereof. Sometimes the patrons eventually move on from the driver and stay in the sport (see Veach and Gainbridge) of course, but more often it seems that sponsor ducks out with the driver (Saavedra and AFS).

      Rich patrons have been a thing in racing since day one, of course, but they really did seem more interested in results and identifying talent back in the day than they do now.

  3. Apples to Oranges and Horses to Racecars. This years Kentucky Derby Winner was a 80-1 longshot with no chance in hell of winning. That is why you race.

  4. billytheskink Says:

    I will say that you are not the only one I have seen expressing this opinion about Wilson, George, especially after the announced departure of Karam from D&R.

    Ideally, there would be a car for both and Wilson and Karam could settle their worthiness for the field of 33 on qualifying weekend. But we know the sport runs on money, as disappointing as that is sometimes, and that Wilson and Cusick are bringing some to D&R (which appears to have lost longtime backers like IPL and Wix).

  5. When it comes to dollars and sense in IndyCar, I think there are far bigger travesties out there than Reinbold switching out Sage Karam for Steph Wilson. I pretty much see that one as a lateral move. No, I’d start with the defending Indy Lights champion, Linus Lundqvist not getting a shot to move up to IndyCar. Remember this when we see what bums get hired in the remaining seats at Coyne, Ganassi, and Juncos. Money over talent.

  6. To me this is more of a backmarker replacing a backmarker at the 500. It doesn’t even move my needle in todays economic climate of money talking.

  7. Stephen has had I think ten races in eleven years so it is difficult to gauge whether he is anything more than an also ran. I give him credit for hanging in there and raising the cash to race. With 33 entries there will always be also rans. Always have been but let’s give the guy some credit for being there.

  8. I guess Stefan Wilson’s reputation as a driver would be better if he had focussed on being a road/street circuit specialist instead of an Indianapolis-only driver, given his racing background in previous series.
    But there was no business model for this, and for Indianapolis-only drivers, there is one.
    Racing against the IRL fields of old, he would probably be pretty solid and compare favorably, given these fields were originally mostly comprised of Indianapolis-only teams, such as Dreyer and Reinbold.
    So this move by the team definitely fits their legacy. I would love to see them do well. But how they structure their racing campaign is based on what they consider “doing well”. They may well be better off with a fully funded effort that results in a net gain regardless of on track performance at this stage in their career as a team. Their previous driver Sage Karam surely would have given them that good on-track performance because he is a really good oval driver in these kind of cars. If there is a team still looking for a driver who can get them a Top 10 result at Indianapolis, Sage Karam is your guy. It seems like Sage was rushed ito this sport at too young of an age and then not given the time necessary to mature before having to settle for part time rides. He may not be a road racer in these kind of cars but on ovals, he is really good.

    What is happening with the 2nd Dreyer and Reinbold car? Is there going to be one in 2023?

  9. I always liked Sage Karam and enjoyed watching his aggressiveness and take no “stuff” attitude. I know he wrecked a lot of cars at Ganassi but he was so young and raw that was expected. Would love to know more about why Chip cut him loose. I remember it being attributed to the crash damage but if it was more than that I would love to hear about it.

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