The competition's fierce this year in the Star Mazda Championship presented by Goodyear, but Sage Karam has managed to fight his way near the top of the standings. The Andretti Autosport driver (and Nazareth, PA native) has won his last two races in the series, and is poised to challenge for the Mazda Road to Indy champion's scholarship. As an INDYCAR Nation exclusive, Sage agreed to answer our questions about his season, working with the Andrettis, his progression as a driver, and much more!
Sage, welcome, and thanks for the interview. Things are definitely heating up in Star Mazda, aren’t they? Are things in the championship battle as evenly matched as they seem from the fan point of view?
SK: The battle gets tougher every race. The drivers in the series are some of the best, not only in America, but also in the world, for this level of competition. I mean, if you wanna be a bullfighter, you gotta fight some bulls, right? These guys are tough and nobody is letting up. I can’t speak enough about the value of a good setup because the Mazda engines are just so close. Everybody is looking for every little edge.
Star Mazda has this great fight going on between drivers such as yourself and Connor de Phillippi, Tristan Vautier, Nick Andries, Martin Scuncio and a few others. How well do you know those guys, and how much do you hang out?
SK: Well, at various stages on the developmental ladder, I competed with de Phillippi (Connor), Andries (Nick) and Scuncio (Martin). We are all generally friendly on race weekends, but once the green drops, it’s all business and making friends are the last thing on our minds. But, the element of respect is always present on and off the track.
Talk a little bit about growing up where you did, and how it impacted your racing career.
SK: Sage: Obviously, growing up across the street from Mario, Michael and Marco Andretti has a way of keeping you humble. (laughing) I mean, those guys have done it all. With Michael being my team owner, there’s nothing I can do or say that he hasn’t heard or done before. Michael can relate to every stage of my career. But coming out of Nazareth just doesn’t get you a seat in an Andretti Autosport car. Michael has made me earn every bit of my position with the team.
What’s it like working with Andretti Autosport? How much do you work with the team in terms of looking at a career path through the INDYCAR ranks?
SK: I was the youngest winner of the Skip Barber Shootout of 52 entrants when I was 13. I entered the National series with only two regional races under my belt. Many questioned my parents for starting me in Nationals too young with not enough experience, but by the end of season I was winning races and setting track records (Lime Rock). My manager and sponsor, Mr. Michael Fux (CEO of Comfort Revolution) works closely with Michael Andretti on my racing. They decided that competing in the new USF2000 series with Andretti Autosport was the way to go. Michael (Andretti) started a team and we won the championship and the $350,000 Mazda Road to Indy prize.
We moved into the Star Mazda Championship series, again some say too early, but I think we are doing fine. (Note: Sage Karam is not only the youngest in the Star Mazda series, but also younger than any driver in its feeder USF2000 series). Michael Fux decided to put me in the hands of Michael Andretti again with a new Star Mazda program. Other teams told me we were making a mistake because figuring out the Star Mazda car would take a lot of time and I wouldn’t be able to focus on driving. I believe it has made me a better driver.
Working with the professionals at AA is all I know. The team has the same desire to win as I do. Wanting to win the Star Mazda Championship is an everyday thing for me. Some want to be a champion today, some tomorrow; with us, it’s every minute, every day. Honestly, it’s the last thing I think about before I go to sleep, and the first thing I think about when I wake up. Getting to the IZOD IndyCar Series is my ultimate mission of course.
You’re really into wrestling right now as well, right? What lessons and benefits do you take from that to driving, and vice-versa?
SK: Wrestling in the Lehigh Valley is like racing in Indianapolis. We have Olympic gold medalists, national champions and the former head Olympic wrestling coach right down the street. So, I see daily the dedication, sacrifice and mental toughness it takes to succeed on the world-class level as a wrestler. If everything is equal in the car, it’s the attitude and work ethic that I get from wrestling that gives me an advantage. The thing about racing that helps the wrestling is that racing minimizes the challenge of beating your opponent. In racing, I have to beat everybody on the track to win, but in a wrestling match, I only have to beat the guy in front of me. Sounds simple huh? (laughing)
We’ve talked to several of the Mazda Road to Indy drivers before, and it sounds like everyone’s pretty excited about the scholarships for the champions of Star Mazda, Firestone Indy Lights, etc. It looks like it’s going to be a tight battle in Star Mazda to grab that sponsorship; how much discussion is there in the paddock over that scholarship, and what do you think it means for the level of competition?
SK: My ability to compete, whether it was karting or cars, has always depended upon the generosity of others. My mom is a nurse and my dad is a teacher. Michael Fux and Comfort Revolution have been a blessing to my family and me. With his support, I have been able to focus on my driving and not have to concentrate as much on generating funding on a race-to race basis. Michael Andretti understands my situation and works wonders with keeping me in the car. Winning the Mazda Road to Indy scholarship makes it a whole lot easier to keep me on the track. Mazda has got to be thanked for what they are doing for young drivers and the ladder series. I am sure the other drivers in the series feel the same pressure of having to do well to win it. It’s (the scholarship prize) kinda like the elephant in the room; it’s there, everybody sees it, but nobody wants to talk about it or deal with it. I guess the best way to eat an elephant, from what I’ve been told, is bite by bite, or in my case, race by race.
Looking back at your career, you obviously had a great year in 2010 in USF2000. How do you feel you’ve improved as a driver since then?
SK: I learned the basics of car setup relating to mechanical and aero grip in the USF2000. I also learned how to communicate with a professional race engineer. Giving the engineer the correct feedback is important. Last year, I had my best friend, Zach Veach, as my teammate. I use to just drive by the feel of my seat until Zach showed me the value of data. This year, I don’t have a teammate. At first, I looked at that as a negative, but have since seen the value in it. I have to be totally responsible for developing the setups. I have to figure things out quickly on my own and it has forced me to be a more valuable driver.
The biggest difference from last year, was I use to be able to drive around problems or pitch a poor handling car into the turns to make up for setup. This year, smoothness, tire conservation and setups are king.
We often hear people talk about drivers and their confidence on the track. How important is confidence in your profession, and how do you maintain it after a mistake or rough outing?
SK: When my first two Star Mazda races didn’t go too well, my confidence was never rattled, believe it or not. Michael Andretti never put pressure on me and, in fact, he told me that he knew the tough weekends would happen. But he never sacrificed the expectations for me. I was never out-to-lunch at either race, but I made poor decisions while in P3 and P4. I believe confidence needs to be earned, it’s not like you wake up one morning and are all of a sudden confident. I try to be a student of the sport and have seen a lot of Senna’s videos and quotes. His confidence was amazing. I remember one of his quotes, “If you see a gap, and you don’t go for it, you are no longer a racing driver.” That takes confidence and I live by that. I always want to get into the car knowing that my team and I have outworked everybody else. My manager, Michael Fux, offered me support and assurance after those first two races. He told me he has “total confidence in me.” It’s that kind of support that keeps a driver’s confidence tough.
OK, time for the lightning round, where we learn a bit more about you!
Favorite kind of movie?
SK: Comedy for sure. Stuff like Jackass and Talladega Nights.
SK: Hip Hop. Kid Cudi.
What would we be likely to find you watching on TV?
SK: Pawn Stars, Storm Chasers, Jersey Shore, and Worlds Deadliest Catch.
If you could own any one vehicle, what would it be?
SK: Mazda builds an amazing car and they understand performance. I’d like the Mazda RX-8 R3 in Velocity Red Mica to match my Star Mazda racecar. Maybe with two pearl white stripes down the middle. It’s the same engine in my racecar too!
Favorite IZOD IndyCar Series driver (and why)?
SK: Marco. We use to race karts at the same track when I was 4 years old. I’ve always admired how he handles the pressure and attention of being an Andretti.
Favorite race course/track?
SK: Indy. But favorite track that I’ve raced on would be St. Pete. It’s a major presentation and the whole atmosphere makes being a racecar driver feel really special. There are a lot of great outdoor restaurants that you can walk too also.
Best racing memory?
SK: Winning the USF2000 Championship series was awesome, but winning at Iowa this year, the same day as Marco, was unforgettable.
Lastly, where do hope to see yourself in 2012?
SK: I am really glad that I don’t make those decisions. (grinning) I just hope I am racing.
To follow Sage this season and beyond, check out his website (www.sagekaram.com), or on Twitter (@sagekaram88).
Zachary Houghton runs www.indycaradvocate.com, which features regularly-updated INDYCAR, IZOD IndyCar Series, and Mazda Road to Indy interviews, commentary, and more. You can find him on Twitter at @indycaradvocate, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.