Sage Karam has been speeding around a racetrack since he was seven years. He won 36 national karting championships, won the 2010 US F2000 National Title, five Star Mazda races, and the 2013 Indy Lights championship.
But a tragic incident during the 2015 IndyCar Series season forced him to do something that goes against every driver’s instinctive nature—slow down.
In this CSJ Conversation, Karam talks about his first time at the Indianapolis 500, about the wreck that changed everything, and how Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) and a recommitment to his faith brought him full circle.
Chad Bonham: What do you remember most about your first opportunity to race in the 2014 Indianapolis 500?
Sage Karam: It was my first IndyCar start so I made my debut in the deep end. It was a cool place to debut but definitely the most challenging place. There weren’t really a lot of expectations for me because I was so young. My goal for that race was just to finish the race. Anything else was just icing on the case and we ended up in the top 10. That was the first time I was partnered with Kingdom Racing and it’s been a great partnership ever since. It was a little bit overwhelming. I’d never raced on a stage that big before. The nerves started to creep in when I was sitting in the car on the grid for the first time. I was listing to the pre-race festivities going on. I had flashbacks to me as a kid watching from home and watching from every single place at Indianapolis Motor Speedway—from turn one, from turn two, from turn three, from turn four. Now I was sitting in the driver’s seat and that’s when it hit me. This is really happening. I was about to take the green flag at Indy and I got a little bit nervous. But once the car started, the nerves went away. Race day is pretty cool. We practice all month long with nobody in the bleachers. Dario Franchitti told me, “Don’t look into the bleachers. It’s just another race.” I didn’t understand why he told me not to look into the bleachers, but then me being a 19-year old rookie, I wanted to take it all in and I looked into the bleachers. It’s actually a real crazy feeling. There’s all these people and all these colors and everybody’s moving. It looks like the bleachers are doing a wave. It’s quite interesting. But I had to take it in and it was a really cool experience.
Bonham: How did the next part of your career unfold?
Karam: We went through some tough times. In 2015, I crashed on the first lap and then in 2016 we were running fourth and got into another accident. Then in 2017 I came back and decided not to put any pressure on myself. I just wanted to finish. We were running pretty well in the top 10 and then unfortunately the battery went dead and that took us out of the race. You don’t get less nervous every time you go back. You actually get more nervous because you realize how much the race means. If you don’t do well, you have to wait 365 days to do it again. You think about it more and more during the offseason. So I actually get more nervous about it than I did the first time.
Bonham: Tell me about the circumstances surrounding the 2016 IndyCar race at Pocono.
Karam: That weekend had higher emotions for me than usual. Pocono is 30 minutes from my house. Virtually every family member and friend came to the race. I missed the setup in qualifying and we qualified poorly. But I knew I had a good car for the race. We got up into the top three but then I got a flat tire. I had to pit but fortunately the yellow flag came out so I didn’t lose a lap. I was at the back of the field again and drove my way back up to the lead. I was leading the race with about 20 laps to go and I knew I didn’t have enough fuel it make it to the end. We decided I was just going to push like crazy and open up a big lead and hope for the best. Maybe a yellow would come out and we might be able to make it on fuel. It was going to be a stretch. So I put my head down and put the pedal to the floor. To this day, I don’t really know what happened in turn 1 when I spun. It was a really awkward spin. It was really late in the corner. I was going really fast. I don’t know what happened but the car just got loose with no warning and I couldn’t really do anything. When I crashed, my first thought was to make sure I was okay. I was okay, but I was more bummed out than usual because I knew I had so many people there supporting me. They put me in the ambulance and took me to the infield care center to check me out. From there, my mom met up with me and they took me to the hospital for x-rays. My mom had this look on her face. Something was not right. I asked her what was wrong and she told me happened. I piece of my car had flown up in the air and struck Justin Wilson. She didn’t know the details yet but I knew it wasn’t good. They kept me in the hospital until about midnight. It was the same hospital that Justin was at. I stayed at the hospital with a few other drivers and it wasn’t looking good. I still had on my race suit. I didn’t have any other clothes with me. But after a while, we knew he probably wasn’t going to make it. I went home and couldn’t go to sleep. I sat there with my mom and dad and my manager and just talked about everything. They were trying to tell me it wasn’t my fault, but when you’re 20 years old and things happen like that, all you do is blame yourself in that moment. It took me a while to come to terms with what happened. I had to forgive myself and tell myself there’s nothing I could have done. It was a fateful thing that happened and a weird one and a billion chance.
Bonham: What steps did you take to help you deal with the emotional trauma?
Karam: I had to get some help. I went to a psychologist two times a week. He had worked me before then. His name is Jared Spencer. I would go to his house every Sunday for FCA meetings. I talked to him before the races and after the races. We had a great relationship. He helped get me through it. My friends and family were also there for me. That was my last IndyCar race of the year and it a few months before I got behind the car again.
Bonham: Did you do anything to reach out to Justin Wilson’s family?
Karam: I felt so bad for them. I was there for his brother and we ended up talking a lot. He helped me get through it as well. He was Justin’s best friend. It was tough but we got through it and it’s still stings every now and then. You’ll come across some things that you don’t want to see—a photo of Justin that brings back memories and feelings. But I’ve just got to move forward and keep doing my job.
Bonham: Was it difficult getting back into a race car?
Karam: You want to say that you’re freaked out but that was the last step in helping me get through the situation. I knew I had to do it. I knew I had to prove that I still had it. It helped me come to terms with what had happened at Pocono and made me realize that this is what I want to do with my life. I know it’s a dangerous sport. Obviously I still think about it from time to time, but I’m a professional driver and you’ve got to do your best to put the bad thoughts behind you and move forward.
Bonham: You mentioned going to FCA meetings. How specifically did that help?
Karam: When I was going to FCA every Sunday, we would gather up and meet in the living room and go over a Bible verse and go into depth. Then we’d split into groups and we’d talk about issues we were going through in life and how that related to the verse. I like a lot of the verses that talk about overcoming tragedy and bad times. If you have God, that’s all you need. Psalm 27:1: “The Lord is my light and salvation, whom shall I fear.” That’s always been a powerful one for me. Why should I be scared? Why should I be afraid? If I have God with me, that’s all I really need to get through bad times and to pick me up when I’m not feeling my best and to keep pushing. He’s always going to have my back no matter what. He’s always going to have my best interest. I always give God the glory. He always has a plan. I try to look at everything with a positive outlook.
Bonham: How has getting closer to God changed your outlook on racing?
Karam: I’ve had a lot of success in racing. I credit all of it to Him. He’s been with through the good and He’s been through the lowest of lows. The great think about having God in your life and being able to connect with Him in prayer is that it doesn’t matter where you’re at in the day, it doesn’t matter what time it is—you can always connect. If you’re alone and you’re having a bad day, you can just connect with Him. He’s right there. You can’t always have your best friend by your side all day long. But you can always connect with God and He’s always going to listen.
Bonham: What has been your mindset moving forward?
Karam: This is my life. This is my profession. If you’re dwelling on the bad, you’re never going to move forward. If you can’t move forward, you’re never going to reach the potential you need to reach in this sport. I knew I had to move on. I knew I had to move forward. I knew I had to put it in the back of my mind and focus on the present day and the future. I pray all the time and so far things are working out for me. I’m doing my absolute to move on and now I’m doing my best to be the best person I can be and the best race car driver I can be. I give God all the glory.
To keep track of Sage’s racing career, visit his official website at sagekaram.com.
(Photos: SageKaram.com; Kingdom Racing; Chad Bonham)