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.