How Race Car Driver Sage KaramStays Sharp at 230 MPH

By Mick Rouse
Photos by Keith Morrison

Sage Karam may only be 23 years old, but he’s been behind the wheel of some variation of a race car since he was four years old. By 2010, the young upstart from Nazareth, Pennsylvania, was suddenly on everyone’s radar, winning just about every race he entered. Less than years later, many were wondering if perhaps we were looking at the future face of IndyCar. (It doesn’t hurt that Karam is blessed with an undeniably handsome face. So handsome, in fact, that he has signed a modeling contract with Wilhelmina.) But in 2015, in what what supposed to be the season that cemented his status for the next decade, Karam found himself party to a number of crashes, garnering a reputation as aggressive by fans and his fellow drivers.

Karam has bounced back-and-forth between full-time racing gigs ever since, including a 3GT Racing stint alongside driving veteran Scott Pruett, but hasn’t been able to find a consistent home to show off his racing abilities. He’s hoping all of that will change with his month’s Indianapolis 500 after securing a ride with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. It’ll be Karam’s first race of 2018, and a high-profile one at that, but a strong showing could go a long way in proving that the he’s still got plenty left in the tank.

 

 

You’ve been behind the wheel of a lot of very fast vehicles in your lifetime. What is the biggest thing you have to prepare yourself for before getting behind the wheel of a race car and driving at those speeds?

I started go-karting when I was four years old, so my whole life has revolved around going fast and high speeds. They always say in racing, if you’re thinking about bad things and you’re thinking about crashing, usually it’s time to move on in the sport or go to a less competitive series. For me, I’ve worked with a sports psychologist since I was about 15 years old, and he’s been a big help. We really work on the mental side, about how I can keep my mind clear going into a race. When I get to a racetrack, it’s a different side of me that comes out.

 

 

How so?

When I’m at home, I’m the talkative one who is laughing and joking. But when I get to a track, a lot of the people who know me really well don’t know where this other side of me comes from. It’s all seriousness. When the helmet’s on, you’ve got to have a clear mind. When you’re thinking about other things, that’s usually when bad things happen. So I do my best to keep my mind clear.

 

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Any other tips you’ve come across from working with a sports psychologist over the years?

I use a lot of visualization. Between the 20 and 40 minutes before a race, I take that time to be by myself and just visualize the race. You know, what I’m going to do once I get out into the race. It’s funny, though, because you can visualize a thousand things of how you think a race start is going to go and then when it actually happens, it never goes the thousand ways you visualized it.

 

You mentioned crashing earlier. That’s obviously something every race car driver experiences at one point or another. How hard is it to get back into a race car after experiencing a crash, though?

They say in IndyCar that there are two types of drivers: Those who have crashed and those who are about to crash. You’ll see guys who are completely fearless, and that was me. I was 19 years old and absolutely fearless when I had my first big accident. I hit the wall pretty good, and when you hit the wall at those speeds, it really rings your bell. You can really tell who is going to be a good driver by the way they come back after a crash. For me, after I hit the wall, I wanted to prove to everyone that I was still going to be the same coming back after a crash. But it’s hard. It really is. It really, really hurts to crash at 230 miles per hour. And sometimes in that same day, you’re going to have to go back into that same corner at 230 miles per hour. So it’s not easy. You’ve got to have a lot of trust in the car, a lot of trust in your team. There are some guys who can’t do it, and that’s what makes the sport so cool. It really thins out the weak from the strong.

 

 

You grew up surrounded by wrestling as much as race car driving. How much did that sport prepare you for the trials and tribulations of racing?

Yeah, my dad wrestled Division I in college. My uncle did, as well. And now they coach two of the best high school teams in Pennsylvania. Wrestling has been in my blood probably longer than racings has. I started both sports at the age of 4, but I went to kindergarten a year late because my parents though I was going to be a big-time wrestler and wanted me to be a bit more mature for my senior year. So wrestling was a huge part of my childhood. It’s also been a huge part of my training. I’ve always said that there is being in shape and then there is being in wrestling shape. I’ve gone from running four to five miles every day in the summer and thinking I’m in shape and then getting on a wrestling mat and completely gassing out. And you don’t understand why, but wrestling just gives you a different workout. You’re using every muscle in your body. Especially your neck muscles, which are huge in racing. So I’ve always thought of my wrestling background as an unfair advantage that not only got me physically ready, but got me mentally ready. It’s such a demanding sport.

 

 

So you’re not currently racing full-time for a team, and a part of that seems to be because of money—the money that goes into bringing sponsors—rather than your racing abilities. How tough is it mentally to know that you’re good enough to go out there and race with the best of them, but to know there is this whole money aspect that is keeping you away from racing full time right now?

It’s hard. It really is. I see guys who I’ve raced my whole life who have full-time rides who I’ve beaten for the majority of my career. That’s obviously difficult. But at the same time, it makes me work harder. It makes me wake up in the morning and say to myself, “What am I going to do today to get me where I need to be?” I don’t look at it as a negative, in all honesty. I look at it positively, that it pushes me to be the best that I can be. And then when I get these opportunities to race at the Indy 500, I know it’s my shot to show everybody.

 

Does that put a lot of pressure on your back?

I think it does add a bit more pressure, but at the same time, I thrive off that and I love that feeling. If I can somehow win this race or finish top three or top five, from there it’ll open up a lot of people’s eyes.

 

 

What do you think is the biggest misconception when it comes to race car drivers?

That we’re not athletes. I think that’s probably the biggest thing. A lot of people say that we just turn left and hit the gas and brakes. They say, “How hard can it be?” But in reality, some of the most physically and mentally drained I’ve been in my life have been after a long race. You’re pulling five, six G’s for a couple seconds each corner. The actual forces being put on your body are pretty immense. It’s one of those sports that not everybody gets to do. Everybody can go and try football, baseball, whatever, but not everybody can just decide one day that they’re going to drive a race car at 200 miles per hour. I think if more people got exposed to being in a race car, they would see how difficult it actually is. Unfortunately, it’s a sport that’s so expensive to do and we don’t have that luxury.

 

You’ve recently started a new venture in the modeling world, signing with Wilhelmina. Has there been any surprises since jumping into that world?

It’s so much tougher than I thought it would be. And it’s so much more cutthroat. I never knew how intense it actually is. Everyday I go into that office, I see how many people are coming in and out, dropping off portfolios, just trying to get signed by an agency like Wilhelmina. And when I did my first shoot, I was with guys who had modeled before and this was the first time I had really been in front of a camera. I had no idea what to do. The intimidation factor was huge. When I first signed my contract, I asked if there was some class I had to take to go learn how to be in front of the camera. They just laughed and said, “No, you’re just going to go out and learn it.”

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