Sage Karam planned to keep it simple, just a bike ride this week through the first turn at Pocono Raceway. An easy outing, no reporters around to ask questions, no fans wondering how he’s feeling in his return to his hometown track.
Seven years ago, Karam triggered a wreck at the tri-oval track that killed IndyCar driver Justin Wilson and sunk Karam so deep into a depression that he doubted he would compete again. On his last visit to the track, his friend Robert Wickens was paralyzed in another IndyCar accident.
Pocono conjures memories of tragedy for the 27-year-old Karam. He wanted to go alone to remember -- but also reflect on his own, challenging journey.
“I’ve taken the necessary time I needed to take before I could properly go there,” Karam said. “If I had the opportunity to race there before, I don’t know that I would have been ready. If I’m not ready, I’m not going to do it. I don’t want to put myself at harm or put anybody else at harm. I feel like now I’m able to maturely go there and do it.”
Karam was a rising star in IndyCar and considered a potential face of the series when a seemingly simple spin as he led the August 2015 race shot his car into the wall. Wilson was struck in the head by a piece of debris from Karam’s car that had bounced along the raceway surface. The 37-year-old British driver died a day later at a nearby hospital.
Karam was 20 years old and blamed himself for the freak accident. Riddled by guilt, Karam moped around his house. He couldn’t sleep or eat and soon lost his ride driving for Chip Ganassi.
He not only couldn’t shake the fatality, Karam’s career never reached the heights expected after that race. He made sporadic starts in IndyCar and took the wheel for rallycross and sports cars races. He eventually landed in NASCAR in 2021 and raced in the Xfinity and Truck series. He’ll make his fifth start of the season Saturday in NASCAR’s second-tier series race at Pocono.
It’s still his hometown track. The Nazareth, Pennsylvania, native, who now lives with his wife in nearby Easton, has prepped himself for an emotional return. And he has backup.
“Everybody that I need around me will be there,” Karam said. “Everybody that’s been my biggest support group from these last seven years is going to be at this race because it’s in our backyard.”
His father, Jody, helped Sage reconnect with a sports psychologist and got the former high school wrestler back involved in the sport as a coach. Karam eventually found the right marketing agency that offered emotional comfort and landed him a NASCAR ride with Alpha Prime Racing.
“My son took on way too much responsibility for that accident,” Jody Karam said. “He self-imposed a lot of pain on himself and blame. I admire the way he matured and worked through it. He didn’t do it alone.”
Slowly, Karam got his life in order.
“What I’ve realized is what we do is a very dangerous sport,” he said. “It was a freak thing. A complete accident. I’ve just realized that. When you’re young, you don’t realize those things right away. You don’t realize there was nothing you could have done.”
Karam will race the Indy road course later this month while the rest of his NASCAR schedule is undetermined. Karam knows the scouting report on a full-time move to stock cars is grim: Danica Patrick, Dario Franchitti and Sam Hornish Jr. are among the open-wheel winners over the last 25 years who failed to find steady success in the bump-and-run world of NASCAR.
Born to race open wheel, Karam said the transition from IndyCar to stock cars “wasn’t as massive as I thought it was going to be.” But that comes with a caveat, as Karam only made 25 career starts in IndyCar, and six times his lone start each season was the Indianapolis 500 (he finished 23rd in May). Karam made a career-high 12 starts in 2015 and never again received a serious offer for a full-time ride.
“There’s nothing like driving an Indy car,” Karam said. “The speed of an Indy car, the grip of an Indy car. Every time I go to the Speedway and get there every May, I come in and I always take my helmet off and I look at my wife, I’ll just be like, yeah. Nothing comes close to that feeling of driving an Indy car around Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But what I love about the NASCAR stuff is just the actual racing aspect of it. I really do enjoy the aggression, that style of racing. More the pureness of it. Not really a lot of technology. There’s no buttons and stuff.”
The Alpha Prime team, owned by Tommy Joe Martins, has churned through a slew of drivers this season, from Karam to Kaz Grala to Rajah Caruth. Karam got dragged into the NASCAR rivalry muck following a major dust-up with Xfinity driver Noah Gragson at Road America. NASCAR fined Gragson $35,000 for intentionally wrecking Karam last month.
Karam has enjoyed stock cars so much, he now says he wants to race in the Cup Series.
“My No. 1 goal in life is to win the Indianapolis 500,” he said. “But my focus has completely shifted to stock cars.”
Karam found inspiration in perseverance from his father. Jody Karam, the wrestling coach at Easton High School, has suddenly developed a knack for trying to help save lives. His assistant wrestling coach collapsed in April during a jump-rope drill and stopped breathing.
“He’s laying there, dead. No pulse, nothing,” Jody said. “I start giving him CPR for four or five minutes, he started breathing again just as first responders arrived on the scene.”
He saved one life, and may save another. Jody is set to donate a kidney to help a friend and early champion of Sage’s karting days who helped fund his early racing career. Jody Karam, who declined to name the man, citing privacy, should undergo the procedure within two months.
His son celebrated his one-year wedding anniversary Saturday with his wife, Abby, and the relationship has steadied a young man who once dubbed himself SK$, had a “prom” at IMS and was an easy prank target inside IMS by his veteran teammates. Karam met his future wife, a kindergarten teacher, in the years following the 2015 accident.
“She’s seen the aftermath of what happened and what I was dealing with,” he said. “She kind of saw the growth and the positives that came from me growing up and maturing. Recently, I’ve been more open to talking about it and she’s been around for those conversations that I’ve had. I don’t know where I’d be if I didn’t meet her when I did.”
She was the shoulder to lean on Karam needed to push through.
Karam has met Wilson’s young daughters and has remained friendly with the late driver’s brother, IndyCar driver Stefan Wilson, all of which has helped him forgive himself.
Karam has long said he needed to conquer Pocono to make peace with the track and truly move on from that awful weekend. At last, he gets that chance.