Sage Karam, who was a semifinalist for SportsKid of the Year in 2010, is now a development driver on the Chip Ganassi Racing Team. Next month, he will start his second Indianapolis 500. (Last year, when he was only 19, he finished ninth.) He sat down with SI Kids to talk about being a professional racecar driver.
I read that your dad, Jody, always wanted to race and he got you interested in racing. Did you ever expect that you would have this much success?
I always wanted to believe that I would be successful. Not so many people make it to my level — it is a long shot. I knew it was going to be tough. But I had my dad’s support. He was [legendary driver] Mario Andretti’s fitness trainer, so I got to see behind the scenes of being a racecar driver, which started my love of the sport.
Did you always love the sport?
What I liked most about racing is that it was different from what the other kids in my school were doing. I was going all around the country racing almost every weekend. I missed a lot of school days, which was tough.
Do you play other sports to train to race?
I’ve played baseball, football, and I wrestled through high school, so I was doing four sports at once. From each sport you take something away and apply it to other sports. A lot of drivers are one-sport athletes, and I am different because I did more than one sport. I think it has given me an advantage over other racers.
Which was your favorite sport?
Well, obviously racing, but from the others I really enjoyed football. I was sad to give that up. I kept up wrestling partly because my dad was a wrestling coach and my family was really into wrestling.
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What kind of training do you do with your team?
Charlie [Kimball], Scott [Dixon], and I are all on a team together and live in Indianapolis. We all train at the same gym. I enjoy it because we all get to push each other.
What is your pre-race routine?
First, I have some media stuff to do and then an autograph session and a drivers’ meeting. And then it calms down, and I get some time to myself. During that time I like to relax, put my headphones on, and visualize what the race might be like. Usually I visualize the race 100 times in my head, but it never plays out any of those ways. Then I go out to the grid, and like other drivers, I have rituals. I do everything right-side first. So I put my right shoe on first, right glove on first, right radio headphone on first, and then get in on the right side of the car. It feels weird if I don’t do it like that.
Do you have any role models in or out of racing?
I’ve had a few. My two biggest were [drivers] Dario Franchitti and Dan Wheldon. I like Dario because he was really methodical and technical, and I wanted to be like that when I got to the bigger cars. Now he is my coach. It is really cool that he was my role model and now he is my coach. I like Dan because even though he was really good on the track, he was also really good off the track with fans and kids. He always made time for me when I was a kid. I know how much that meant to me, so I want to try to be like that. I want people to know me as a good driver and a good guy off the track.
Do you ever get nervous before a race?
Yes, I do. I think nerves are a big part of racing. They are always going to be there no matter how long I race. I think the most nervous I ever got was before the Indianapolis 500 when I was sitting in the car actually waiting to go. I wasn’t too nervous the night before or the morning of the race, but when I was sitting in the car about to go, it was really nerve-wracking. Once the car starts up I know it is showtime and my nerves go away. I get in a little zone and start driving.
How long does the process of getting ready take?
Just to get all my gear on takes about five to 10 minutes. Then I get in the car. I have so many seatbelts — I can’t belt myself in, so I need someone else to help me, and that takes another five minutes. While I am sitting and waiting to start sometimes I listen to the national anthem, and other times I wait for a fly-over. Then I wait for “start your engines.” It can take twenty minutes from when I start getting ready to when I actually start moving, so I can get nervous for a while.
What does it feel like to be in the car and race? Can you compare it to something that people who have never raced before can relate to?
It is an adrenaline rush for sure. The fastest I have gone was in qualifying at Indianapolis — I went into turn one at 241 miles per hour. It is hard to explain the feeling. I can feel the wind, and if the wind changes, you can feel that. I have to have a large amount of concentration in the car. It is hard to explain how focused I need to be because at 200-and-some miles per hour, if I am not focused and something happens, it happens very quickly.
Do you like other fast-paced activities?
Yes. I always liked going fast. I grew up having a dirt bike and four-wheelers, and I always tried to go as fast as I could on those without hurting myself. I also think racers know limits better than most people because we know how dangerous cars can be. The only time I do not want to go as fast as I can is when I am in a normal car.
Do you play racing video games? Do you use car games to help you with your driving?
I do like racing and sports games. I also have a simulator with a steering wheel and pedals that I use to practice racing at a new track so that when I get to the real track, I have an idea what the layout is. It helps my mental preparation.
Do you have any funny racing stories?
I am on a team with one of the biggest practical jokers in motorsports. I came in one day, and I was tired and fell asleep in the engineering lounge. When I woke up, I checked my Instagram account, and the joker had posted a picture of me sleeping with my mouth wide open. Another time, when I got on an airplane, the flight attendant announced on the loud speaker to all the passengers, “Can Sage Karam ring his call button? Your Mom just said that you forgot your SpongeBob pajamas at home.” My teammates do stuff like this because I am rookie. I am sure there are going to more funny things in the future. I can’t get them back because I am a rookie, and I need them on my good side.
Photos: Chris O'Meara/AP Photo (Karam), Dante A. Ciampaglia (Karam and Riley), Robert Laberge/Getty Images (car)