Sage Karam on Toronto: 'I want to go in and show I belong'

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Sage Karam sounds like a seasoned NTT IndyCar Series veteran when looking at his career and his much-anticipated next opportunity to race.

Karam is just 24 years old, but he has experienced so much since skipping his high school prom in 2014 to make his series debut in the Indianapolis 500. He hasn’t raced on the downtown streets of Toronto since 2013, when he was in Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires, and he couldn’t be more excited to have a ride for Sunday’s Honda Indy Toronto in Carlin’s No. 31 Chevrolet with SmartStop Self Storage as a sponsor.

It’s another chance to prove himself worthy of more in the series.

“It’s one of those opportunities where I want to go in and show I belong in INDYCAR,” Karma said Carlin's announcement last week. “It’s the only series in the world I want to be racing in. That’s how it’s always been when I was growing up, I’ve wanted to be an INDYCAR driver.”

Click it: Honda Indy Toronto entry list

Karam has made six consecutive Indy 500 starts, his best finish ninth as a 19-year-old rookie, but finding steady work since then has been a challenge. He has had just 11 other series starts outside of Indianapolis with a career-best result of third at Iowa Speedway for Chip Ganassi Racing in 2015.

This will be the first time since that year he has made more than one start in a season. So many times he thought he had sponsorship lined up, then it didn’t pan out.

“I’d get my hopes up, then all of a sudden at the last minute it would fall through,” he said. “I’ve been kind of knocked down a lot of times. It’s been a rough road to get another race after the Indy 500 each year. I feel like I’ve been waiting so long for an opportunity like this. I’m really hungry and just ready to get after it.”

The 2013 champion in Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires has driven in various other series to stay active, and he’s also found the benefit of competing in iRacing, also known as simulation or sim racing.

Karam has relied upon sim racing to help him prepare for the real thing in the past, most notably before racing on the streets of Detroit four years ago. Because Toronto’s circuit isn’t on iRacing, he has been prepping by sim racing at Detroit. He went to Charlotte to get on a simulator before racing at Detroit, where in his first practice session he was second on the grid.

“That’s something that shows that sims really do work,” he said.

But Toronto is different.

“I remember most of the course, but the last section of the track has changed since then so I haven’t been on the new layout,” he said. “Toronto, from what I remember, is super bumpy with a lot of asphalt to concrete transitions. I know they’ve done some repaving.

“There’s going to be stuff I have to relearn. Most of the course layout I know, but I’ve never driven it in INDYCAR or in this body work era. It’s definitely going to be a tall task to learn.”

Where sim racing was once considered just a training tool, he has increased his participation and become quite competitive.

“Last year, there was an event called the Porsche Sim Racing Summit,” Karam said. “It was basically a two-week event on the server where you could turn as many laps as you wanted and the fastest 30 guys of this event qualified to go to Germany to the Porsche headquarters. It was the best of the best in the world in sim racing. I got really, really dedicated to making this event and I made it. I think I ended up 23rd overall.

“I actually just qualified for another event in Germany later this summer. I take sim racing pretty seriously and iRacing is growing constantly. They’re starting to make championships that have pretty good prize money. I enjoy it. I love it. But obviously I want to be racing real cars rather than being in my bedroom on the sim.”

Karam’s busiest year was 12 starts for Ganassi in 2015. In addition to Iowa, he was fifth at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., that year.

“I’m by no means old,” he said. “I still have a lot of time to figure this thing out. It would help out a lot with a good result at Toronto, I think.

“I’ve never even had a full season under my belt yet. I want to get a few races under my belt this season. That would be the goal, have a good race at Toronto and hopefully it leads to more races. I want to be full time in the series.”

He sounds like a wiser, older Sage when reflecting on his time with Ganassi, one of the series’ powerhouse teams.

“When I was racing for Ganassi in 2015, I was just very, very young,” he said. “I wish I could go back and have an opportunity like that again, knowing what I know now about racing and Indy cars and just being older and more mature. I just know so much more now about racing. It was hard being that young going into a team like Ganassi. If I was able to get a year or two under my belt, things could be a lot different now.

“I take a lot of positives away from it as well. I learned a lot there. And I’m continuing to learn. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a great team like Dreyer & Reinbold Racing to stick with me the last five years or so and field me in the Indy 500 and keep me on the map. You never know where the future could go for me.

"I’ve just been staying busy racing all different types of cars, but INDYCAR is where I want to be and I’m trying to get any opportunity I can.”

The Honda Indy Toronto begins with practice Friday at 11:05 a.m. ET. Sunday's 85-lap race will be shown live on NBCSN at 3 p.m.

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