By Cole Cusumano
When Sage Karam takes the green flag and makes it through Turn 1 at Pocono Raceway on July 23, it will mark the culmination of an agonizing road to recovery.
In 2015, the Pennsylvania native was leading the field with 20 to go at the tricky triangle as one of the highest touted talents in IndyCar when disaster struck. Karam’s No. 8 snapped loose entering the first corner and viciously tracked up the racing surface into the outside wall at 230 mph.
Shrapnel from the impact was vaulted into the air and strung along the asphalt, spurring a freak accident that would change his life forever. Justin Wilson, a three-time IndyCar winner and father of two, was struck in the helmet by a piece of debris from the incident and would end up losing his life.
After nearly seven years, Karam has come to terms as best he could with what transpired that day and will seek closure by competing in the NASCAR Xfinity Series at Pocono.
“It’s the first time back racing since my accident there in 2015, so I’m pretty excited to get back,” Karam told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “It’s obviously going to be emotional, but in a good way. It’s been a build-up of years of wanting to go race there again, and now actually getting the opportunity to go race there is pretty cool.
“All I want to do that day is finish the race. As long as we can finish the race and have a good day doing it, I think that would be a win for us.”
Understandably, getting in the right state of mind to return to a place of insurmountable trauma took time. After all, how could a 20-year-old living under a microscope and still maturing successfully deal with a burden no one should ever have to endure?
Karam’s family fully invested into his passion, often living paycheck-to-paycheck while he chased his dreams. Following the tragedy, a continued career in racing looked bleak, as the 2013 Indy Lights Series Champion fell into a deep depression and couldn’t help but blame himself for what transpired on that darkest of days.
Someone who’s experienced the pitfalls and progress Karam has made over the past seven years is his father Jody.
“The return to Pocono is more stressful for our family, because we know what Sage has been through,” Jody said. “If I didn’t think my son was ready, I would do everything in my power to prevent this return from happening.
“End of the day he is a professional and respect for his fellow drivers safety is an essential part of racing. Sage understands and respects that aspect of racing and he would never enter a race if he didn’t feel comfortable being able to compete safely at the best of his ability physically, mentally and emotionally.”
Two of the most influential people in Karam’s life throughout his recovery were sports psychologist Dr. Jarrod Spencer and his wife of one-year, Abby. However, a bulk of his healing derives from wrestling.
Karam is an assistant wrestling coach to his father at Easton High School, which has played an instrumental role in building up his mental composure. He doesn’t see himself as a traditional “technician” coach, but rather someone students could turn to for advice both in sport and life.
Not only has coaching high school wrestling helped improve Karam’s mental and physical stamina, it was one of the main reasons he left his room following the dark places he went to after the wreck at Pocono. He felt coaching gave him a purpose.
In the end, Karam knew he couldn’t give up on racing completely. Remember: this is the same person who skipped his high school senior prom to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. Nearly seven years, 12 IndyCar and nine NASCAR starts later, he’s finally comfortable returning to the sight of his greatest haunt with Alpha Prime Racing.
“My experience with Sage has just been really positive the whole time,” Alpha Prime owner and driver Tommy Joe Martins told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “He’s really dedicated to what he does and he’s an extremely talented race car driver.
“From a team ownership standpoint, I think it was pretty easy to give him this opportunity. Obviously, as it relates to the bigger picture here, we knew that this was going to be a really special weekend for him going back to Pocono. We knew this was an important race for him this year and I think everyone on the team takes that to heart.”
As if competing at Pocono wasn’t special enough for Karam, it will also mark his 10th NASCAR national series start – something he never imagined he’d have the opportunity to do.
He called the milestone a “sigh of relief,” as he’s finally feeling comfortable making starts on a more frequent basis. While Karam believes this is a big step in revitalizing his racing career, he is nowhere near satisfied and wants more.
“To say we’re doing 10 (races), I think is really cool, because it’s been a really refreshing restart for me and my career,” Karam said. “Next year I want to do the full schedule. I haven’t been able to run for a championship in so long. I want to have that feeling of chasing points, racing people on a more weekly basis and if you have a bad race get in the car next week and bounce back.”
Transitioning from open-wheel racing to stock cars was an adjustment for Karam, but the outpour of support from those in NASCAR made the move as pleasant as possible. After getting thrown into the fire with little to no practice and qualifying last year, he’s at a place where he feels knowledgeable enough to compete on a weekly basis, rather than chasing.
On-track prowess aside, perhaps the most essential aspect of Karam’s part-time stint in NASCAR is the fast-tracked sense of acceptance from his peers. In addition to winning the Indy Lights Championship and Rookie of the Year in 2013, he was recently applauded for standing his ground after Noah Gragson intentionally wrecked him at Road America while running top-10.
Following the incident, mass media exposure put Karam front-and-center once again – this time with positive reception. Next weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway, accustomed silence during driver introductions evolved into cheers as his name was called and he felt a sense of belonging.
“I put all of my energy into that basket of chasing the NASCAR dream,” Karam said. “I feel like I’m getting kind of accepted into this world. I think now people are starting to realize I’m not that open-wheel guy coming to NASCAR for a little bit to stir the pot – I’m that open-wheel guy that’s making the transition to NASCAR and I want to stay.”
The Explore the Pocono Mountains 225 marks the start of a new era for Karam. It signifies the closure of one chapter and the beginning of another in what’s sure to be a monumental day, seven years in the making.
Having resided in Pennsylvania since birth, Karam will have an entire state in his corner and “hundreds” of loved ones in the grandstands on July 23 supporting him with local company CRC Industries Inc. sponsoring his Chevy Camaro.