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Sage Karam ready to tackle NASCAR in his next chapter

Noah Gragson takes the lead with 14 laps to go in the United Rentals 200 and holds on to get his first win of the Xfinity season at Phoenix Raceway.

Sage Karam has spent time behind the wheel of just about any style of race car you can think of.

From IndyCar and rallycross to dirt micro sprints and sports cars, Karam has driven it all.

The 27-year-old is turning his attention to NASCAR. After making four Xfinity Series starts and one Truck Series start in 2021, Karam makes his Xfinity season debut Saturday at Atlanta Motor Speedway driving the No. 44 Chevrolet for Alpha Prime Racing with sponsorship from The Driveway Company.

Karam has competed in each of the last eight Indianapolis 500s, seven of which came with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. With Chip Ganassi Racing in 2015, Karam made 12 IndyCar starts and earned a career-best third-place result at Iowa Raceway.

After 24 IndyCar starts, 17 sports car races and successful stints in Nitro Rallycross, why make the switch to pursue stock-car racing now? The catalyst was his seventh-place finish in last year’s Indy 500, his best career finish in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

“After that, I kind of got put back on some radars that I think I went missing on the last few years,” Karam told NBC Sports this week.

Those radars included some in NASCAR, an avenue Karam had yet to explore.

Jordan Anderson Racing was in the midst of its inaugural season at the Xfinity level. With the series due to compete the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, Karam became a target for the team’s No. 31 Chevrolet. Karam finished fifth in Stage 1 in his series debut and saw his day end early due to an electrical issue, but the team was impressed with his pace.

Suddenly, one race became two races and two races grew to four. In all, Karam made starts at Indy, Bristol, the Charlotte Roval and Phoenix. His truck start also came in Anderson’s No. 3 Chevrolet at Martinsville.

Bristol was where Karam made his biggest impression -- to other team owners and even himself. After starting 32nd with no practice or qualifying, Karam finished 16th in his short-track debut, one lap down but with a clean car.

His performance was enough to catch the eye of long-time team owner and NASCAR Hall of Famer Richard Childress.

“After Bristol, I was standing in the hauler and I was changing, and I got a knock on the door,” Karam recalled. “I opened it up and it was Richard Childress. And he just wanted to say, ‘Hey, man, just wanted to congratulate you on your run tonight. That was really, really cool to see a guy come over on one of the hardest tracks and do as well as you did. That’s not easy.’

“And for a guy like that to notice that -- and it’s only a 16th-place run at Bristol. But I think what people see is that it’s a huge step, and when you can have runs like that, that’s pretty cool.”

Planting roots in racing

Karam grew up in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, a Lehigh Valley town famous for its legendary racing residents, the Andrettis.

His father, Jody, is a high school wrestling coach who spent 26 years heading Liberty (Bethlehem) High School’s team with 362 matches won in that span and one state champion. After stepping away in 2019, Jody Karam returned to his alma mater at Easton High School to coach its wrestling program in 2020.

The elder Karam moved his family from Easton to Nazareth in 1999, when Sage was 4 years old, and wound up just down the street from the Andretti property. With that move came a dirt oval in the family’s yard for the young Karam to race around. Jody Karam quickly became good friends with Michael Andretti and at one point became his personal trainer.

“My whole childhood was basically spent up at the Andretti house,” Sage Karam said. “I had more dinners there than at our own house growing up, so I was just kind of surrounded by the racing world.”

Karam got his first go-kart at age 5. While Michael Andretti was busy running a full-time IndyCar schedule, Jody Karam spent weekends driving Sage and Marco Andretti to Oakland Valley Raceway Park in Upstate New York to compete regularly.

Fast forward a decade. Karam, 15, is in the midst of a rapid, chaotic ascent through the open-wheel racing ranks. His first stop through Skip Barber cars led him to US F2000 with Andretti Autosport in 2010, winning nine of 12 races and the national title, which propelled him to the Star Mazda Championship in 2011 and 2012, where he stuck with Andretti.

The next year brought further success. Karam rocketed through the ranks, earning a full-time ride in Indy Lights at age 18 with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. He won three races and finished on the podium nine times in 12 races.

Wrestling with reality

Karam’s career reached a fever pitch in 2015.

After spending the 2014 season making four Daytona Prototype starts for Chip Ganassi Racing and his Indy 500 debut for Dreyer & Reinbolt, Ganassi thrust Karam into the No. 8 car for 12 races in the 2015 IndyCar season.

Karam was immediately fast but also caught a quick reputation for his aggression, notably angering Ed Carpenter en route to Karam’s first podium finish, a third-place effort at Iowa Speedway.

Then came Aug. 23, 2015, the day and race that changed Karam’s life at Pocono Raceway, just 30 miles northwest of his hometown.

Leading with 21 laps to go, Karam’s car got loose and snapped sideways in the middle of Turn 1. Karam careened into the outside wall, sending debris scattering along the racetrack.

One of those pieces of debris was the nosecone of his car, which struck driver Justin Wilson in the head. At a nearby hospital, Wilson died the next day as the result of the traumatic head injury he suffered.

Karam, who suffered a bruised foot in the crash, fell into a deep depression in the aftermath of the accident, often questioning what might have happened if he hadn’t spun.

His solace, he recalled this week, was wrestling. Karam, then 20, was only a year removed from graduating from Nazareth High School and his father was still coaching at Liberty. When the high school season began, Karam joined his father at practices as a volunteer coach to help other student-athletes.

“I went through a pretty dark spot in life and didn’t really come out of my house all that much. And the one reason I did end up coming out of my house was when wrestling season started,” Karam said. “Wrestling was a way for me to get out of the house, put a smile on my face, and kind of block out what was going on elsewhere at the time. It really did kind of progress my life and get me through kind of one of those darker times in my life, so I owe wrestling a lot.”

Karam continues to volunteer his time at Easton High School, where his father now coaches. Karam was wearing an Easton Wrestling T-shirt during his conversation with NBC Sports.

What’s next?

After five years without a definitive, full-time racing schedule, Karam wants more out of racing.

His path back to the track after 2015 was difficult but aided by Dennis Reinbolt, owner of Dreyer & Reinbolt Racing, without whom Karam says he wouldn’t be racing at all. DRR has fielded Karam in every Indy 500 since 2016 as well as cars in the Nitro Rallycross.

In January, Karam was announced to make select Xfinity Series starts for Alpha Prime Racing. Karam told NBC Sports his target is “eight to 12 races” driving the program’s Nos. 44 and 45 Chevrolets.

“That would be a great schedule for me, a great year for me,” he said. “And that would give me a little bit of variety of doing some superspeedway racing, mile-and-a-half (tracks), road courses, short-track racing. Just knocking everything off the checklist and seeing what I can do on different types of tracks.”

Karam is set to compete in his ninth Indianapolis 500 this May with DRR, alongside teammate Santino Ferrucci, who made seven Xfinity starts for Sam Hunt Racing in 2021. Karam is still good friends with many drivers in the IndyCar paddock and enjoys running open-wheel cars. If an opportunity there presented itself, Karam would be interested in pursuing it.

But for now, his eyes are set on NASCAR.

“I think for me, the better opportunity right now is to go chase NASCAR and try to get full-time in the Xfinity Series next year, or even (a) Truck Series full-season effort,” Karam said. “I want to do something at a full-time level, and I haven’t done that in a long, long time. I want to learn, and I want to be able to prove myself and I want to do it right.”

There is one other item on Karam’s radar: another chance to race at Pocono Raceway.

“Pocono was obviously really hard, but I think one of the main things I want to do is go race Pocono again,” Karam said. “That might be a possibility this year for me to go do that in an Xfinity car. And if I could do that, I think that’d be really special for me in the way of just getting through that last part of the healing process I needed to get through.”