By: Tanner Watkins
January 15, 2020 | 3:00 PM
Sage Karam is about to embark on his seventh unique season as an IndyCar participant – though only one of those years has seen him run more than three races. That will change in 2020, as Dreyer & Reinbold Racing formally announced on January 7 that their IndyCar program would be expanding in the new year.
On Tuesday I had the opportunity to go one-on-one with the 24-year-old driver to talk about a variety of topics. The Pennslyvania native offered his time during the sandwich day of a three-day trip to Florida – which included testing days on Monday and Wednesday.
Give a look below at Sage’s viewpoint on sponsorship trends in IndyCar, the difference in making multiple 2020 races happen with Dreyer & Reinbold as opposed to previous years, his impressions of the new aeroscreen, and how the DRR team performed this week for their first road course test in years.
WATKINS: What was the difference this year in getting a deal done for some additional races that just never formulated previously?
KARAM: We have always wanted to come back at more races than one on the IndyCar schedule for us, and we never could get that jump done properly. But with where IndyCar is nowadays, it’s getting more and more popular and it’s becoming a little bit easier to get sponsorship funding. And just being with the team for as long as I have been, I think it was on everyone’s radar that 2020 was going to be the year that we were going to try and get some more races.
Thankfully, we got that, and Wix Filters has been a great partner with the team – they have been with me now for a few years, so I’m just glad to have them back.
Also, when you’re out of the car from May until the following May, it’s quite difficult to jump back in and get up to speed quickly. So I think that is just another reason to do more races as well, just to keep me sharp and (driving the IR-18) not be so foreign once we go back to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Obviously, the goal for any race we go to is to do well and go in there trying to win the race. But, I think everyone’s goal is to win the Indianapolis 500.
I think (with) doing more races – even though you’re not going to learn setup stuff driving street courses and road courses and having it translate to an oval – what we do learn is just staying in the mindset of racing, and I get to stay familiar with the car. And it definitely helps that it’s just more and more experience for when we do have the right time to be able to pull the trigger and do a full-time season.
It’s going to be tough. You see a lot of teams come in that are very, very good teams over in Europe or racing different series, and then they come into IndyCar and it is a wake-up call. It’s not (like) you can just get in this car and put it out on the track and be fast. Especially on road courses when you are going against teams that have four or five cars in the stable and have been at it for years. It’s an uphill climb we’ve got to face, but it has been good so far.
WATKINS: Care to elaborate on your comment in regards to find sponsorship a bit easier to obtain in recent times as opposed to years’ past?
KARAM: I think for the general public, and sponsors, when they look at the numbers of everything, IndyCar is really the only form of racing that’s actually on an incline. Every year we break records from the year past as far as viewership and attendance at races. I think the schedule’s getting really good – we’re going back to tracks like Road America, and now we are back at Laguna (Seca).
Those are tracks that IndyCar needs to go to because they’ve been around forever, and those are the tracks that kind of made open-wheel racing in America famous. So I think those tracks – and Mid-Ohio – they have a core group of people that just go to those races whenever they can, and will travel as far as they need to get to those races.
(IndyCar) is just in a good place. I think you are seeing good things with where the series is going. The competition is at an all-time high. I think this last year, for sure, was the most competitive year I’ve ever seen out of IndyCar, especially at the Speedway. Anybody could win, and it was the closest field I’ve ever seen from top to bottom – and I think this year is going to be even more competitive.
It’s always great racing. It’s nose-to-tail, anybody can win, and (there is) a lot of action. You can go watch other forms of racing where there are only two to four cars that can win the race. (In IndyCar) you have 20-some cars out there and any of them can win, and that’s pretty cool. It’s a great product, and when you put all those things together, it makes it a lot easier to approach a sponsor and say, ‘Hey, this is what we’re trying to do.’ And then that sponsor then can try and get behind it, (so) it does make it a lot easier.
I’m very happy to be a part of the IndyCar Series and be pursuing this. It got rough for me for a while. I wasn’t doing all that much… I did do one race a year (at Indianapolis), but you see a lot of other drivers too where it would get rough and then they’d go elsewhere and race other things. But I never quit IndyCar. This is where I wanted to be. I could have gone and made IMSA a full-time job, but I just never wanted to give up on the dream of IndyCar.
This is where I wanted to be, I knew it was the best racing in the world, and that it was just a matter of time before everyone would see it. I think right now we’re kind of witnessing that people are starting to catch on and see it, and it’s pretty cool.
WATKINS: How would you evaluate Monday’s team test at Sebring after Dreyer & Reinbold hadn’t tested at a road course in six years?
KARAM: It is quite funny. The team hasn’t been on a road course since 2013, and it was someone like Oriol Servia (driving) the last time they were on track. For me, I ran Toronto last year, but it is just such a short weekend where you have learned a lot by the end of the race, but before the race, you’re just trying to figure out what’s going on here.
In my six years of racing in IndyCar, I’ve only had two testing days (on road courses). I had one day at Sebring and I had one day at NOLA Motorsports Park in New Orleans. Coming into this (week), I’ve only had two road course tests – so this week I’m going to double that!
(Monday) was good. We rolled off of the truck with the intention and the goal of just doing as many laps as we possibly could. We didn’t really care about what the lap time was – we were more or less just making sure we have a car that’s drivable, and a car that we can roll back into the trailer that night and bring it out on Wednesday and everything still be good. We were able to accomplish that.
We rolled off (the trailer) and the car was pretty good right out of the gate. I think we were the fastest right away out of all the guys that are here. A few more laps passed and everyone else seemed to start getting faster, and we really couldn’t. I was starting to push a lot harder, and it was getting at a point where I was pushing fairly hard and I couldn’t really find any pace (while) everyone else seemed to be finding pace quite easily. So it became apparent that there were some (significant) balance issues that we had to get ahold of.
Around lunchtime, we found an issue with the car – and it was pretty massive. So it took us a little bit to get that all fixed, and then once we fixed that, I was able to go out towards the end of the day and I took a second off of my (best) time with old tires. It was huge. But when you are driving all day and you are driving to what you think is the limit and what the car’s able to do, and then they find something like that, you have to almost like unlearn everything you were doing and re-learn these new limits that the car is capable of.
(In the end), were only able to get two runs with the car being good and in the window where we needed it to be, but it was such a game-changer; an improvement that I think the team was really excited about it. I was able to go to sleep (Monday) night, feeling pretty good about coming to the track on Wednesday and knowing that we have a good platform under us. When we come back (to the track) on Wednesday, we can talk more about the lap time and the setup of the car.
Now, I can focus more on my driving and not so much on trying to keep the thing on the track. (The car was) unpredictable and inconsistent, and I didn’t really know what was going to happen every time I would go into a corner. But once you have that confidence that it’s going to be doing the same thing every lap, then I can work on pushing some braking zones a little bit further and picking up the power sooner.
WATKINS: Lastly, you had the opportunity to test the aeroscreen on-track for the first time on Monday. Could you explain your experience with the new device and how it compared to your initial thoughts?
KARAM: My (first) experience with it was when I went to the shop to be fitted in the car – we had it there before we came down (to Sebring). I was sitting in the car on jack stands, and I wasn’t sure of how it was going to be. In the shop, I don’t know if it was just because you’re inside or whatever, but I was kind of not looking forward to driving with it.
I wasn’t really sure how it was going to go. But when I got to the track and I got in the car, I felt pretty good sitting in pit lane – and when we got going, I’ll be honest, I didn’t notice it. Once we got going, it was fairly good. The visibility isn’t bad – it doesn’t have any more blind spots than we have had before with the AFP device. (The AFP had) a blind spot right in the middle, but the (aeroscreen) is the same width and everything – it is just kind of an extension of that, so it doesn’t make things any worse. And it’s not like it’s making the vision on the sides any worse as well.
So the vision was fairly good. Everyone else that I was listening to that had tested the aeroscreen was talking about how hot it was inside. I don’t know if they used the air hoses (into the helmet) at that time or not, but I didn’t think it was any hotter than any other any car I drove in previous races or tests. So I had no issues with heat.
The only thing that I haven’t been able to test, that is a question mark for me, is when it rains and what visibility going to be like. Just different situations like that when you’re driving around. I hit a massive bug (on Monday) and it splattered on the windshield on the right side pretty good. Before (the aeroscreen) you would just be able to pull a tear off from your visor on the go, but (now) you’d have to wait for a pit stop. But how many massive bugs are you going hit in a stint? That was the only thing. So once I can test in the rain and everything, I’ll be able to get a better understanding of the overall performance of it.
The aero screen was actually a lot easier to adjust to than I expected. Vision and heat inside of it was zero issue what so ever. Big thanks to all that put all the effort and time into making this right. pic.twitter.com/W6vm1bLaBi— Sage Karam (@SageKaram) January 14, 2020
From what I’ve seen on a hot day – it was mid-to-upper 80s yesterday in Florida, and very, very sunny – there were no glare issues… and I thought that might be an issue. I was also kind of concerned with having to look two windshields basically. You’re looking through a visor and then you’re also looking through the windscreen. I was worried that was going to throw depth perception off, but that was actually a lot easier than I expected.
I say that I didn’t notice it when I first got out there, but I had to like force myself to (actually) try and take in certain things that I may have been able to see before and couldn’t see now. You are trying to find those things just to work this thing out as quick as you can. It didn’t take me very long to feel comfortable in it.
Getting in and out of the car… I might have to make my suit a little bit bigger. (Laughter) I wear a pretty tight suit. It’s a pretty big stretch to get over the (aeroscreen) and a pretty good jump to get out of it. But I literally had no complaints.
Obviously, every driver has like their views on what they think is good and what they think is bad, but for me, it turned a lot of maybe bad thoughts I had about it to good ones. I don’t really have anything negative to say about it.
Header image by Shawn Gritzmacher/INDYCAR.