Sage Karam enjoying the challenges of sim racing

By: Tanner Watkins
December 19, 2018 | 8:00 AM

Across multiple disciplines and levels of racing, Sage Karam has participated in (and flashed success at) some of the most coveted events in motorsports.

After winning multiple karting championships, the 2010 USF2000 title with Andretti Autosport and the 2013 Indy Lights championship with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, it’s no surprise that the Pennsylvania native still has a strong following in IndyCar circles.

Karam’s only multi-race season in the IndyCar Series came in 2015, competing in 12 of the 16 races that year for Chip Ganassi Racing.  His other four years have been spent as a one-off Indianapolis 500 specialist for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, banking a career-best finish of 9th as a rookie in 2009.

Considering his track record, fans may be interesed in learning that Karam finds just as much success and enjoyment in another diverse and radically unique form of motorsport: sim racing.

Competing on iRacing in particular, Karam is a devoted simulation racer who pours hours of offseason time into not only prepping for the annual trek to Indianapolis, but for any opportunity that may present itself in the near or distant future.

Most recently, Karam was one of 30 finalists that traveled to Germany for the Porsche Sim Racing Summit.  After enduring a grueling qualifying process driving the Porsche 911, Karam earned not only a spot in the top 30, but the battle wounds to show for it.

“I knew when I started I knew was in for a long few weeks,” Karam admitted.  “I was not really on pace right away.  I’ve never even driven the car on iRacing since I just stick to the IndyCar stuff because that’s usually what I’m doing.

“I went to Laguna (Seca) and had to figure out how to drive this thing. Everybody has the same setups, so that made it really, really fair… Same track conditions and everything.  I put in the time and slowly but surely, I would knock a tenth off here, knock a tenth off there. I got my time into a respectable area – I knew I was in the hunt – but I needed a little bit more.”

Karam woke up on the last day of qualifications sitting on the bubble for a transfer spot, eventually turning in a seven-hour work day on the sim.  No football, hardly any time to eat or drink.  Just lap after lap after lap, looking to shave time and climb the leaderboard.

Eventually, Karam would place 12th in the second week of qualifying.  By securing a top-15 spot during one of the two weeks of time trials, the 23-year-old had successfully transferred onto the finals in Germany.  His blisters, swollen wrists and pained feet would make the trip as well after hours on the sim rig.

“(By the final day), I couldn’t hold the wheel anymore because I make my simulator as realistic as I can, as far as to an IndyCar standard,” Karam explains.  “The brake pedal is huge on pressure and the force feedback in the steering wheel is heavy because that’s just what I’m used to. I know a lot of people that drive sims, they come into my sim and they’re like, ‘Whoa, how do you drive this thing for more than ten laps?’  It’s just like, well, that’s just what I’m used to.

“A lot of these guys crank down the force feedback of their brake pedal and their travel is really small; I try to make it as realistic as possible because that’s why I have the sim – for it to be real.”

Much of Karam’s simulator work goes towards his annual Indy 500 efforts. (James Black/INDYCAR)

While the competition for Karam can be as enjoyable as real life, the challenges simulation motor racing present are at times unique to the sim itself.  Racing online forces a driver – professional or otherwise – to refine their visual processing and fine hand-eye coordination since that “seat of the pants” feel is eliminated.

“I think for me is the hardest thing with sim racing is just consistency,” Karam states.  “When you’re in a real race car and you’re doing it for real, there’s that factor of fear and death and danger.  You have to be so on top of everything…  You notice so many things when you’re racing in real life. I could go to a run in real life in an Indy car around Barber (Motorsports Park) and somebody would ask, ‘where you braking for this corner?’  I could tell you probably within ten feet (of the mark).

“In the sim, for me, I feel like you don’t have that fear factor and you just kind of go and drive.  Brake as late as you possibly think you can and get on the throttle as early as you can,” Karam continues.  “You don’t really notice those small details.  Sometimes do you in the really, really hard braking zones, but I find it hard for me to find reference points in the sim as compared to real life.”

While 10 of Karam’s 16 IndyCar Series starts have come on ovals, the Nazareth native fancies his runs on road courses on iRacing, the popular sim racing platform available to professionals and enthusiasts alike.

Recently, Karam cherished an on-track exchange with current Formula One race-winner Max Verstappen when the two were practicing at Circuit Gilles Villenueve in Montreal.

“For the last couple of minutes of practice, (the two of us) went out and he was actually waiting for me on track,” Karam recalls.  “I’ve never spoken to Max – I didn’t even know that he knew who I was – but he waited for me on track. 

“We got on it and it was cool because even though this was a sim, we still raced each other like it was real life,” said Karam.  “I know from watching Formula One, (Verstappen is) the king of late braking.  He shoved it up the inside of the one hairpin on the back straight of Montreal from, like, six car lengths back.  He got up on the inside of me and I got a better drive out (of the corner), but for that whole lap were just side-by-side, giving each other room and respecting each other.

“It was really cool to race alongside him.  When we stopped, he messaged me he just said, ‘That was fun man.’ I just said, ‘Yeah, just let me know when you are back on again, that was a good time.’  It is cool to see those guys on (the sim).”

Red Bull Racing Formula One driver Max Verstappen (pictured, near) has been one of sim racing’s most consistent supporters.  Verstappen belongs to Team Redline, a highly respected sim racing team. (Red Bull)

While part of the allure to race open-wheel cars on iRacing is the chance to compete with drivers like Verstappen, Lando Norris, and Rubens Barrichello, the opportunity to stay sharp in a variety of disciplines is an important feature to the 23-year-old.  Karam will drive a variety of vehicles on iRacing to have fun but also be ready for whatever can come around the corner.

“I just like to drive whatever looks fun, honestly,” Karam says simply.  “I’ve been fortunate enough to have iRacing help with getting cars and tracks by having the service and being a beta tester from 2007.  I have basically all the tracks and cars, so whenever I see there’s a populated room that looks fun, I’ll jump in it.

“I like going onto the sim to be pushed and have a challenge. I’m a very driven person, so if I go into a session that I know is fixed setup and I’m a second off the pace, I’ll sit there all day long until I find that second.

“I take it as seriously as I would any other normal race weekend,” continues Karam.  “I think that was the goal for iRacing when they created this.  They wanted drivers to take this as serious as they possibly could to be the most optimal training situation they could be apart of without actually being in the real race car.  I think every year with the new updates that they keep bringing out, they keep getting closer and closer to that.

In Germany, Karam did not advance to win the €30,000 after being eliminated on Saturday.  While winning the grand prize would have been nice, the object of the trip was for Karam to connect with important personnel in the sports car industry.

“A lot of people look at it as, ‘I’m going to try and win the thirty thousand euros.’  For me, I’ve raced in some of the biggest races in the world and I’ve raced for some of the biggest race teams in the world.  I’ve raced factory GT cars for Lexus and raced against Porsche, so I know it’s what their brand is all about.

“For me, I made a goal that I was going to qualify just so I could get there.  I wanted to see what Porsche was about. I wanted to meet the people of Porsche because what I’ve learned in racing over the past few years is that relationships are everything.  To get inside those doors, you can’t do that normally. 

“Also, to be able to do it using talent and not so much money or something like that, I knew this was an opportunity that I might be able to accomplish and be able to meet people and show what I could do.  Just to be able to drive against the best racers in the world (was a great experience).”

eSports – and simulation auto racing in particular – are experiencing a rise in popularity over the last five years.  The sim racing industry has blossomed, led by NASCAR’s officially-sanctioned Peak Antifreeze Series.  Entering its 10th season, the eNASCAR Peak iRacing Series will offer a cash prize pool of $100,00 in total. 

While there are a few respected leagues and series to race in on iRacing, INDYCAR, on the other hand, has failed to create its own officially-sanctioned league for sim racers to compete in.  The sanctioning body was working on its options as recently as July but no new developments have emerged from under the Hulman & Company blanket.

In the meanwhile, Karam will continue to explore the vast variety of cars iRacing presents while also continuing that prep for the 103rd Indianapolis 500.  In speaking with Karam, it is clear that the bond with sim racing will be tough to break.

“I love it. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to stop sim racing.”

Header image by Karl Zemlin/INDYCAR.

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