NEWTON, Iowa — Despite getting dressed down by Ed Carpenter after some close racing in Iowa, rookie Sage Karam offered the IndyCar veteran an empty seat next to him on the plane ride home.
Carpenter had apparently said all he needed to say. Almost.
“He said he’s pretty much still mad at me,” Karam said. “And I said, ‘Well, you can sit next to me…and we can talk about it.’ He said, ‘Nah. I have three kids I have to take care of in the back. I don’t need to be taking care of a fourth.’”
Such is life these days for IndyCar’s most promising young American driver.
Karam’s biggest step forward, a career-best third-place finish at the Iowa Speedway on Saturday, was overshadowed by the on- and off-the-track altercations with Carpenter after the two cars nearly touched more than once in the closing laps.
The 20-year-old Karam wasn’t penalized by IndyCar for his driving and Carpenter wasn’t penalized for losing his temper — both with an on-track hand gesture and some screaming on pit road afterward. Carpenter said after the race that Karam “doesn’t have a clue.”
Karam was suddenly in the brightest spotlight of his burgeoning career. And he said he wouldn’t change a thing if he had to race the final 20 laps over again.
“I just drive hard. I drive like a rookie, I guess you could say. I drive out there like I have something to prove because I do have something to prove. And I take risks. Every risk is a calculated risk. But I think to be the best in the sport nowadays, it going to be the drivers who take the risks,” Karam said.
Karam, who couldn’t find a full-time ride for the 2014 season despite winning the feeder series Indy Lights title the year before, finally landed a coveted seat with Chip Ganassi in the offseason. And for much of his rookie year, Karam said, he wasn’t pushing the No. 8 car as much as he needed to.
It showed in the results.
He started 2015 with finishes of 19th, 18th, 18th, and he was 32nd after crashing out of the opening lap at the Indianapolis 500.
Karam said IndyCar legend and Ganassi adviser Dario Franchitti “lit into him” somewhere between Detroit and Texas about his approach. It helped him realize how hard he needed to run and how many risks he needed to take to race up front.
Karam broke through with a fifth-place finish at Fontana, and he became the sixth-youngest driver to capture a podium spot following his late duel with Carpenter. He said Franchitti reviewed the Iowa finish and told him he didn’t do anything wrong.
“I think I came into this year with the thought that it wasn’t going to be as hard as it’s actually going to be, and I think that’s what led to some early troubles for me,” Karam said. “I think if I were to go back and start the season over, the beginning of the season would be a heck of a lot different.”
Karam doesn’t appear to be taking his so-called feud with Carpenter seriously. He even posted a picture of himself on Instagram playfully choking a fan wearing an Ed Carpenter shirt.
Besides, Karam thought it might end up being a good thing for a series always looking to boost its profile. IndyCar said the Iowa race drew NBCSN’s best ratings since Baltimore in 2011.
“We need a little bit of some drama,” Karam said. “But I don’t think anything was wrong. I don’t think I drove wrong, and I don’t think the way he came at me was wrong.”