PHILADELPHIA (AP) — With the flick of a wrist, Sage Karam reveals an ink-stained reminder of Indy.
“You got a tattoo? What’d your dad say?” friend and IndyCar driver Marco Andretti asked.
“Kicked me out for three days,” Karam said, laughing.
The 22-year-old Karam would rather have his likeness sculpted on the Borg-Warner trophy presented in honor of each year’s Indianapolis 500 champion. Until then, Karam figures a tattoo of the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway wing-and-wheel logo on the inside of his right wrist will have to do.
Karam had pestered his father, Jody, for a tat since he was in his teens. Once his younger sister got inked, Karam went to a tattoo artist in Michigan around his 22nd birthday in March and had the motivational artwork done.
“I just wanted to think about Indianapolis every day,” he said. “I’m going to see it every single day. I just wanted to wake up in the morning and be able to say to myself, ‘How am I going to better myself today to help achieve my goal to win the Indy 500?’”
Karam, who once said he wanted to bring Taylor Swift as an Indy 500 date, left a blank space below the logo for the year he says he’ll win Indy.
“I think it’s cool,” he said.
Karam has brought his usual dose of goofy charm that has endeared him to fans and made him a hit inside the Indy paddock for the fourth straight year. But for the third time in those four years, a driver once projected as IndyCar’s next big thing has only the Indy 500 slated for his schedule. His ninth-place finish at Indy as a rookie in 2014 never moved the needle much in terms of securing the millions of sponsorship dollars needed to fund even a partial IndyCar season.
Unlike last year, Karam at least has another option: making the jump to sports cars with Lexus in the GTD class of the IMSA sports car championship series. Karam will drive the No. 24 Chevrolet for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing in partnership with Kingdom Racing on Sunday. Then he will be gone from IndyCar.
“Indy 500 is really the only race I want to win in IndyCar,” said Karam, who is from Nazareth, Pennsylvania. “I’m not sure what else I could do. Maybe Pocono,” the track 30 miles from his childhood home.
Karam, a former high school wrestler, flashed plenty of talent on the way up the developmental ladder. He won the USF200 championship in 2010 and the developmental Indy Lights title in 2013. He embraced social media, routinely posing shirtless on Instagram and he once ran a contest to find a girl to model his T-shirts, with strict rules for participants that included #nodudes.
The New York Times labeled him “The New Face of IndyCar Racing” in 2015, just days before he wrecked at Pocono Raceway and debris from his car struck and killed Justin Wilson.
“It stays in the back of my mind but it’s been almost two years now since the situation happened,” Karam said. “I’ve had time to move on the best I could. It’s still in the back of my mind some nights and that’s just part of it. But drivers get out there and have a clear mind and race. If it just overtook me, I couldn’t do my job to the best of my abilities.”
Karam’s 2014 Indy 500 run — where he lost rookie of the year honors to NASCAR veteran Kurt Busch — has so far been the highlight of his career. He wrecked on the first lap in 2015 and crashed out of the race again last year.
“It’s been two rough years in a row,” he said. “Can’t make it three.”
Maybe another top-10 finish could make a sponsor or two take another look at Karam and the $5 million to $6 million needed to fund him.
“I mean, I lost my ride in IndyCar because I didn’t have the money,” he said. “I didn’t lose it because people didn’t like me or I had troubles and stuff like that. I couldn’t bring the millions of dollars I needed to bring.”
Karam could collect some coins with the plastic water bottles he shoots into a garbage can on the other side of the garage before he leaves each night.
“If I make it, I know I’m on,” he said.
And is he on?
“I’ve had one miss, man,” he said.
Karam knows he may no longer be the future face of IndyCar — but it doesn’t mean he can’t be the face of the Indy 500 with a win Sunday.
“Just make sure you hit with the water bottle,” Andretti quipped.