INDIANAPOLIS – If you’re one of the few who still thinks racers aren’t athletes, you’d be mistaken in that assumption. And Sage Karam would be the best person to change your mind.
Karam, 22, uses principles he learned as an accomplished high school wrestler – along with the fitness routine he adopted – in his racing regimen. It’s helped him progress as he approaches his fourth Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. Karam will start 21st in the No. 24 DRR/Mecum Auctions Chevrolet at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“Wrestling is one of those sports where it’s just you and another guy out there,” Karam said. “You have the power to make every decision. You could be losing and make the decision to quit, give up and put your head on the mat or not give up and try to make something happen.
“It kind of goes hand in hand with racing. You could have a bad pit stop and go from fifth to dead last. You have the ability to say, ‘Well, that’s where we’re going to finish’ or you can fight hard. You might sit in dead last, but all of a sudden you might catch a yellow at the right time and you’re back in the game.”
While wrestling for Nazareth Area High School in Pennsylvania, Karam favored “The Claw” for takedowns. The move involves an underhook and throw that Karam liked to use as his opening move.
“I take a lot of the mental strength I gained from wrestling into racing,” Karam said. “Obviously, the physical stuff helps as well. In wrestling you’re not only doing it for yourself, you’re doing it for your team – like making weight – which is the same thing you do in racing.”
While wrestling and football had his attention during his teen years, racing was the sport he pursued. By the age of 15, he was racing for Nazareth native Michael Andretti in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship powered by Mazda. Three years later, he won the Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires championship for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.
Since joining the Verizon IndyCar Series in 2014 at the Indianapolis 500, Karam has competed in 14 races with a top finish of third at Iowa Speedway in 2015 for Chip Ganassi Racing.
All, he said, was accomplished by applying the foundation he built in wrestling.
“Wrestling taught me to be mentally tough,” Karam said. “It taught me to stay focused for six minutes. Six minutes isn’t a three-hour race, but in reality, you get just as tired if not more tired in those six minutes as you do during three or four hours in a car. Staying focused is one of the biggest things I learned in wrestling that applies to racing.”
In a sport in which fitness is necessary, Karam uses training techniques he learned from wrestling to stay in peak condition.
“Wrestling teaches you a lot of lessons in life,” Karam said. “Obviously, the physical shape wrestling puts you in is better than anything else you can do. There’s being in shape, and then there’s being in wrestling shape. When you’re in wrestling shape, it’s unreal.”
Wrestling wasn’t his only sport in high school. Karam also was a force on the football field. Before today’s Miller Lite Carb Day practice in which he had the 18th-fastest lap (224.852 mph), he exchanged helmets with the Indiana University football coaching staff.
The team aspect of racing also appeals to Karam. This will be his third Indianapolis 500 with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing.
“I want to win this race for myself, but I also want to win it for Dreyer & Reinbold,” Karam said. “This team deserves a win. You want to do whatever you can possibly do on track to not let your team down, and they want to do whatever they can to help me out.”
Once Sunday’s race ends, Karam will return to the No. 14 Lexus he drives for 3GT Racing in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s GTD class. There, too, he’ll apply the lessons of wrestling.
“Both of them are individual sports – me on the mat, me in the car – but at the same time, you’re wrestling for your team and making sacrifices for your team, and they’re doing the same for you,” Karam said. “The same is true with racing.”
He pauses to consider the future.
“If I have a son one day, he’ll be a wrestler, for sure,” he says, smiling at the thought. “Just to learn the life lessons that it teaches you.”
Tickets for the 101st Indianapolis 500 are available at IMS.com. Live coverage begins at 11 a.m. ET Sunday on ABC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.