LONG POND, Pa. — It’s been a long seven years for Sage Karam.
Seven years of grief. Seven years of healing. Seven years of what-ifs.
But last Saturday, Karam finally wrote new memories at Pocono Raceway, making peace at his home track with a quiet, uneventful 20th-place finish in a NASCAR Xfinity Series race, his first at the 2.5-mile tri-oval since a 2015 IndyCar crash that resulted in the death of fellow competitor Justin Wilson.
“That was the goal for me today was to come in and just do all the laps I could do and keep the car clean and kind of let whatever was gonna happen in the race happen for us,” Karam told NASCAR.com. “And if that was P1, P10, P20, P30, then so be it.”
Karam wheeled the No. 45 Alpha Prime Racing Chevrolet through a clean Saturday just 30 miles northwest of Nazareth, the hometown he shares with the Andretti family. But to understand Karam’s journey is to start long before that fateful day in August 2015. That’s where Dr. Jarrod Spencer first comes into frame.
Spencer, a sports psychologist, wrestled under the coaching of Karam’s father, Jody Karam, at Liberty (Pa.) High School in Bethlehem, and met the younger Karam six years prior, when Karam was just 14. Jody Karam saw his son’s potential in racing and knew Spencer’s guidance could prepare his son for the mental challenges ahead.
“I met him and was like, ‘I like this kid.’ And I saw it,” Spencer told NASCAR.com on Saturday. “And as soon as I saw him at 14, I said, ‘I’m in,’ and so I’ve been a friend and mentor since that time.”
Karam was a rising star in IndyCar, making 12 starts as a highly touted rookie during the 2015 season for Chip Ganassi Racing. But his shine sometimes left his competitors blinded by fury instead of admiration. Karam’s on-track aggression brought the ire of numerous drivers despite the speed he brought to the track.
That 12th start of 2015 will forever live with Karam. Leading with 21 laps to go, Karam’s car snapped loose in Turn 1 and spun hard into the outside SAFER barrier. Pieces of his car scattered. One was the nosecone of his No. 8 car. The cone bounced through the air and struck Wilson in the helmet, leaving Wilson with a traumatic head injury. Wilson succumbed to the injury the next day at a nearby hospital.
Karam spiraled into a deep depression, caused by his own grief and exasperated by numerous hate messages directed his way on social media.
The road out of that depression was bumpy at best and worsened in his first trip back to Long Pond.
That was three years later, returning as a spectator for another IndyCar race at Pocono in 2018. Among the people at his side that weekend was his girlfriend, now wife, Abby.
“I was like, OK, like, we’re going to do it, it’s going to be fine. It’s going to be a good day,” she recalled Saturday. “And he has this like crazy intuition. And we were riding in that day, and he’s like, ‘Something bad’s gonna happen.’ And I’m like, ‘No, I think you’re just jaded by what happened here, and it’s gonna be OK, we’re gonna be good.‘ ”
Her optimism was short-lived. On the first lap at speed, Robert Wickens suffered a horrendous crash in the Tunnel Turn that sent his car into the catchfence. The car shredded apart and the crash left Wickens paralyzed from the waist down.
Karam’s depression came back in full force, shaken by watching a friend suffer such a terrifying accident. But Karam persevered, and at age 27, four more years after Wickens’ crash, he came back to Pocono — this time to finally get back behind the wheel of a race car.
“Ever since that moment (in 2018), I didn’t think this day would come,” Abby Karam said. “I really didn’t know if he would ever be ready to come back here.”
Spencer was by Karam’s side through the trauma. How it changed Karam, Spencer said, is a reflection of who Karam has always been.
“A moment like that will break a person beyond their mind and really, to their spirit,” Spencer said. “And you go deep inside of yourself when you experience a life moment like that. And so his resiliency, his adversity management there came from not just his mind, but really deep in his heart and spirit and soul. And so deepening his faith, growing in his emotional maturity, and then developing the resilience, those don’t come in life unless we sometimes really have to go through it.
“Well, he went through it. But to his credit, he’s come out on the other end of it, as we saw here today, like in an unbelievably impressive way.”
The result in Saturday’s Xfinity Series race was always going to be insignificant compared to his other races — so long as he finished the race and avoided adversity. He did, and for once, he was able to climb from a race car in Long Pond with a smile on his face.
“To be honest, that was one of the most fun times I’ve had driving a race car,” Karam said. “This place was really, really fun in these cars. I had a lot more fun in these cars than I did even with IndyCars, and IndyCars around here was really cool. But with these cars, you’re braking in every corner and through the Tunnel Turn, there’s a couple of bumps. So the car is like really reacting and you got to really be on top of it. And you’re just chasing it up towards the walls and everything. And it was really fun.”
It was a remarkable change of perspective at the track with which he’s always had a conflicted relationship.
“This track means a lot and has a lot of emotional value to me, whether that’s negative or positive,” Karam said. “And for all those negative times I’ve had here, I will say that I’m glad it’s this track because this is my home track and anybody that can be here that’s in my support system, whether that’s friends, family, peers, I mean just anybody who’s helped me along the journey and seven years is here today. And there’s a lot of people that can’t go to all my races and can’t go to any other race, so for it to be this race, that makes it — I don’t want to say easier, but it does make it nicer for me because I can have that that full-on support system here for me.”
The race didn’t come without a scare, though. At Lap 46, Santino Ferrucci spun at the exit of Turn 3, triggering a blinding smokescreen that led to a multi-car pile-up. As Ricky Stenhouse Jr. spun to the left side of the track, Jeb Burton launched over his front end and tumbled onto his roof. Karam witnessed the entire incident and drove past the upended No. 27 Chevrolet.
“I saw a car go flying through the air and I was like, ‘you‘ve got to be kidding me. Again?‘ ” Karam said. “But as a driver, you kind of know when certain ones are worse than others and that it is happening right in front of me. And I saw it and it didn’t look as bad as far as like from like the intensity level of it to what it maybe looked like.”
The crash happened just in front of the No. 45 team’s pit box, where Karam’s wife and father were watching the race.
“I got on the radio right away and was just like, ‘hey, is everybody all good?‘And they said he was out of the car pretty quickly,” Karam said. “So when I knew that, it was good. But yeah, that would have would have been pretty tricky if we would have left here with another bad experience with somebody getting hurt or something like that. But I’m glad that everybody had a safe day today and everybody had a good race and I had a lot of fun.”
Pocono had rarely conjured fun memories for Karam. This time, he left emotional for all the right reasons.
Mission accomplished. Really happy with how today went. Happy to give @TeamAlphaPrime a top 20ud83dudc4aud83cudffc thank you @CRCAuto for making this happen for me. Thanks to everyone who showed me support over the last few days. Was really cool to hear the cheers during driver intros today! pic.twitter.com/o2FSygeuEz
— Sage Karam (@SageKaram) July 24, 2022
That picture, taken by Abby Karam, shows the moment Karam and Spencer connected after Karam conquered his journey.
“I was tearful, and he was tearful,” Spencer said. “And it was just that moment of like, OK, seven years, like we did it. And that moment was everything to me because there’s so much that goes into that picture of like, wisdom is healed pain. And that pain was really just healed at that moment.”
“Today was the making of a seven-year journey,” Karam said. “I’ve had opportunities to come back here and race and I wasn’t ready. And I took the time I needed to take and did the things that were necessary to make sure I was ready for the opportunity that, when I was going to come back here, I would make the most of it. And I felt that was this year, and I’m glad I waited. And I feel like we did make the most of it.
“I think the peace has been made here.”