Indy 500: 19-year-old rookie stuns with ninth-place finish

19-year-old Sage Karam rallied his way to a ninth place finish after starting 31st in the 98th running of the Indianapolis 500.

Phillip Abbott

INDIANAPOLIS – As a 19-year-old starting his first Verizon IndyCar Series race in the biggest race of the year – the 98th Indianapolis 500 – little was expected from Sage Karam.

In the end, the 2013 Indy Lights Series champion from Nazareth, Pennsylvania was the highest-finishing driver for one of the sports iconic teams – Chip Ganassi Racing.

Karam started 31st and drove his way up to eighth place in a blazing fast first 150 laps of the 200-lap contest. He would fall off the lead lap and get shuffled back in the field but raced hard to finish ninth – the second-highest finishing rookie in the race behind 2004 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Kurt Busch’s sixth-place finish for Andretti Autosport.

It was much better than his more experienced Ganassi Racing teammates.

It was higher than three-time IndyCar Series champion and 2008 Indy 500 winner Scott Dixon, who was a strong contender for the victory before he crashed hard in the Turn 4 wall on Lap 167. Dixon would finish 29th. It was also higher than defending Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan, who finished 23 laps off the pace because of an electrical issue with his Chevrolet engine. Kanaan was 26th.

It was also better than Charlie Kimball, who brought out the first caution period of the race when he crashed in Turn 2 on Lap 150. He finished 31st.

There was one other Ganassi driver that was running at the finish of the Indianapolis 500: 2012 Indy Pole winner Ryan Briscoe, who was never a factor all day after starting 30th and finishing 18th.

Sights and sounds: 98th running of the Indianapolis 500

So here was Karam, the kid who missed his Senior Prom because of the Indy 500, giving team owner Chip Ganassi his only top-10 finish in Sunday’s Indy 500.

“I knew that starting position wasn’t the true showing of our car,” Karam said. “We had been fast all month. I had confidence in the car and they gave me a great car. I fought hard to get up to eighth and then we caught the yellow flag at the wrong time and went a lap down. I had to redo it all over again and came back to the front.

“The red flag came out and I was in 13th and I wanted to be in the top-10 so bad. I would do whatever it took to get there. I had an awesome restart – my best restart of the day. I picked off a few guys on that restart and I got up to ninth and brought the car home in one piece.

“I don’t think any other 19-year-old had as much fun as I did today.”

Karam won the 2013 Indy Lights championship driving for team owner Sam Schmidt. He began his racing career as a protégé for Andretti Autosport and is a close friend of Marco Andretti, who finished third behind Team Penske driver Helio Castroneves and race winner Ryan Hunter-Reay.

Ganassi saw the talent in Karam and signed him to a contract but did not have the resources to run a fifth car for the 2014 season. So he formed a cooperative arrangement with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing and Kingdom Racing to put Karam in the Indy 500.

Karam had been fast in practice at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway but faltered in qualifying. When it came to predicting which of the five Ganassi drivers would finish in the Indianapolis 500, Dixon and Kanaan would have topped that list.

19-year-old driver has makeshift prom at Indy Motor Speedway

“Hats off to my team,” Karam said. “They did an awesome job. The Dreyer & Reinbold Kingdom boys gave me an awesome car. It was stable all day and I was able to come from the back and get a top-10. I will take it.”

The biggest surprise to Karam was the first 150 laps of the race were run without a caution period.

“One-hundred-and-fifty laps straight of green-flag racing takes a toll on you,” Karam said. “My foot even hurts from the vibrations of keeping it flat for so long. Now I know why they say it’s the hardest race to win in the world.

“I had so much fun out there. I am so grateful and blessed to have just run in the Indy 500.”

The winning team owner and fellow Nazareth, Pennsylvania resident Michael Andretti was also impressed with the kid’s effort.

“He surprised me,” Andretti said. “I made the comment, how did he get up there?”

And Karam delivered with an impressive answer.