This story appears in FCA Magazine’s May/June 2018 issue.
Sage Karam, at the end of his first indycar season in 2015, was enjoying the ride of his life. Remarkably, the 20-year-old phenom was leading the Pocono 500 with less than 30 laps left. But those final laps would be difficult and risky, considering he didn’t have enough fuel to finish. He and his crew chief discussed their options over the team’s radio.
“We decided I was just going to push like crazy,” Karam said. “Open up a big lead and hope for the best. Maybe a yellow [flag] would come out, and we might be able to make it on fuel.
“It was going to be a stretch, so I put my head down and put the pedal to the floor.”
Karam pushed. For seven more laps. Then, as fate would have it, the yellow flag did appear.
The only problem? Karam was the reason for the caution.
Karam, to this day, still doesn’t know what happened on lap 179. Entering Turn 1 at 220 miles per hour, his car suddenly got loose and snapped up the high bank, crashing violently into the wall. Debris from the high-speed impact ricocheted in several directions, spraying all over the track and forcing other drivers to dodge it as they zoomed by.
Karam was shaken. Considering the impact, though, he was surprisingly in OK shape. His thoughts immediately went to his friends, family and top sponsors in attendance, since Pocono is about 30 minutes from his hometown of Nazareth, Pennsylvania. The safety crew arrived on the scene in less than a minute, removing Karam from the car and assisting him towards the infield care center, where he found his mother, Karen. The two rode to Lehigh Valley Hospital in nearby Allentown for X-rays and further diagnosis. All appeared to be fine, but Karam could tell by his mother’s somber look that something wasn’t right. Then, he received the devastating news.
Justin Wilson, one of the drivers behind Karam, had been struck in the head by the nose-cone that had flown off of Karam’s car.
“I stayed at the hospital with a few other drivers, and it wasn’t looking good,” Karam said. “I still had on my race suit. I didn’t have any other clothes with me.
“After awhile, we knew he probably wasn’t going to make it. I went home and couldn’t go to sleep. I sat there with my mom and dad and my manager and just talked about everything.”
The sad news emerged the following morning: Wilson died at the age of 37.
Too numb to completely absorb the shock, Karam felt responsible for the tragedy.
“My parents were trying to tell me it wasn’t my fault,” he said, “but when you’re 20 years old and something happens like that, all you do is blame yourself.”
• • •
Karam was only a year removed from his teens at the time, but he was already a veteran driver. He started racing when he was seven years old and amassed 36 national karting championships, including the 2010 US F2000 national title, five Star Mazda crowns, and the 2013 Indy Lights championship.
At 14, at the request of his father, Jody, he started a mentoring relationship with sports psychologist Dr. Jarrod Spencer.
“Sage is very special,” said Spencer, who was coached by Jody in wrestling in high school. “You could see that early on as his racing career developed. So, like any father, Jody wanted to do whatever he could to help his son. It was great to teach Sage about the emotional side of sports.”
In 2014, Karam made his IndyCar debut at the 99th running of the Indianapolis 500. Starting from the last row, he worked his way up from 31st to a ninth-place finish.
That was his only race of the year. In 2015, Karam landed a dream spot with Chip Ganassi Racing — one of the premier teams in motorsports — which signed him to a contract to compete in 12 of the season’s 16 races.
After his second appearance in the Indy 500, Karam continued to show flashes of greatness. He finished 12th in Detroit, 12th in Texas, and then raced to impressive fifth- and third-place efforts at Fontana and Iowa, respectively.
Then came the crash at Pocono.
At that point in his career, Karam admitted he was going through the motions spiritually. He wasn’t attending church like he did when he was younger. His prayer and devotional life was also on the backburner.
The crashed changed everything.
“I had to get some help,” he said.
• • •
Wilson’s death brought out misguided race fans from the Internet and social media. The most vocal among them held Karam responsible, even suggesting he no longer belonged in the sport.
“The wrong driver died,” one person wrote.
The vitriol made it harder for Karam to deal with his internal struggles. Eventually, Jody advised him to stay off the Internet for a while. During that time, Chip Ganassi Racing dropped him from the team.
Karam’s future in racing was in doubt.
His next steps were critical. He went home to Nazareth and spent a few months coming to terms with the aftermath of Pocono. Listening to his family’s advice, that meant doing something race car drivers loathe: slowing down.
First, he focused on getting himself emotionally stabilized. To do that, Karam visited Spencer twice a week for counseling. Spencer, a Christian, implemented Scripture-based teaching into his techniques.
“Very few times in sports or in life does an individual experience such a wide spectrum of emotions in such a short amount of time,” Spencer said. “It’s very rare and very difficult. And that’s exactly what Sage and the people around him had to go through.”
Spencer’s influence didn’t end there. He was an FCA Huddle leader, so he invited Karam to attend Sunday night meetings with other athletes. Every week, for several months, the group gathered in Spencer’s living room and studied a different Bible verse. Then, they would split into smaller groups and share about the issues they were facing and how they related to that verse.
One of the verses, Psalm 27:1 (NIV), was especially impactful: “The LORD is my light and my salvation — whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life — of whom shall I be afraid?”
Reflecting on the verse, Karam said, “If I have God with me, that’s all I really need to get through bad times. He’s always going to have my back, no matter what.”
As time passed, Karam grew more connected to God than ever before. He consistently attended church and found himself praying and reading the Bible more. FCA did for Karam what it has done for thousands all over the world.
“Many young people have questions about God,” Spencer said. “So where can you go and ask those questions openly and honestly and talk about it with your peers and some mentors? You want to seek those answers in a loving, learning environment.
“That’s what the FCA Huddle did for the young men and women who came to it, and particularly for Sage, at a time in his life when he had a lot of significant questions about God and about how his faith in God could help him through this tragedy.”
On May 3, 2016, less than a month before the Indy 500, former FCA President/CEO Les Steckel attended one of the gatherings at Spencer’s home. Steckel, who grew up 10 miles from Nazareth in Lehigh Valley, was aware of Karam’s backstory, connected with the young driver, and spoke into his life. That led to a moment where everyone gathered around Karam for a powerful prayer.
“That moment was so significant,” Spencer said. “It was incredible to see Sage bow his head and open his heart and just receive blessings as people laid their hands on him and prayed for him, one after another. It was a wonderful example of how the power of Christ, the power of prayer, and the power of Christian community can help an individual get through a tough time.”
After some time, Karam reached out to Wilson’s family. He wanted to get in touch with Wilson’s younger brother, Stefan, who is also a race car driver. The two were able to talk about the tragedy, which helped continue the healing process.
“It still stings every now and then,” Karam said. “You’ll come across some things that you don’t want to see — a photo of Justin that brings back memories and feelings. It took me awhile to come to terms with what happened, but I had to forgive myself and tell myself there’s nothing I could have done.”
Sage Karam was supported by Les Steckel, former FCA President/CEO, in May 2016 before the Indianapolis 500.
• • •
Almost nine months after the crash, the time had come for Karam to get back into an IndyCar. Sitting behind the wheel of the No. 24 DRR/Kingdom Racing Gas Monkey Garage car at Indianapolis Motor Speedway was the last courageous step in putting the past behind him.
“I knew I had to do it,” Karam said. “I knew I had to prove that I still had it. It helped me come to terms with what happened at Pocono, and made me realize this is what I want to do with my life. I know it’s a dangerous sport. Obviously, I still think about Pocono from time to time, but I’m a professional driver, and you’ve got to do your best to put the bad thoughts behind you and move forward.”
Spencer proudly watched Karam mature as a young man and, more importantly, as a Christian. He sees a prime opportunity for Karam’s story to reach others.
"I've had a lot of success in racing. I credit all of it to [God]." — Sage Karam“Sometimes God will turn our mess into a mission,” Spencer said. “If you look at Sage’s social media, for example, you’ll see him put messages out there about his love for God, his faith in God, his reliance on God. When athletes put out messages about God, it gets a lot of attention.
“When people lay their hands on you like that, and you experience the power of prayer in an FCA Huddle, it definitely makes you want to pray more. Prayer is part of his life now more than it was before the tragedy.”
Karam is also using the platform he received from Kingdom Racing, a Christian-based team that has sponsored four of his five Indy 500 rides. Karam’s story is featured in God Speed, Kingdom Racing’s 2018 book, which has provided yet another opportunity to share his testimony of grace and redemption.
“I’ve had a lot of success in racing,” Karam said. “I credit all of it to Him. He’s been with me through the good, and He’s been through the lowest of lows. I’m doing my absolute best to move on and be the best person I can be and the best race car driver I can be. I give God all the glory.”
Sage Karam's faith story is featured in Kingdom Racing's book, "Good Speed."
Photos by Brian Spurlock-USA Today Sports.