Published October 23, 2013
Sage Karam had a seven-figure prize and was still looking for three more digits, a status symbol worthy of his SK$ moniker.
So he bought a phone.
Not just any cell, but one the Pennsylvania native purchased from a Southern California store. That way, when "Karam 424" flashed on the receiving end, it was a sign straight out of Beverly Hills that open-wheel's top American prospect wants to talk.
Business is about to pick up for the 18-year-old Karam, who won the IndyCar Series' developmental league championship and clinched P1 as Nazareth Area High School's Most Likely to Drive in the Indianapolis 500, while still a senior in high school. The championship comes with a scholarship of up to $1 million, so you can see why SK$ works so well.
With his styled blond locks and an Instagram feed full of shirtless photos, Karam seems straight out of central casting from the 90210. But one of IndyCar's next big stars is most at home in Nazareth, Pa., long known as the town the Andretti family put on the racing map.
"Racing in Nazareth is pretty big, just because of the Andretti name," Karam said, "but I'm trying to build my own legacy."
He is already on his way. From first place to 12th grade, Karam returned to his hometown this week with a "How I Spent My Summer" story that no other student could match.
"I always said, my senior year of high school, I'll make it to the Indy 500," he said. "The other kids kind of laughed about it. Now that it's almost a reality, it's no longer a joke. All those kids who laughed are like, 'Holy crap, this kid is serious.'"
Karam appears on pace to make his Indy 500 debut after proving just how serious and successful he is behind the wheel.
Driving for Sam Schmidt Motorsports, Karam won the Indy Lights championship last weekend at Auto Club Speedway, the ultimate reward for a season built on three wins, nine podiums, two poles and 163 laps led. Karam, who turns 19 on March 5, boasts the credentials to jump from Indy Lights to IndyCar and is fielding offers for a regular ride next season.
He'll review those proposals just as soon as he's finished turning in an environmental science assignment.
While IndyCar champion Scott Dixon bounced around in a zorb on early-morning TV, and three-time Indy 500 champion Helio Castroneves was mixing tunes as a guest DJ on "Ellen," young champion Karam spent his week dealing with the harsh reality of homework, wrestling practice, and, yes, finding a new job.
He ditched a final year of class for online courses, and he may have to give up his second passion, wrestling. Karam is practicing with the Golden Eagles but was noncommittal about moving forward with the season.
"I really want to, but winning the championship and almost a guaranteed ride in IndyCar kind of threw a curveball in the mix," he said. "If I get hurt, that would suck."
He also has to cut some weight if he wants to wrestle at 145 pounds — life on the road beefed him up to 156.
"I got fat!" he said.
Karam laughs and pokes fun at just about every subject during his interviews, as carefree with the media as he is on the road.
Like the weekend he lost his hard card and had to dress in his firesuit to access the track ... or the time he grabbed the mic after a runner-up finish at Pocono and told the crowd no one would disrespect him on his home turf ... or how his car caught on fire after winning at Houston because he botched the celebratory donut ... or the social media contest he ran to find a girl to model his T-shirts. Karam even tweeted, #nodudes just to make the contest rules clear.
He nearly got a group of friends kicked out of a haunted house last week for attempting a double-leg sweep on one of the employees. He had an IndyCar rep pack up the 78-by-34 1/2-inch banner of himself from California so he could hang inside his front door.
Around the track, Karam is known as SK$ (SK Money), a nickname that developed from goofing around with his rap music-loving wrestling teammates and has morphed into a full-blown part of his racing personna. He had dollar signs painted all over his helmet, truly keeping his money on his mind as he raced.
"I think next year, I'm trying to get a giant sparkle SK$ on the top of my helmet," Karam said. "That would be pretty cool."
He'll have to add a few more $$$$$ to that nickname after earning that scholarship, which he can put toward funding a fulltime IndyCar ride next season. And, he said sponsor Comfort Revolution was on board with him for an IndyCar move.
The last two Indy Lights champs have landed IndyCar rides because of that scholarship. All that cash should make him more attractive to teams when he considers offers for a 2014 ride.
Karam said he'd love to stay with Schmidt, who fields IndyCar rides for Simon Pagenaud and Tristan Vautier, and there have already been preliminary contract talks. With IndyCar starving for a homegrown American star, Karam could clearly become a throwback to the days when Rick Mears, A.J. Foyt, and Al Unser ruled the series.
But if the numbers don't work, Karam is ready to explore his options.
He's done it before, leaving Michael Andretti's organization in 2012 for Schmidt when terms couldn't be reached. Karam's father, Jody, was Andretti's fitness trainer back in the Champ Car days. Karam was 4 years old when he met Michael and became close friends with IndyCar star Marco Andretti. Karam and Marco are tight and train together, and both Marco and racing legend Mario Andretti texted and tweeted congratulations after Saturday night's clincher.
Karam said he hasn't talked to Michael since leaving for Schmidt.
"I haven't heard anything from Michael, which is kind of a shame, because my family and his family used to hang out every weekend," Karam said. "I don't see why racing and business had to come between us. But it's whatever, man. It's sports."
Karam said his eyes welled with tears over the final laps on Saturday, a lifetime of racing memories flooding his emotions right before he took the checkered flag. His family and friends threw him a party Tuesday night in the house built on the dirt track where Karam first got behind the wheel as a toddler.
It was a time to reflect and celebrate, one more time to enjoy the season before moving on to more pressing matters.
"I'm probably going to have to throw a little contest," he said. "SK$ Needs a prom date."