In 2010, Andretti Autosport got back to its winning ways in the IZOD IndyCar Series with victories for Ryan Hunter-Reay and Tony Kanaan and its [recently dissolved] partnership with AFS Racing in Firestone Indy Lights brought Martin Plowman and Charlie Kimball third and fourth in the championship. But those stats pale in comparison with Andretti Autosport's USF2000 work with Sage Karam, who eclipsed the whole field on his way to the championship.
With nine wins in 12 races – and six pole positions from the seven qualifying sessions not decided by the finishing order of the previous race – Karam was nearly unstoppable. It's no surprise that Michael Andretti has set up a Star Mazda team for 2011 in order to continue working with the 15-year-old Nazareth, Pa., resident. RACER editor David Malsher caught up with him, but only after Sage had finished his homework.
Q: Two months on from the title clincher in Road Atlanta, but just a few days after the announcement of Michael's 2011 plans for you, how are you feeling?
"We only celebrated the championship for two or three days, to be honest. Then it was back to training and thinking about what we're going to do next year. The 2010 season is just stats now. We're looking ahead to Star Mazda."
Q: Just because you were with Andretti Autosport in 2010, there was no guarantee you'd stick with the team in Star Mazda for 2011, right?
"Right. We didn't know what we were going to do, or what Andretti Autosport was going to do – whether they'd start up a team or not. But we spoke a couple of weeks after Road Atlanta and they came through for us. I'm really glad to be part of the Mazda Road to Indy program, and also to be with this team, because I believe sticking with them gives me my best shot at becoming an Indy 500 winner one day. I'm in the right team at the right time, just as they're committing to being on every rung of the ladder."
Q: Were you head-hunted by Michael when you were winning all your kart titles [Karam has 35 kart titles to his name], or did he contact Skip Barber Racing School in 2009 and ask them who their most promising driver was?
"Actually, I grew up right across the street from Michael, and we've been neighbors for a while. My dad became good friends with him and became his fitness trainer when Michael raced in Champ Car, so he knew me pretty well and sponsored me in karts, and then he saw how I went in Skip Barber.
"One day when I was at school, I got called down to the principal's office, and I was shaking like a leaf thinking I did something bad. The principal just said to me, 'You've got to call your dad,' and I was wondering what I'd done, and it just turned out they were pulling a little prank on me. Dad said, 'You've been signed by Andretti!' and so I went back to class with the biggest smile on my face."
Q: How hard was 2009 for you, jumping around between karts and cars full time?
"It really wasn't that big a transition – just a bigger machine. The toughest part was being on the road all the time, which really wears you out, and makes you really focus on being on your A-game.
Q: So was it karts that taught you your technique for driving the F2000 car? If you'd come up a different route, would you have handled the F2000 car differently?
"Yeah, I definitely think that karting taught me how to whip the machine around, and just took those instincts over to F2000 and it was good enough for me. It certainly worked. We were working with Zach [Veach] as my teammate the whole year, and he had just come from testing Atlantic cars; that's the series he'd been looking at. He was driving the F2000 car like an Atlantic – real smooth, soft-handed – and he wasn't doing the fast lap times you'd expect from him. So we told him to throw it around like a kart and suddenly he was getting podium finishes."
Q: Obviously you have to have a lot of self belief in racing, but surely this time last year you wouldn't have been expecting to come into F2000 and win 75 percent of the races?
"Right! I really did not think I was going to do that. I have self confidence, but I thought it would be a year where I'd go in, maybe finish sixth or seventh at the first race and then build from there, so that by the end of the year I'd be fighting for first. But to get those wins at St. Pete got me truly excited for the rest of the season and I was just hyped up and kept going."
Q: How important is driver coaching at this level? Do you still utilize it?
"We don't specifically have a driver coach, but whenever we're on the same weekend as IndyCar, I'll have either Ryan Hunter-Reay or Marco Andretti take me on a golf cart and go explore the track. They'll tell me, "This is where you've got to go, you've got hit this apex here, use all the track width here,' and stuff like that. That was a big help in St. Pete. Marco showed me all these little tricks to the track, and it paid off."
Q: It's time for that question that every rookie to a series faces: How different are the F2000 and the Star Mazda cars?
"Oh, it's a big difference. The first time I got in a Star Mazda car, testing with Andersen Racing down at Sebring, it was a lot different. The main difference was the downforce level and the brake pressure. You have so much more brake pedal to work with. Like I say, the way I drove the F2000 car was like a kart: I just threw that thing around. With the Star Mazda, you have to be real smooth and gentle. A pretty big transition. But then a few weeks ago I was testing with the Andretti car at Sebring and I was starting to get it down, and it was becoming more of a flow."
Q: How different were the Andersen car and the Andretti car, and does that give you a clue as to how much of the setup you'll be able to change, despite it being a spec racer?
"The cars were pretty similar, actually. In the Andretti car I went faster, but I think that was because we had more time, and because by then I knew what to expect going in. There won't be much difference next year; a lot of it is going to come down to the driver."
Q: It's not just about the racing, is it? You're sponsored by Comfort Revolution – a pretty big sponsor at this level of racing – so I guess you've had to learn how to do things like public speaking.
"Yeah, I'm involved in this organization called Operation Smile, which travels to other countries to perform surgeries on cleft palate and lip sufferers, so I've been to Honduras, and other countries to watch doctors perform these surgeries. I'm there actually in the operating room. And then I traveled to Denver University a month or two ago to give a talk in front of 200 college students about Operation Smile and how I'm planning to give back if I make it big. Comfort Revolution is owned by Michael Fux, who's my manager, and he's majorly into charity work, so he's pleased to see I'm participating and working in that field. I never really talked to crowds before this year, so I had a coach come with me to Denver and help me through it."
Q: What's the target for 2011? Is Star Mazda getting to that level where you expect to have a building year in your rookie season, and then you go for the title in 2012? Or can you win the title as a rookie?
"You're always hoping to win, but I think it's going to be a progressive year. It's a very competitive series. I hope in the beginning of the season we're not way back in the pack, running 15th or something. If we're in the top eight from the start and make real progress at every round, I'd like to think we'd be in the championship hunt. But in my mind, my target is just to get ourselves faster with every race."
Q: Well, you've got time on your side, so if it takes a second year, it's not a problem. Do you intend to stay on the Mazda Road to Indy, or have you got ambitions for Formula 1?
"No, ever since I was little, going to the Indy 500s, it's been a dream of mine to win that race. I want to stay here. IndyCar was always my ambition, living near Nazareth Speedway, and with the Andretti family right across the street. But now that there's a structured logical path to IndyCar, it just gives you a clear path for what you've got to do and how you've got to do it. That helps a ton when it comes to decision making."
Q: Given that you've already shown you're able to jump back and forth between karts and cars, will you want to continue being versatile? For example, would you do what several IndyCar and NASCAR drivers do and take part in the Rolex 24 at Daytona?
"That's funny you should ask that, because me and Zach are talking about doing Daytona. I won't be 16 until March, so I won't be able to do it this coming January, but the following year…we're thinking about it. Don't laugh, but me and Zach are also talking about doing the Baja 1000! I don't know how realistic that ambition is, to be honest, but the only thing to worry us would be getting hurt. But it's at the end of the racing season, so we're definitely thinking about it."