DES MOINES, Iowa — Overcome by fury after a bitter defeat, Sage Karam started running home.
It was about a dozen miles between Karam's house in Nazareth, Pa. and the gym where he'd just lost with a state wrestling tournament berth on the line. But Karam was so upset about blowing his shot at states that he grabbed his shoes and took off before anyone stop him.
Karam got roughly halfwaybefore his father found him sprinting aimlessly.
"He turned me around and said to go get my medal," Karam said. "I didn't want it."
Karam looks back at that day now and chuckles.
But he's also discovered that the tenacity and intense competitiveness needed to thrive in wrestling also works at nearly 200 mph.
The 18-year-old Karam hasn't even started his senior year in high school back in the hometown he shares with Mario Andretti (Nazareth, Pa.), but he might just be the brightest young American prospect in open-wheel racing.
Karam has won two straight races in the Indy Lights feeder series, including a dominant run last weekend in Iowa after his first career series win at Milwaukee, and is now atop the standings. He will next race July 6 as the hometown favorite at Pocono Raceway.
Karam credits much of his success in racing to wrestling, which he believes gives me an advantage over his fellow drivers.
"Wrestling teaches you to be mentally tough. The sacrifices that you have to make within a season to make weight. It's all for you, but then it's also for the team, and you have to put the team before yourself. Just taught me a bunch of life lessons and just made me so mentally tough. And I just think that no other driver can get that tough without experiencing it," Karam said.
Karam grew like many kids in eastern Pennsylvania, wrestling and playing football.
But from the time he could barely walk, Karam has been at his best behind a wheel.
Karam said he's been racing since he was four. By 12, Karam was perhaps the best young karts driver in the country, and the following year he became the youngest winner of the Skip Barber Shootout.
Karam signed with Andretti Autosport in 2010 and won the USF2000 rookie of the year award and series championship before moving up to the Star Mazda series. He spent two seasons in Star Mazda, winning four poles and five races, before Schmidt Peterson Motorsports signed him to run Indy Lights this year.
"Things are going good. I learned a lot in years past that has gotten me prepared for this. I was very prepared for Indy Lights. Sam (Schmidt) saw that and took me under his wing," Karam said.
Karam didn't take long to acclimate to Indy Lights. He qualified first in Indianapolis and finished third, and since then he's unbeaten.
Karam, who to this point is at his strongest on ovals, qualified on the pole the following week in Milwaukee. He was passed on the first lap by Zach Veach, but he maintained his composure — again, a lesson he said he picked up in wrestling — and rallied for a breakthrough victory.
He then moved on to Iowa, where he had already won three times in various events, and led 67 laps en route to victory.
"I knew I could do it. I raced at Milwaukee and Iowa differently than I did in any other race knowing that I could win. That was the difference," Karam said.
Karam intends to return to Nazareth Area High once the Indy Lights season is finished. He won't play his senior year of football, but he plans on taking one more crack at the state wrestling tournament next winter.
As for racing, Karam's goal is to win the Indy Lights title and hope that's enough to convince sponsors to pay for a full-time IndyCar ride in 2014.
In the meantime he'll be wrestling — which Karam said has been helped by racing too.
"Race car drivers, you have to have good vision. We can make decisions really quick. Our hand movements are also pretty speedy," Karam said. "When I'm in a match and I need to make something happen fast and I need to make a decision quick, racing gives me that advantage."