Karam Victorious in Start of Something New for IndyCar

Sage Karam racing Watkins Glen iRacing IndyCar

“That was a code-brown moment if I’ve ever seen one.”

Sage Karam was working the final laps of the American Red Cross Grand Prix at Watkins Glen International when he said that at the sight of Kyle Kirkwood losing control of the No. 28 DHL Andretti Autosport Honda in his direct path.

This scenario is not to be confused with a potential riveting moment out of the 2025 NTT IndyCar Series season and Karam wasn’t talking to his Dreyer & Reinbold Racing crew on pit lane. Instead, it was a real occurrence — sort of — as Karam finalized a dominant virtual victory in the first INDYCAR iRacing Challenge race.

He wasn’t in the cockpit of his No. 24 WIX Filters Chevrolet but instead in the comfort of his own home, livestreaming the feat for a total audience of more than 3,000 on Twitch.

Two weeks to the day after Karam was meant to be qualifying his real Indy car on the streets of St. Petersburg, the same world-impacting events that led to the initial cancellation of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and all other IndyCar races through April gave the 25-year-old Pennsylvania native the opportunity to put his sim racing skills on display against his real IndyCar competitors and a few special guests — Indy Lights racer Kirkwood included, plus NASCAR star Jimmie Johnson.

Context about real racing drivers’ levels of experience racing virtually through systems like iRacing has become more clear as sim racing entered a spotlight it’s never before occupied in the wake of the pause on life as we knew it due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Karam, a member of the Coanda Sim Sport team, shared the front row of the virtual Watkins Glen race with Chip Ganassi Racing’s Felix Rosenqvist, another driver whose dedication to sim racing is for the first time becoming more widely known. After 45 laps and two pit stops, Karam closed out a 3.618-second victory over Rosenqvist, ensuring two of the most experienced drivers in this type of racing came out on top.

Sage Karam celebrates Watkins Glen INDYCAR iRacing win
Sage Karam showed newcomers what post-virtual race celebrations are like. | Credit: Twitch

While Karam, Rosenqvist, Will Power, Scott McLaughlin and Oliver Askew turned in steady laps — in their living rooms, presumably — on their way to top-five finishes and NBC Sports’ regular IndyCar commentators Leigh Diffey, Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy called the action, 35,000 viewers took in the first semi-official IndyCar race of 2020 via the series’ YouTube channel.

The code brown line after nearly colliding with Kirkwood’s virtual machine inside the final five laps and other gems including, “Is he seriously on the (push-to-pass) button right now? This kid is a knob,” about a defensive Santino Ferrucci who was fighting going a lap down were meanwhile heard not on the main livestream provided by INDYCAR on YouTube but rather on Karam’s Twitch channel.

Unusually colloquial attitudes from each driver interviewed during the livestream, Conor Daly’s post-race tweet about not mechanical issues with his Andretti Honda but the loss of a screw in his Ikea kitchen table chair and the unfortunate collapse of the cardboard box that supported his pedals, the obviously virtual video coverage, the substandard audio quality from the commentators — who themselves were scattered around the country in their Connecticut, California and Arizona homes — it all added up to a competition among a couple dozen Indy cars and, for the most part, their real drivers that absolutely nobody could’ve seen coming a short few weeks ago.

Expected to be more reserved than risky in his foray into IndyCar, Arrow McLaren SP rookie Askew shocked with a first-lap pass on Power while Alex Palou showed the speed expected from his No. 55 Dale Coyne Racing Honda at the St. Petersburg season opener that never happened. But beyond these takeaways based on real-world, pre-St. Pete talking points, more conclusions about the still-yet-to-begin 2020 IndyCar season probably could’ve been drawn from the caveat-rich open test at Circuit of The Americas in February than the American Red Cross-backed virtual Watkins Glen event.

That steers the discussion about the iRacing competition away from the on-track action — which was captivating — and toward one about North America’s premier open-wheel championship having organized a real-yet-pretend race with its real drivers in a manner apparently buttoned-up enough, even under Roger Penske’s direction, for public consumption.

Top 10 results from Watkins Glen INDYCAR iRacing Challenge race
A half dozen real IndyCar teams are represented among the top 10 finishers in the virtual American Red Cross Grand Prix at Watkins Glen. | Credit: iRacing

It would seem silly to stop here. When the six INDYCAR iRacing Challenge races are over in early May and authentic racing returns, details about the next INDYCAR-sanctioned iRacing events are hopefully not unclear. In other words: It shouldn’t take a pandemic for INDYCAR to do this again.

Furthermore, it’s not difficult to imagine fans who desire a deeper involvement in IndyCar jumping at the opportunity to race against real drivers on a regular basis via iRacing — perhaps more excitedly than they would at the chance to bet on Indianapolis 500 scenarios from the grandstands.

An offseason that lasts half a year would feel much shorter if a “genuine” winter championship on iRacing were put together, whether it includes fans as competing drivers or not. If Rosenqvist and perhaps others are putting aside six or more hours a day for sim racing as was stated during the livestream, it would hardly be an interruption to drivers’ offseason break — especially given how most every driver would’ve willingly started a new season the day after last September’s WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca finale.

Highlighted by a surging Power as he owned the lead of the race, clear track and the need to gain track position during and after a pit lane visit for Karam, dynamics true to real-world IndyCar racing played out in front of 35,000 members of the series’ core fanbase. This sort of racing is acceptably real for some and highly unacceptable for others, but the potential impact INDYCAR staging virtual races could have on the real thing is clearer than before — even if it’s simply Karam receiving more autograph requests at the racetrack.

As a supplemental aspect of the real NTT IndyCar Series, iRacing contests as realistic as possible could add real value to the real show. Some unrealistic features of the game — say, cars appearing in pit lane after crashing rather than authentic full-course cautions — and the decision to not allow custom car setups could in the future be changed to make it more of a simulation and less of a video game with shortcomings that will always make real IndyCar races play out differently.

Regardless, INDYCAR can’t back away slowly at this point; it was proven that even existing race traditions involving the IndyCar Ministry plus Indy 500 and Chicago Blackhawks national anthem singer Jim Cornelison could be incorporated into a surprisingly recognizable “telecast.” It was proven that this is possible.

Fans of wholly authentic racing will have to adjust their expectations to enjoy this, but as long as exciting battles and occasional quips like “Love tap there” from a startled Townsend Bell when one car drives through another on pit lane are as entertaining as they were in this first round, it won’t be too difficult to get behind this as a future fixture in the experience of being an IndyCar fan.

From the drivers to the NBCSN commentators, every person who filled some role in the American Red Cross Grand Prix at Watkins Glen did so from home. As great as that may sound to some, it really goes without saying that virtual racing isn’t the future of IndyCar, but could and likely should be a part of its future.

If any of the 35,000 viewers on IndyCar’s YouTube showing believe this should eventually be the only way races are held in the near future, it’s almost certainly an incredibly tiny fraction and they probably haven’t sufficiently been bitten by the racing bug.

Supplemental is the key word, as motor sports solely through esports sounds worse than even the most negative outlook on Formula E or a series of autonomous cars, both of which obviously violate INDYCAR President Jay Frye’s “fast, loud, authentic and unapologetic” mantra.

Yet, the benefits aren’t hiding. Not anymore. For starters, the short list of conceivable ways a driver could be injured participating in the INDYCAR iRacing Challenge likely begins and ends at stubbing their toe or tripping over their helmet bag going to or from their “sim rig.”

The benefit for fans will be heightened Saturday, April 4 during the second race at Barber Motorsports Park when James Hinchcliffe, who prepared for the Watkins Glen race but through some technical error was left out of the field, and Robert Wickens, who didn’t receive a part of his rig in time for the event, both come aboard.

Relative to collecting dozens of essential personnel to set up a racetrack and run fuel-burning, tire-melting cars piloted by drivers risking their lives, an esports event like this is stunningly efficient and safe.

The hope is that it’s never truly needed, but who could’ve foreseen the Aeroscreen being so pointless in its first race?

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