Sage Karam

Sage Karam, 18, could be making a bid for an IndyCar ride after having success at each level of the developmental series. (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore Sun / August 2, 2013)

If Sage Karam had not won those weekend go-kart races in Charlotte, N.C., as an 8-year-old, he might be getting ready for his final high school football season in Nazareth, Pa.

If Karam had not won the Skip Barber School Shootout in Sebring, Fla., five years later, he might be thinking about wrestling in college, as his father did, rather than eyeing the Indianapolis 500.

Those two events proved pivotal in the direction Karam's life has taken over the past decade — and where it could be going.

When Karam, 18, drives in the Firestone Indy Lights Series race at the Grand Prix of Baltimore on Sunday, he will be chasing 21-year-old points leader Carlos Munoz of Brazil and 20-year-old Gabby Chavez of Colombia, one of his Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammates, for the overall championship of open-wheel racing's Triple-A.

A win on Pratt Street would be Karam's third this season, would put him in position to win the overall championship and might make it impossible for team owner Sam Schmidt not to give Karam an IZOD IndyCar Series ride next season.

After dominating the USF2000 as a 15-year-old, Karam won twice in his first season in the Pro Mazda Championship and three times last year, including in Baltimore a day after crashing and finishing 15th.

"It's always tough going up to the next level, being a rookie in this series and going up against good guys," Karam said shortly after winning the Milwaukee Mile in June, his first Indy Lights victory. "I think the biggest thing is just to have confidence. You can't be down in any sport that you do.

"Your [racing team] team is not going to work for somebody who doesn't have confidence and doesn't believe he's going to win. Even when times have gotten rough, I've always tried to have fun racing and always stay confident and believe that good things are going to happen."

The first driver to win on all three levels of IndyCar's of Mazda Road to Indy developmental series, Karam nearly had to quit following his dream because of the financial reality that comes with racing — and fixing — expensive race cars.

Karam can recall showing up to races with his car in the bed of his father Jody's pickup truck while others "had almost an IndyCar trailers for go-karts."

Unable to break into the top 10 in karting nationally since starting out at age 4 — "We had to lie and say he was 5," his father said — the then 8-year-old Karam was given his first ultimatum going into the "Stars of Karting" competition on the infield at Charlotte International Speedway.

"If you don't win, we're done racing," Jody Karam, a high school teacher and wrestling coach in Bethlehem, Pa., told his son ominously as they drove down to Charlotte.

The younger Karam won both races that weekend.

"I just won out of nowhere," Sage Karam recalled. "That's when I figured out, 'Hey, maybe that's what I should do.' I think it hit us both. We made a lot of sacrifices to make it happen."

It was hard to distract Karam from racing. The family lived across the street in Nazareth from racecar driver and now team owner Michael Andretti in what Jody Karam calls "Racetown USA," a place where he says he still "gets goosebumps" when he sees the racing family's patriarch, Mario Andretti, walking down the street.

Jody Karam — who also worked as a personal trainer for Michael Andretti — said that while living in close proximity to a racing legend and his family made the dream a little more real for his son, the financial burden the sport put on his own family was also hard to ignore.

Despite continued success in karting, the Karams reached another breaking point when their son was 13.

But then Karam — one of more than 51 drivers ranging from ages 13 to 22 invited to the Skip Barber Shootout — earned a one-year scholarship worth $58,000 from the Skip Barber Racing School.

The scholarship was based on both his on- and off-track performance, which included everything from timed events to how he conducted a television interview. He was the youngest winner ever.

"We knew we might be on to something," Jody Karam said.