Chip Ganassi Racing has one heck of a dilemma on its hands and, to a wider extent, the Verizon IndyCar Series is faced with the same problem. There's plenty of talent waiting in the wings; yet with so few openings available, making the big step to IndyCar has become nearly impossible.
Ganassi signed Sage Karam, the reigning Indy Lights champion, to a development deal, and the 19-year-old has impressed at every turn this season, but he's only competed in four races so far, and three of those have come in the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship.
It's a problem that Ganassi Racing General Manager Mike Hull and the rest of his team are working hard to solve, but it's impossible to state if or when Karam will have a steady drive.
"He's proven that he's capable of driving high-horsepower racing cars, and we have the challenge in front of us to provide him with that somehow," Hull told RACER. "We need to find a solution to that because – I don't know if star power is the right word, but his future, and the ability he has combined with his age deserves the opportunity in the present tense. That's how I look at it. How we're going to get there, how we're going to achieve that at this point, I wish I could tell you. But we're working to find a way to make it happen. And, you know, he continually impresses me. Not only in the car but out of the car as well."
Hull's history as an advocate for young drivers has often resulted in doors opening and drives materializing, which bodes well for Karam. With many of IndyCar's biggest stars in the twilight years of their open-wheel careers, Karam is one of a few next-generation racers who could fill their void. Without sufficient mileage in an Indy car, however, it's pure speculation.
"I think it's very difficult to rate young drivers today," Hull added. "And the only way you can rate them is get them in a proper racecar. And by that, I mean a high-level proper racecar. The intermediate formula car ranks are not deep enough to rank one driver against another. So the only way you can rate drivers is to look at the ability that they possess or appear to possess, not so much against the peer group but simply how they challenge themselves on a given weekend. And then, get them in a big car to find out what they're capable of doing under pressure.
"It's a little more of a flyer than it used to be in that regard, I think. And by that, I mean to me, there's a chasm between drivers that don't have a fallback position with enormous ability or perceived ability, and drivers that have a fallback position that race wheel to wheel against those drivers in smaller-bore cars. That's how I view it. Sage has everything. Let's face it: From what he's shown us, he's got it all. It's a matter of finding a place for him to now develop his craft more fully."
Karam's breakout drives for Ganassi at the 12 Hours of Sebring, as part of a Ganassi/Dreyer & Reinbold Racing Indy 500 program, and again recently at the Brickyard Grand Prix, left Hull and the Ganassi team feeling confident they signed the right driver to groom for future stardom.
"Indianapolis is a big stage," Hull continued. "It's bigger than a lot of other racetracks. Some people may not view it that way, but I think inside the industry people do. It seems to possess a certain amount of unwritten pressure to perform. To get it done under pressure, but within your peer group and in front of the racing fraternity, which all show up there. For a lot of young guys, it's a springboard for a lot of careers. Of course, I have not only a vested interest but I'm biased when I see what Sage has done at the '500' and when we raced sports cars there last month.
"When a guy like Sage can get into the car under a ton of pressure with a teammate like Scott Pruett and perform on an equal basis to his teammate and stay at the front for as long as he was able to there, it's a difference maker. And I think that people noticed what he did at the Brickyard and came away recognizing how much talent this young man has. We don't want to see him sitting idle, that's for sure, and we're doing all we can to ensure his future will be much busier than it is now."
That could come in IndyCar, the TUDOR Championship, or a blend of the two, but with the team's four-car open-wheel lineup solidified through 2015 and its exceptionally stable sports car team set to continue in its current form, Hull and Ganassi might have to keep Karam on a slow ascent until 2016 arrives.
Talent isn't always met with opportunity, which is a shame in Karam's case, yet Ganassi clearly realized the kid's a perfect candidate to takeover one of his high-profile cars. For those who believe Karam's a champion-in-waiting, it can't come soon enough.
The Pennsylvanian was a revelation at the Indy 500, deserving Rookie of the Year honors, and has been a blur whenever he's strapped into Ganassi's Riley-Ford Daytona Prototype. And yet, without a full-time opportunity within Chip's motor racing empire, one of America's bright young stars is spending far too much time on the sidelines.