Nazareth used to host major races at the old speedway on the west side of town, which has been silent since 2004 after 94 years of racing. It produced the Andretti family, racing royalty.
And, as last week’s passing of the Blue Eagles’ legendary wrestling coach Ray Nunamaker reminded us, few towns in Pennsylvania – or anywhere – wrestle like Nazareth. The list of champions that hang off the walls of the Blue Eagle wrestling room attests to that.
If Karam didn’t reach the pinnacle of scholastic wrestling while competing for the Blue Eagles, no one would bet against the 2014 Nazareth graduate climbing to the highest level of IndyCar racing like the Andrettis, who used to live about a drag-race strip distance from the high school, on Liberty Street.
“It’s my passion, and it’s my dream,” said Karam, who races for Chip Ganassi Racing, one of the three top outfits in the sport, and competed in his second Indianapolis 500 in May.
But for one day Wednesday, one of racing’s top young prospects left the track behind and was a high school student again.
Karam returned to Nazareth Area High School in advance of his first local appearance as a main-circuit IndyCar driver – at the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway Aug. 23 – and took a raft of media and public relations types around the high school.
As Karam conducted the group around the school – to his old locker, to the cafeteria, to his homeroom, and to Nazareth’s wrestling room – with the poise and grace of a much more experienced athlete, his coach, Dave Crowell, couldn’t hide his admiration.
“I saw Sage race at the IndyLights at Pocono, and when I saw him go around that first turn, I got a little choked up,” Crowell said. “You see his head going around at 180 miles an hour and you’re awed by the power and responsibility he has a driver.”
Pocono Raceway president Brandon Igdalsky hopes more fans will follow Crowell’s lead and come to Long Pond to see Karam.
“It’s a terrific thing for us because know we have a base of two teams, the Andrettis (who still live in Northampton County) and now Ganassi with Sage,” said Igdalsky, who was clearly enjoying Karam’s tour of his old haunts. “Usually fans don’t have anybody local to connect to at a race. Now, we have two local teams.”
Karam’s bright, intense personality and, it must be said, handsome appearance, could become a major asset for IndyCar racing, which has struggled to find its place in U.S. sport in recent decades.
What was one of the country’s top sports in the 1970s, when even non-gearheads could name 10-15 drivers off the top of their heads and the Indy 500 was one of the four or five biggest events in sports, has become a very much smaller presence in American sport.
“They’re trying,” said Igdalsky of IndyCar, adding that he saw signs of a renaissance.
It’s tempting to compare Karam to another young athlete with Lehigh Valley connections – Jordan Spieth. Of course Spieth has accomplished much more. But both could wind up revitalizing their sports after a bumpy stretch because of their talent and likeability.
That last was on display Wednesday. Karam couldn’t have been more charming strolling the hallways.
“My locker was in a good place, near the wrestling room, so it was easy to get to the 6 a.m. practices where Coach Crowell would kill us,” he said.
Karam said his favorite place at the school was the cafeteria, “where I often couldn’t eat, because I was cutting weight for wrestling.”
When he did eat, it was simple stuff.
“Chicken patties,” Karam said. “With lots of ketchup. I love ketchup, though I don’t know why.”
Then some racing slipped in, with “friends” replaced by a different word, one of the track and the pits.
“I used to sit at the same table, with all of my crew,” said Karam while standing at the spot. “It was the best part of the day, coming in, checking out all the girls. And because what I did was so different, the racing, people liked to talk to me.”
Then to the homeroom, Ms. Megan O’Brien’s, where Karam left a spectacular signature on the chalkboard for his former teacher whose homeroom he occupied for four years.
“It was probably a lot quieter for her when I was away racing,” said Karam with a laugh.
Karam enjoyed one of his favorite subjects, history, in that room, and he said mathematics was a good subject for him as well. As for his less favorite …
“English, for sure, and Spanish,” he said. “I would think, ‘I can barely do English and now you’re telling me to take Spanish?'”
Last stop was the wrestling room, where the searing heat struck the racing people as overwhelming.
“It would get a lot hotter in here when there were 30-40 kids, all the body heat,” Karam said.
But it was perhaps in that overheated crucible of wrestling that Karam, who started wrestling when he was four, forged part of the personality that makes him such a skilled IndyCar driver.
“I learned when you make a mistake, you can’t have your head down,” Karam said. “You can’t wrestle with your head on the mat. You had to hang in the match, because you knew you could win at any point, even late in the third period.”
Karam then recalled a pair of such memorable moments, when he rallied from third-period deficits to win two huge matches, one over Bethlehem Catholic’s Ryan Todora in a home match as a junior and one over Franklin Regional’s Josh Maruca (by fall) at the state team duals as a senior.
Karam went 5-0 at those duals, which may have been his greatest moment as a scholastic wrestler; that, or winning the Bethlehem Holiday Wrestling Classic as a senior, which Karam also recalled Wednesday.
And those moments have stuck with him, even as he left wrestling behind to pursue his ultra-promising racing career.
“When I look back at those moments, those were as good as finishing my first 500 (mile race),” Karam said.
Spoken like a true child of Nazareth – where auto racing and wrestling have planted deep roots.