A week after they traded barbs and fenders at Road America in Wisconsin on July 3, Sage Karam and Noah Gragson came to a truce at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Over the course of a roughly 45-minute meeting on race morning at Atlanta, the two Xfinity Series drivers each shared their sides of a feud that resulted in Gragson intentionally wrecking Karam on Lap 25 of the race at Road America, which resulted in 13 wrecked cars and roughly $250,000 in damage.
After the wreck, Karam had told SPEED SPORT that he had “zero respect” for Gragson, while also calling him “crazy” and a “punk.”
What a difference a couple of weeks can make.
Karam, now three weeks removed from Road America, talked with SPEED SPORT about the 45-minute peace summit and his transition from IndyCar into stock car racing, a career which is now nine races old.
Karam, who drives part-time with Alpha Prime Racing, has made four Xfinity starts over the last two years, plus one NASCAR Camping World Truck Series start.
“I was obviously pissed off about the situation, but I’m trying to also make something out of this and get to the top of NASCAR,” Karam said. “I think the worst thing I could have done was probably go start a very negative thing like getting in a fight or something. So, I’m just trying my best to not cause drama and make friends and make this a good experience for everybody. Being a part time guy, the last thing I want to do is cost people points or championships or whatever. I don’t want to be in the way of anything like that. So, I don’t want to be in that drama.
“But at the same point, there’s nothing I could have done about that drama that day. I feel like I wasn’t in the wrong there.”
During their meeting with NASCAR, Karam got somewhat personal in his effort to get his point across with Gragson.
While he didn’t “go into details about it,” Karam brought up the tragic “freak accident” he was part of in the 2015 IndyCar race at Pocono Raceway.
That day, while leading, Karam spun in Turn 1 and crashed.
Debris from Karam’s car, including his nose cone, showered on the field behind him. The nose cone piece itself, weighing about eight pounds, hit the helmet of British driver Justin Wilson.
The impact of the piece resulted in injuries that Wilson succumbed to the next day at the age of 37.
Karam’s experience in that accident and the seven years since colored his reaction to Gragson’s actions at Road America.
“I explained that to him,” Karam said. “I said, ‘Listen, dude, There’s no one here more than me that knows about freak accidents and racing. The reason why I’m so pissed about what happened was because I’ve been a part of freak accidents and all that. To cause an accident on purpose that could result in something like that is just like baffling to me.”
Karam didn’t believe Gragson had “looked at it like that until I said it.”
“That’s where I think it kind of like lit up in his head and he (said), ‘Yeah, that was not cool on my part.”
For Karam, his point was proven the day after the Road America race, with Zhou Guanyu’s terrifying crash on the initial start of Formula One’s British Grand Prix.
“There’s another complete accident on a straight line,” Karam observed. “Somebody didn’t see somebody and goes flying up over him and nearly goes into the bleachers and could have ended very, very badly. And that’s on accident.”
Both Karam and Gragson emerged from their meeting on better ground.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for him and the rest of the guys in the series just being able to talk to him, and I really didn’t know him that much,” Gragson told NBC Sports after their meeting. “So just getting to understand where he was coming from and kind of the way he was racing and kind of give him my side of the story.”
After having claiming to have “zero respect” for the JR Motorsports driver at Road America, Karam now says “I respect him as a driver. I really do. I think he’s one of the most talented guys in the series. He’s earned what he’s done in the series. And he’ll be in Cup for sure.”
Finally able to “bury the hatchet,” the new dynamic between the drivers had an immediate impact.
“Then driver introductions came along for Atlanta and (Gragson) started just talking to me … and started to introduce me to other drivers and stuff as if we were like best friends,” Karam said, seeming to be still somewhat surprised at what happened. “It was pretty cool to see the transition of it all.”
With the Gragson episode behind him, Karam now moves on to the specter of Pocono Raceway.
NASCAR makes its annual trip to the 2.5-mile track in Long Pong, Pennsylvania this weekend.
Karam will be in the field of the Xfinity race on Saturday.
As a native of Nazareth, Pennsylvania, located just 30 miles from Pocono, Karam will be making his first start at his home track since the tragic race in 2015.
“It’s pretty cool that it’s finally happening,” Karam said. “I’ve been wanting to go back and race there for a long, long time. I think I wanted to go back for a while, but it wasn’t like I was really ready to do it. But to actually be able to be ready to go do it, I think is a pretty cool feeling.”
Karam was in the process of putting together a guest list for the weekend. He’s expecting to have a couple hundred people at the track, made up of friends, family and people who’ve helped him in his journey toward racing at Pocono again.
“Lot of support there, which is nice, especially going to a place that I don’t have the best memories at, to have that support group around me, I feel like will make the process a bit better for me,” Karam said.
Before he gets in the car for the first time, Karam plans to confront the track on his own in order “come to terms” with its place in his history. “I think I’m gonna try and go up there this week at some point just to go walk around it and just kind of see it,” Karam said. “I don’t want my first time getting into the track and like the emotions of the first time coming back since (Robert Wickens’ accident in 2018) being me getting in the car for practice or qualifying. I want to already address that head-on before I get there.”
Karam planned on riding his bike around the track a few times so he could experience the track “not at speed” in his stock car.
In 2001, Dale Earnhardt Jr. did something similar when NASCAR returned to Daytona International Speedway for the first time after the death of his father in the Daytona 500. In the days before the Pepsi 400, he and friends drove a car over to Turn 4 of the track and spent time near the spot where Dale Earnhardt’s No. 3 Chevrolet wrecked and came to a stop.
“There is like a healing to that, being able to see it before you get out there on the track,” Karam said. “I don’t want to see Turn 1 for the first time approaching it at 190 mph … I want to see it at a slow walking speed and come to terms with it and be like, ‘Alright, I’m ready to drive through you again.'”
Come Saturday, Karam isn’t particular concerned about what the result of his 10th NASCAR start will be.
“I don’t care if I finish 10th, 20th, 30th or last,” Karam said. “I think if we can just do the entire race and have no drama, I feel like that’s going to mean like the most to me.”
Listen to the full interview with Karam through the Spotify embed below.