Dreyer & Reinbold Racing driver Sage Karam used his extensive simracing experience to dominate the first round of the IndyCar iRacing Challenge at Watkins Glen.
Karam – due to contest a partial IndyCar schedule this year for the Chevrolet-powered minnow team, and having never raced at Watkins Glen in IndyCar or Indy Lights in real life – impressed in practice and followed that up with pole position for the race.
The Pennsylvania native saw off another experienced simracer in Felix Rosenqvist of Chip Ganassi Racing at the start and built a three second lead before his pit stop at lap 15 of 40.
After the stops, Karam and Rosenqvist’s spectacular consistency meant the gap remained similar, until lap 30 when the Swede looked like he might reel in Karam.
But the latter stepped up the pace next time around and went on to take a “nerve-racking” victory in the American Red Cross-sponsored event – the first IndyCar race to use the new aeroscreen device.
There was a late moment when Kyle Kirkwood spun his Andretti entry at the penultimate corner directly in front of Karam – which the latter called a “code-brown moment” – but he managed to avoid a race-derailing crash.
The only other driver able to match the consistency of the top two was Penske’s Will Power. He made both of his two stops a lap later than the lead duo, couldn’t close the gap and remained over 10s adrift.
A late battle between two series rookies broke out in the closing laps. Double Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin – who tested with Team Penske in the pre-season – lined up a beautiful pass into the Bus Stop chicane for fourth with six laps to go, passing Oliver Askew.
Reigning Indy Lights champion Askew – who started the season in his Arrow McLaren SP team’s good books by helping to break down the pits when the St Petersburg opener was cancelled – was reeled in by McLauglin late, having established himself in fourth place after the first pitstop.
Askew had caused an early crash in the first few laps when there appeared to be some sort of glitch and he lost places. He then barged into McLaughlin at the Bus Stop, in a crash which caught out two-time champion Josef Newgarden.
McLaughlin suffered a broken wing but got that repaired and took revenge on Askew to take fourth late on, despite Askew regrouping and attacking again on the last lap. Askew held on to round out the top five.
Penske pair Pagenaud and Newgarden recovered to sixth and seventh, the last drivers on the lead lap come the end of the race thanks to the leader’s phenomenal pace.
Dale Coyne driver Santino Ferrucci drove up through the field to take eighth, ahead of Kirkwood and Conor Daly.
Ex-Toro Rosso Formula 1 driver Scott Speed had been on for a top-four finish in Marco Andretti’s number 98, but crashed in suspicious circumstances on lap 23 of 40, and he didn’t return to the lead battle.
Rookie Dale Coyne driver Alex Palou had a similar situation to Speed where he vanished from a strong top-10 place to finish eight laps down.
Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson finished 16th on his IndyCar debut.
Robert Wickens did not make his IndyCar comeback in the race after a rollercoaster 24 hours during which a delivery issue meant he didn’t have the parts for his sim to race.
After a sponsor fell through on Friday, Wickens was helped by a number of people – including The Race All-Star Legends Trophy competitor Max Papis – but he simply ran out of time to get the parts and get set up. He said he will return for the second round at Barber Motorsports Park next Saturday.
It was a strong day for IndyCar as four-time champion Dario Franchitti won The Race All-Star Legends Trophy race at Silverstone in Brabham BT44Bs F1 cars.
The next IndyCar iRacing Challenge race – the second of six – will take place at Barber Motorsports Park next Saturday.