A group of motorsports journalists stood open-mouthed along the wall of the Texas Motor Speedway in 1999 as they watched
19-year-old Sarah Fisher, fresh from the sprint car and dirt track circuits, zip past veteran open-wheel racers Buddy Lazier
and Billy Boat.
A murmur emanated from the onlookers as they watched Fisher pass on the outside in her first practice laps in an Indy Racing League car, a considerable feat for the best driver. This fresh-faced girl from Commercial Point, Ohio, was no circus sideshow.
"You could see from the beginning, she could really drive," said veteran motorsports journalist Robin Miller.
What happened to Fisher over the next nine years is equally amazing--and mystifying--to those same motorsports experts who watched her in Texas.
"The [Indy Racing League] system failed Sarah Fisher," Miller said. "Because she never got the backing, nobody really knows what her true potential as a race driver is. And we may never know."
Though some consider her career dead, the doe-eyed, iron-willed Fisher is trying to rewrite the final lines of her open-wheel epitaph. At the end of February, Fisher, 27, launched Sarah Fisher Racing, which is headquartered in a space about the size of a three-car garage off Rockville Road, east of Lynhurst Drive. Compared to IRL behemoths like Team Penske or Andretti Green Racing, Fisher is operating out of a shoebox--and on a shoestring.
In a world where it takes $7 million a year to run a single car near the front, Fisher is getting by on about a 10th of that, which she scraped together from personal savings, family, friends and a few loyal sponsors.
Racing in a league where the big teams spend $50,000 to modify a rearview mirror to gain a tenth of a mile an hour, Fisher will come to qualifying at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this month with no wind tunnel testing, far fewer practice laps than most of her competitors, and a single car and engine that she cannot afford to crash.
"Her margin of error is pretty thin," said Tim Frost, a Chicago-based motorsports business expert.
Some call Fisher's formation of her own team a brave, pioneering initiative. Others call it a desperate move by a driver nobody will hire. But for the first time, Fisher has control of her own destiny.
"Her career, maybe her entire career, depends on how she does this May," said Lyn St. James, the second woman, after Janet Guthrie, to race in the Indianapolis 500. "Her results this year will have a huge impact on the [sponsorship] support she can get for next year. She has a lot of pressure on her shoulders."
With her primary sponsor, ResQ Pure Power Energy Drink, recently backing out of its financial commitment, her performance this month has become that much more important.
Fisher has enough resources to continue her quest to race the Indianapolis 500, but it's not clear that she'll be able to race in Kentucky, Chicago, Texas or Richmond.
Quoting retired tennis great Billie Jean King, Fisher says, "Pressure is a privilege."
Walking around her garage days before the Speedway opened and wearing jeans, a T-shirt and flip-flops, Fisher said being surrounded by people who believe in her makes all the difference.
Fisher's husband, Andy O'Gara, is her crew chief. Her father-in-law, John O'Gara, is general manager. Fisher's father, Dave Fisher, who owns Fisher Fabrication in Ohio, is also on staff.
Her remaining sponsors--including AAA and Tag Heuer--are fiercely loyal.
"Sarah has some rare qualities," said Gary Michelson, AAA senior vice president. "She's extremely approachable, very good with children, has a good sense of family, and a good sense of humor. She also has the drive it takes to make it in a tough sport like this."
While optimistic, Fisher remains realistic. She hopes to qualify in the middle of the field for the Indy 500. She thinks if all goes well, a top 10 finish isn't beyond reach. Her best finish in six previous Indy 500s was 18th in 2007.
"She's never done great at Indianapolis, but her strength is oval racing, so she's got a shot," Miller, the sportswriter said.
Eye to the future
Fisher isn't the first woman to own a team. Guthrie in the late 1970s and St. James in the late 1990s had short, mostly unsuccessful, forays into team ownership.
"It simply ended up being too much," St. James said.
Fisher isn't looking at Indianapolis as a one-off event. In 2009, she intends to run all the oval races and perhaps the entire IRL season. In five to 10 years--even after her own driving days are done--she wants to operate a multi-car team. Down deep, Fisher hopes to give other women drivers the opportunity she never had.
Despite an aw-shucks demeanor and cherubic smile, Fisher has a hard edge that some motorsports sources said gives her a glimmer of hope against staggering odds.
"She's determined," said Derrick Walker, an open-wheel team owner who employed Fisher in 2000 and 2001. "She has an absolute will to succeed that you don't see very often."
Fisher's will to win has often come crashing into a brick wall few can explain. Since her first race for the underfunded Team Pelfrey in Texas in 1999--where her timing chain broke and she finished 25th--Fisher's career has been filled with glimpses of promise followed by flameout performances.
She bounced from one underfunded effort to the next, and even took business and marketing classes at Butler University and Ellis College to hone her skills with sponsors.
Mysterious sponsor troubles
Much of Fisher's failures can be tracked to her inability to land a ride with a big-time team like Andretti Green Racing, which employs Danica Patrick, or to gain traction with a deep-pocketed sponsor.
Some sources said that when Fisher was younger, she was emotional and difficult to deal with. Others said she simply didn't have the early results needed to wow sponsors.
Neither explanation makes much sense to those who watched her develop from a national go-karting champion to a driver who grabbed fourth place in an IRL race while leading nine laps at Kentucky her rookie year. She placed second during her second year at Homestead and qualified for the pole position--a first for a woman--her third year at Kentucky.
"I think if she had a $7 million budget, she could be very competitive in this series," said Zak Brown, president of Just Marketing, an Indianapolis motorsports marketing firm. "I think she could win the Indianapolis 500. That makes her dilemma that much more intriguing."
There is little doubt the IRL could benefit from Fisher's presence. She was voted the series' most popular driver by fans in 2001, 2002 and 2003.
Despite her popularity, Fisher was overshadowed by another young phenom, Sam Hornish Jr. Why she didn't get the same opportunities Hornish did--first with Panther Racing, then later with Team Penske--is anybody's guess. Coming up as teen-agers, Fisher and Hornish were equals on the track.
In 2005, when Fisher left the IRL to race in a West Coast NASCAR feeder series, Patrick crashed the open-wheel scene. If Fisher wonders how the more glamorous Patrick landed with well-funded teams while she drove year-old cars and worse while in the IRL, she never lets on.
"I don't spend a lot of energy wondering about the past," Fisher said. "We have to spend all of our energy making sure tomorrow is the best it can be."
But asked if she's as good a driver as Patrick, Fisher doesn't hesitate.
"Oh yeah," she said, eyebrows raised high. Patrick's success on the track, first leading laps of the Indianapolis 500 two years ago then winning at Japan this year, hasn't done much to raise Fisher's profile. Even during a recent New York media tour, Fisher spent as much time answering questions about Patrick's success as her own future.
Still, there are those who see potential in Fisher's future.
Eddie Gossage, president of the Texas Motor Speedway, called Fisher, not Patrick, the most talented female driver open-wheel racing has ever known. And last year, Fisher proved to be pretty reliable while racing for Dreyer Reinbold Racing, finishing 16 of 17 races.
DRR team owner Dennis Reinbold said Fisher has matured a great deal since her early days in the IRL and he has seen her confidence skyrocket.
Gossage chuckled as he recalled his first meeting with Fisher at a lunch with her and her father. Gossage said Fisher stared at her plate and didn't say a word. She's more vocal now, he said.
"I've learned to speak up and be heard," Fisher said. "I've learned that interaction with sponsors is key. Besides, I married into an Irish Catholic family, so I had to learn to speak up. If I've learned one thing through the years, it's that if you don't speak up for yourself, nobody will."