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Sports Business

Sarah Fisher frozen out of IndyCar Series

February 21, 2012
KEYWORDS Sports Business

IndyCar Series CEO Randy Bernard has a problem. And it’s a big one.

The series’ only female owner—and one of its most popular people over the last decade, Sarah Fisher—can’t get an engine to go racing.

She has the money to pay for an engine. In fact, she has the sponsorship revenue to race a full IndyCar Series season this year.

Fisher has a promising American rookie driver—2011 Indy Lights Champion Josef Newgarden—a spiffy new Dallara chassis and a new shop being built on Main Street in Speedway.

The Ohio native’s team couldn’t be more all-American if it fueled its car with apple pie. Fisher couldn’t be more of a series loyalist if her last name was Foyt.

And still, Fisher can’t get one of the series’ three engine manufacturers—Chevrolet, Honda or Lotus—to sell her an engine.

Fans are starting to fume. Some on motorsports message boards are promising to turn their backs on the open-wheel series forever unless series officials step up to broker a deal—and fast. Sure, those fans might be blowing smoke. But at a time when Bernard is touting amped-up TV ratings and projecting attendance gains, he can’t afford to take that risk.

This is a tricky problem for Bernard.

Each manufacturer promised to supply up to 10 engines for the 2012 IndyCar season. Honda has stretched itself to supply 12 and Chevrolet is at 11. Lotus is at five, and according to company officials, unable to go any higher.

Fisher initially approached Chevrolet because she wanted an American company. But despite her team racing victoriously at Kentucky at the end of 2011, the all-American auto manufacturer told the all-American girl her money is no good here. Fisher turned to Honda, figuring at least its racing division was based in the good old USA, but by then Honda was over capacity.

Since engine manufacturers sell each engine at a financial loss, Chevrolet and Honda are not eager to rush to get Fisher an engine at their expense.

Lotus, the last of the three to jump into the IndyCar Series, has been behind from the start. Until recently, it was unclear if it would to be able to supply any engines.

Bernard could sweeten the pot for Chevy or Honda to try to sway them to make Fisher an engine. But it’s not clear if that strategy would work and is certain to raise a stink with other owners wondering why the series is doling out money to a competitor.

Honda officials said they likely will be able to add Fisher to their roster, but not until the Indianapolis 500 in May. That means Fisher’s team will miss the first four races of the year at St. Petersburg, Barber Motorsports Park, Long Beach and Brazil.

That essentially takes Fisher out of the 2012 series points battle before the year begins, and likely takes the promising Newgarden out of the Rookie of the Year hunt. It also puts the team at an extreme disadvantage for Indianapolis—the biggest race of the year. And that won’t sit well with Fisher’s sponsors.

At a time when everyone should be focused on the series’ new chassis and engine packages, and the first IndyCar Series on-track competition between engine manufacturers in years, the paddock and a bevy of auto racing writers are focused on Fisher’s dilemma.

Unfortunately for Bernard, and everyone else concerned about marketing the series, Fisher’s team is not alone.

Conquest Racing is in a similar situation, which is hindering the team from even hiring a driver for 2012. But Fisher is getting all the attention.

Several factors have led to the engine shortfall. First, there have been more blown engines in testing than anticipated. There have also been more teams requesting new engines than projected.

There were 25 cars on the grid for the 2011 season opener, while there are about 30 cars seeking to race this year’s season opener March 25 in St. Petersburg.

But this isn’t the season for excuses. For a series CEO, this is the season for action.

It’s a time to go green, not make your fans see red.

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