News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Auto Racing

May 23, 2010

Fisher leads way for female drivers/owners and she's loving it

TERRE HAUTE — Janet Guthrie broke down the barrier. Lynn St. James made her mark. The spotlight is always on Danica, but Sarah Fisher has really set the bar for women in open-wheel racing. She is the only female owner/driver currently in the IZOD IndyCar series and only the second woman owner/driver to field an entry in the Indianapolis 500.

Fisher shares some qualities with her role model Guthrie. She is smart, well educated and determined. Guthrie became the first woman to qualify and start the Indy 500 in 1977 and fielded her own entry in 1978 where she finished 9th. Over 30 years later, Fisher’s team that she started on a shoe string budget in 2008, is growing.

In fact, last November the team began moving the shop to a much larger facility nearby. The new shop tripled the size of the old one. “As you grow, you need more space for more stuff,” she said. “We have two transporters now. We have double the people, double the equipment. Even though it is not for a full season, we still have to have that equipment.”

Adding a second driver to the program brought the need for the space. Fisher signed 2006 Indy Lights champion Jay Howard to drive a second car in four races this season, and just announced a fifth. Fisher’s number 67 car has a nine-race schedule, but at St. Petersburg and the Grand Prix of Alabama, Fisher brought in Graham Rahal to driver her car and added Long Beach as well. Rahal finished ninth in St. Pete, 17th in Alabama and 22nd in Long Beach.

One of Fisher’s deciding factors in bringing a teammate had to do with the Indy 500. “I think it has been quite some time since anyone has won the Indy 500 that hasn’t had a teammate.” The last time a single car team took the checkered flag at Indianapolis was 1995 when Jacques Villeneuve did it driving for Team Green. Villeneuve went on to become the 1997 Formula One World Champion.

“It’s just a proven fact that two cars can learn more than one,” she said. “As we grow the business, the only way to grow one car is to add a second, in some respects.” The team has been able to add staff as well, which is helping both programs.

Fisher had Howard in mind for awhile. She knew him when he drove for Roth Racing. Howard had signed to drive a full season for Roth Racing, but actually saw little race time due to both lack of sponsorship and his seat being turned over to John Andretti for some of those races. After Roth Racing folded, the Indy Lights front runner found himself seat less. “He seemed to have it together off of the track and we’ve been there,” said Fisher. “We wanted to see if we could work with him and put something together for the future.”

Like many drivers, Fisher‘s path is packed with highs and lows. In 1999, Fisher made her IndyCar debut at the series finale at Texas Motor Speedway. The following year, Fisher at age 19, made her first Indianapolis 500 start with Walker Racing. That year she finished 31st. However in her seventh race for Walker that year, Fisher finished third at Kentucky Speedway, leading nine laps and becoming the first woman to stand on the podium. In 2002 at Kentucky, Fisher set the track qualifying record at 221.390, a record she still holds. Also in that year, Fisher qualified for Indy at 229.439, the fastest female qualification four-lap average.

Despite her accomplishments, Fisher’s racing career proved difficult to maintain. In 2002-03, she drove for Dreyer and Reinbold, but in 03, the team stats were disappointing. She drove just one IndyCar race, Indianapolis, in 2004. Like other open-wheel drivers, Fisher tested the waters of NASCAR. Bill McAnally and Richard Childers Racing signed her to run the NASCAR Grand National West series in 2005. She finished 12th in the points, scoring four top 10 finishes.

Fisher returned to IndyCar in 2006 for just two race, but drove a full season for Dreyer and Reinbold in 2007. Fisher announced early in 2008, she would become Sarah Fisher Racing. At age 27, she became the youngest team owner and first and only female owner/driver in the series. Last year, Fisher competed in six races, finishing 25th in the points with a best finish of 12th at Kentucky Speedway.

Throughout everything, Fisher has remained a favorite of the fans. IndyCar fans voted her Most Popular Driver four times. Her autograph line is usually one of the longest, and she realizes how important connecting with the fans can be. “It is so neat to have people in support of what we are doing. I’m just glad that fans can be a part of that directly.”

In 2008, Fisher’s sponsor for the Indy 500 failed to fulfill the contract. That made a difficult situation almost insurmountable. When word got out of what happened, fans began coming by the garage and giving her donations. Cash and checks of all amounts came in. A few last minute, one race sponsors stepped up to keep Fisher’s dream of an Indy 500 as a car owner alive. “It was awesome.”

The race itself ended early for Fisher as she was collected in Tony Kanaan’s crash. However, even with the emotional month and disappointing race, Fisher found the time to thank the fans. Those who she had addresses for got a piece of the side pod and a hand-written thank you note from Fisher. “It was a lot of writing, but it was really worth it.”

Being a race car driver, by nature, one would think that ownership would be the worst part of the business, but for Fisher, she revels in it. “I enjoy that part. I’m constantly learning. She has be able to shadow some successful CEOs and to watch how they do business.

She attributes her current success to a simple formula. “I think at the end of the day, I love racing. I love the people I get to work with. It’s so important that everyone on our shop floor contributes. To work with such good successful people who really have the passion and heart to see this team succeed, it just makes it a lot of fun.” She says she doesn’t have to strive to make it work, it is working because she wants to make it work.

Adding to the dynamic of the team, it is a family business. Her father in law John O’Gara is her co-owner and husband Andy O’Gara is her chief mechanic. “Working with my husband is fantastic. We have our bouts, but at the end of the day it is a very unique situation and we’re having a great time. We both love what we do and we don’t know any other way.”

Fisher added a new accomplishment just this month with the publication of her first book, “99 Things Women Wish They Knew Before Getting Behind the Wheel of Their Dream Job.”

The book is part of the “99 Things” series that addresses situations and what readers need to know about it. Fisher’s book is full of ideas, stories and tips for women wanting to and how to get what they really want in a career. CEOs Bea Perez (Coca Cola) and Angela Braley (Wellpoint) are contributors, as well as actress Ashley Judd. “Essentially it hits upon different things I’ve learned on my journey in the racing industry, things I wish I would have know and done a little differently.”

At just age 29, Fisher will attempt her ninth start at Indianapolis, to date the most by any woman. “It’s real. It’s my team. It’s my life and I love it.”

 

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