Byline: Amy Rosewater; Special for USA TODAY
Sarah Fisher was cruising along in her motor home somewhere in the middle of Wyoming. She was not exactly sure where she was. The reception on her cellphone kept crackling. She and her chocolate Labrador were on their way to Sacramento.
She didn't have a great road map, but she had a newfound direction in her life.
No longer racing Indy cars after nearly five roller-coaster years in the IRL, Fisher has embarked on a new career -- racing stock cars in NASCAR's Grand National West Series. She's teamed with Richard Childress, best known as the man who owned Dale Earnhardt's ride, and could run in a couple of Busch Series events this season.
"It looks like I'm taking a step down," said Fisher, who this season will race in places like Roseburg, Ore., instead of being on the starting grid at the Indy 500. "But I've never driven a stock car before this year. I'm not ready for Busch or Cup racing yet. I need to develop here."
Once the poster child of the IRL -- she was deemed the most popular driver in the series -- Fisher found it difficult to muster expensive sponsorship deals to continue racing in open-wheel cars. She attended a Chevrolet function in Washington, D.C., about a year ago and chatted with Childress about racing in cars with fenders.
What started as a casual conversation wound up turning into a three-year contract. Fisher is driving for team owner Bill McAnally under Childress' guidance.
"It was kind of coincidental that this happened," Fisher said and then chuckled. "It's partly Chevy's fault."
When Fisher first emerged in the IRL she was a bright-eyed 19-year-old. The series initially looked for young American drivers who could race on oval courses and wanted to create an affordable place for open-wheel racing.
Now the series has many foreign drivers and has even added road courses to the schedule. Sponsorships are difficult to land, and Fisher couldn't land a consistent ride -- even though she claimed the pole in Kentucky in 2002 and scored two podium finishes. She's backed by Levi Strauss and Domino's Pizza in her new Chevrolet.
"I can't say anything bad about the IRL because they jump-started my career," Fisher said. "But now it seems different than it was when it started. Personally, I don't like where they're at now, but I think that they'll do well."
Fisher grew up in Commercial Point, Ohio, not far from Columbus and always dreamed of racing in the Indy 500. Her dream came true in May of 2000, and she wound up making five starts at the Brickyard. She never finished better than 21st.
Although Fisher always envisioned racing open-wheel cars, she said she always followed stock car racing on TV. So even though her IRL career didn't take off quite the way she had hoped -- and she hasn't ruled out a possible return someday -- she's excited about racing in NASCAR.
"The fact that I'm tied to a winning team means so much," Fisher said. "To have Richard Childress believe in a girl . . . that he wants me to succeed means so much. I mean, he calls me back on the same day that I call him."
Fisher has driven in just one NASCAR West race this season, placing 20th in her debut in Phoenix. Her next race is April 9 at Mesa Marin Raceway in Bakersfield, Calif. Leading up to that event, she's spending a lot of her time testing at tracks throughout California just to acclimate herself with the stock cars.
"I thought it was going to be a tougher transition," Fisher said. "I have really great teachers, great people who are willing to take time to teach me techniques."
Among the people who have helped her with this transition are Nextel Cup driver Kevin Harvick and his wife, DeLana. DeLana's father, John Linville, had Fisher drive in a Late Model car for him, and then Childress worked out the deal for Fisher to race for McAnally.
One adjustment Fisher is learning to make is that the stock cars are so much slower than Indy cars, which can reach speeds of about 230 mph.
"But the challenge is not the speed anymore," Fisher said. "It's how do I change my driving style to make the car go fast? That's the fun in it anymore."
PHOTO, B/W, Roy Dabner, AP