Byline: Tim Lemke, THE WASHINGTON TIMES
During qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 last weekend, both Danica Patrick and Sarah Fisher spent much of their downtime addressing the thousands of fans who came out to see the sports' top two female drivers.
Patrick, as has been the case at every race since her debut in 2005, diligently posed for snapshots and signed the latest magazine spreads featuring her photo.
Fisher, meanwhile, signed a few autographs and posed for pictures, but this time had the added duty of collecting checks and wads of cash - gifts from devotees desperate to help her raise enough funds to enter her car in the race.
The scene underscored the stark contrast between the two drivers, who, despite being women working in the same male-dominated sport, have had wildly different experiences in the months leading up to Sunday's race.
After winning the Japan 300 race last month to become the first woman to win a major open-wheel event, the 26-year-old Patrick embarked on a whirlwind media tour that culminated last week with an appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Her win seemed to validate the massive attention that she has received in the past three years as one of the most highly paid female endorsers in sports.
Fisher, 27, didn't even race in Japan but launched her own media blitz to bring attention to her new status as owner of her own team, Sarah Fisher Racing.
"I love racing," Fisher said. "I love racing, and I wanted to race in a car that I knew had a plan and a focus and had a program laid out."
She spent much of April looking to secure sponsorships to raise the more than $1 million needed to last through the monthlong run-up to the Indianapolis 500. And when her chief sponsor, the makers of the energy drink company ResQ, didn't pay up, it was a mad dash to find a replacement and rely on the kindness of others.
"I don't think we anticipated spending so much time replacing our primary sponsor," said Klint Briney, executive brand manager for Sarah Fisher Racing. "We walked through pit lane and fans are handing us checks for $20, $30, $100, $1,000. The amount of support is crazy."
Patrick has never had to scramble for support. She has scored big endorsements with Motorola and domain registrar Godaddy.com to help fund her racing, and Forbes magazine last year estimated that she brought in more than $5 million in personal endorsements, ranking her fourth among all female athletes. The number likely will rise with the win in Japan.
"She's incredibly exciting for a number of reasons," said GoDaddy Chief Executive Officer Bob Parsons. "She is incredibly beautiful - some might even say she's a smoking-hot woman. And she's at the top of her game in a sport dominated by men. She's got the handshake of a trucker. She's one of the few celebrities that brings it all to the table."
Fisher will start Sunday's race in the 22nd position, six rows behind Patrick, who qualified fifth. Fisher said she might have been able to qualify higher, but wind conditions made it too risky to take the track again. She has a budget for only one car, so crashing during qualifying would have been disastrous.
"That's the first time ever that being an owner came into play," said Fisher, who also hopes to race at Kentucky and Chicago. "We don't have the ability to take that risk with one car."
On the flip side, Patrick's Andretti Green Racing Team is one of the most experienced and well-resourced teams in the sport, allowing Patrick to go for the win at nearly all costs.
"Danica has an easier time of driving the racecar because she's got a team that's very established around her," said former Indy Car driver Scott Goodyear. "There has to be a whole new level of pressure coming to you as a driver and a team owner, and especially for a team owner like [Fisher] in the last month, where the sponsorship did not come through."
Despite their different status in the IndyCar Series now, both Patrick and Fisher had similar beginnings on the circuit.
Fisher broke onto the Indy Car scene in 2000, finishing third at Kentucky Speedway and becoming the first woman to lead laps at an IndyCar Series event. In 2001, she finished second at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the best-ever result for a female driver until that point. Patrick broke onto the scene in 2005 by becoming the first woman to lead laps at the Indy 500 and securing six top 10 results and Rookie of the Year honors.
In recent years, Fisher has struggled to land a consistent ride, jumping from team to team and even making a brief foray into one of NASCAR's developmental series. Fisher late last year broke out on her own, launching her own team with her husband and father-in-law.
"I think with Sarah, the dream has probably faded a little bit and she's holding on and hoping to continue in a sport that she loves and that maybe she didn't achieve everything she had hoped to," Goodyear said. "And with Danica, I think her personality is at a point where she's going to get to the front, and if she has to drive over you, she won't care."
Fisher has managed to replace some of the lost sponsorship money by striking a deal with local Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and children's book publisher the Seif. Briney said that over time, sponsors will learn that the Sarah Fisher Racing brand is one that sponsors will like.
"We're such different entities," he said. "We're small, we're approachable. Sarah's seen as the girl next door who anyone can approach. I think we have a different package to sell, most definitely."
One would assume that Patrick and Fisher have struck a female bond, but both say they barely knowing the other. Fisher said she has spoken with Patrick more recently since the victory in Japan, but that the two have different personalities and don't speak much beyond normal courtesies.
"I respect her ability and think it's really neat what she's been doing," Fisher said. "We're different people, but I think in the end we both love racing and we're both very passionate about being in the IndyCar Series."
And would Patrick ever follow Fisher's lead and branch out on her own?
"She is a brave woman," Patrick said. "At this point of my life, I couldn't even fathom owning a team. Much props to her for taking that chance."
GOLDEN GIRL: Danica Patrick will start in the fifth position at this weekend's Indianapolis 500. [Photo by Getty Images]
Indianapolis 500 driver Sarah Fisher arrives for a media event earlier this month in New York. Fisher will start in the 22nd position this weekend. Concerns about her car kept her from trying for a better spot. [Photo by Getty Images]