Byline: John Taylor, THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Believe it or not, the driver chosen most popular in the Indy Racing League for two consecutive seasons almost didn't make it to this year's first race.
Though the IRL fans, drivers and crew members love her, Sarah Fisher, 22, didn't secure sponsorship for tomorrow's Toyota Indy 300 in Homestead, Fla., until Monday - the same day she stopped by the nation's capital to promote one of her secondary sponsors.
With WeGotGear, a female-owned apparel company, on the hood of her open-wheel Chevrolet, Fisher can rest easy - at least until next month, when the search for sponsorship will begin again.
Fisher has overcome those off-track obstacles on the way to a successful start to her major series racing career. She surprised everyone by finishing second at Homestead in the first race of 2001, the best finish of her career. Last year she claimed her first pole, for the Belterra Casino Indy 300 at Kentucky Speedway, on the way to an eighth-place finish. Fisher ended up competing in only 10 of the 15 races but finished 18th in points, tying her career-best finish.
Now the Indiana native is looking for her first victory - preferably at the Indy 500, thus fulfilling a lifelong dream. She was interviewed this week by John Taylor of The Washington Times.
Q: So what brings you to the District?
A: I'm here for the Automotive Aftermarket Legislative Summit and what I'm doing here is, I'm the spokesperson for Raybestos, and we're talking about brake safety. We're trying to make the consumer aware that it's not safe to let your brakes go until they make the squealing sound. You should get them checked at least once a year.
Q: Once you hit the IRL, did it take long for such endorsement opportunities to start rolling in?
A: It kind of depended on the team. The new team I'm with, Dreyer & Reinbold, they're pretty open about stuff. I can go and do as much as I feel I can handle. They let me go back to school this winter - they're just open. They say, do what you can do.
Q: I read somewhere that you dropped out of school?
A: I put it off, I didn't drop out! (Laughs.) There's just not enough time. Since last year, I've been doing a lot of international travel. So when you take five days to go do two days worth of stuff, professors don't really like that too much. And most of the time it's during the week, so there's my five days of school during the week. That made it so difficult that I couldn't keep up. ... How I was getting through school was memorizing and getting through it. I didn't like that - I want to go to school to learn and get my education. I'm going to wait until I actually have time to learn the materials.
Q: I'm sure you get this question all of the time. But how and why did you get into racing?
A: My whole family, they're all into racing. My uncle builds sprint car engines and stock car engines, my dad races cars, my uncles race - we even have a ballplayer in the family who goes down to Daytona and races go-karts. So if I'd have done anything besides racing, I would have been the one out. So it's very natural to me.
Q: Did you enjoy it from day one?
A: I did because my parents made it fun. When you start at 5, it's against the norm for girls; everybody else was playing with Barbies, and here I was getting in a race car. But my mom and dad made it very fun and enjoyable, and I made a lot of friends in racing. When I was 12, I really started to enjoy the guts of it - the cars, setting them up, learning to dissect what they're doing, and then doing it from there.
Q: What bumps in the road did you hit along the way?
A: When it was just my dad and I, there weren't really any bumps. My dad worked enough to pay for what we did, and that was it. So I'd help in the race car, and there were some times when he'd be working in his shop and I'd be working on the race car. And at the end of the week, we'd get together and drive to wherever the next race was. And that wasn't a bump, that was more of a learning experience for me. The bump I had was when I first got started in Indy cars, just because it's so tough not coming from a family with money, because you have to do extra things, and technicalities get in the way. It makes being out of the car a lot more stressful, but when you get in the car you really enjoy it then. (Laughs.)
Q: What was cooler, winning the pole in Kentucky or finishing second in Miami? Or are those even your biggest achievements so far?
A: No, I'd say my third place at Kentucky (in 2000), my very very first podium was biggest for me. Because that first year was a huge learning curve for me, and to top it off with a podium was like, oh my God, we're going somewhere with this. And then the next year we had some engineering struggles and some team struggles, and it didn't work so well. But I'm with a new team, and we're starting to arch back up to that level again.
Q: But how did the pole compare to that? It certainly got a lot of publicity.
A: Yeah. but getting a pole is only a fourth of the battle. Sunday is a totally different story. One can go as fast as they can for one or two laps, but can you be the best at the end of a two-hour race? That's the goal that I want to accomplish. I want to win races, not poles.
Q: Do you ever think about running on other racing circuits?
A: Sure - every time I'm not in a race car. As a driver, you want to be in a seat, no matter what seat it is. You have to be in a seat. IRL racing has been my dream, it's been my focus my whole life - I want to run Indy, I want to do open wheel, I think it's really cool. And I've been able to do that the last four years, but only one year consecutive. For me, every time I'm not in a race car, if there's not an IRL race, I'll think about, what can I do to be in a race car? Does that mean I've gotta go somewhere else, or do I need to stay here and work hard? What do I need to do? I'm always second guessing. I used to be very high on, like, I must run open wheel. But as a career, you've got to look at all your options.
Q: What's the biggest professional goal remaining for you?
A: There's two goals actually. The first goal is to be in a car consistently every race and to have an offseason where you know what's going to happen the next year, you know who everybody is on the team, and you can start testing in September. The second goal after that is to win the 500 - whether it's the Indy 500 or the Daytona 500. I'd rather win the Indy 500, that's what I've always wanted to do.
Q: What is it about the Indy 500? Drivers across the board talk about it so reverently.
A: I guess it's just the history. It's been in place since 1911. It's the greatest spectacle in racing. I'd never been to Indy before I first drove there, so it blew me away. There's so many people there, and there's so many colors. People come from all over the world to see this one race. That puts a lot of pressure on people on the team. So to get through that month, to get through that pressure to be the first person to cross that line is really really cool.
Q: Do you look at yourself as a racing pioneer?
A: Nope. No. I'm not in it for that, I'm in it to win races. Because I've been doing it since I was 5, that's the only thing that's on my mind.
Q: Are you not even comfortable with that role?
A: I don't think about it like that. It's something I've had to grow comfortable with because it is a part of it, whether I want it to be or not. I just do the best I can for what I can do. If it turns out I go out and win championships and do well, then that's great. I'll be personally gratified, and whatever comes with that I'll deal with it.
Q: Do people approach you about that role?
A: Not really. I wouldn't endorse being a spokesperson at, say, a women's racing convention, because you can only do it to your ability. And that's actually a huge problem, the biggest problem I've had professionally. People automatically identify me with my gender before they identify me with my ability. And I don't want to go and try and educate young women drivers how to race that don't already have that natural ability. If there's a male out there that has the natural ability over the woman who doesn't have the natural ability, I'll help the male. And if the woman has the natural ability and she wants to ask questions, that's fine too, I'll help her. But you can't just take an ordinary person off the street and turn them into a race car driver at 20 years old. So I'm not out there to make footprints.
Q: I read you recently did radio commentary for the Pacers?
A: Oh, it was exciting, to be in there and try to think as fast as the commentators - it was hard. And the game was fast. The Pacers played Atlanta, and it was really even, back and forth, back and forth. ... It was colorful, that's for sure.
Q: Did you get a taste for it? Is it something you'd like to try again?
A: Not radio. I'd rather do TV because radio, man, that's way too fast. You've gotta talk like a million miles an hour.
Q: What's the fastest you've driven away from the race track?
A: Away from the race track? Nobody's ever asked me that before. (Pause.) 152 in my Corvette.
Q: Wow. And where was that?
A: Um, anonymous. And I don't have my Corvette anymore, so they can't track me down.
Sarah Fisher: "People automatically identify me with my gender before they identify me with my ability."[Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images ]