Sarah Fisher hung up her driver's suit this week, turning her attention to running her IZOD IndyCar Series team and starting a family with husband Andy O'Gara. Fisher made 84 IndyCar starts from 1999 through 2010, but they don't tell the whole story of her substantial impact on IndyCar racing.
Fisher carried the ball for women at the highest level of American open-wheel racing in the early 2000s, bridging the gap between Lyn St. James and Danica Patrick. She was competitive and a fan favorite, voted IndyCar's most popular driver three times from 2001 to 2003. She was a role model for aspiring female drivers from coast to coast and beyond who wanted to make it to IndyCar.
"I was living in Italy when I was 17, and racing karts. My dad sent me an article about Sarah finishing second [at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2001], and that was what sparked my interest," said Pippa Mann, who is trying to move into the IndyCar Series next year. (She has spent the past two years in the top-development Firestone Indy Lights Series, winning at Kentucky in 2010.)
"Here was a series where a female driver was doing very well. It was just very, very cool and I started looking into it," added Mann. "Then, I started thinking about the Indy 500 and reading the race reports and started watching it on television."
Fisher was the third female to drive at Indianapolis when she made her first start in 2000. Janet Guthrie knocked down the gender barrier by driving in three 500s from 1977 to '79. Lyn St. James was the second woman at Indy, finishing 11th and winning Rookie of the Year honors in 1992. She drove in seven 500s, six in a row through 1997 and made a comeback at 53 in 2000.
St. James was an accomplished sports car driver in the 1980s, but didn't reach Indy until she was 45. She drove in only eight other IndyCar races in her career.
"I was 45 and I should have been a one-year wonder and gone, but I was not prepared to go," St. James said.
St. James was motivated, like all drivers, by the challenge and the competition, but she also wanted to be a role model to bring more women forward into racing. She started a driver development program, a seminar program that provides training in media and sponsor relations and other areas, in the mid-1990s.
"I didn't want another decade to go before another IndyCar driver emerged," St. James said.
Fisher, a Sprint Car driver from Commercial Point, Ohio, was one of her early students.
"Sarah was 15," St. James said. "John Bickford [Jeff Gordon's stepfather who has guided his career] recommended for Sarah to come and he paid for the program. I think he saw her run in a Sprint or Midget race somewhere and thought she had what it takes."
By 1999, at 19, Fisher was running with the World of Outlaws Sprint Cars and winning races in other short track series. Team Pelfrey, from nearby Dayton, Ohio, signed her to drive at Texas in the season finale. Fisher started 17th, but a mechanical failure took her out after only 66 laps and she finished 25th.
Fisher drove in eight of IndyCar's nine races in 2000. She led nine laps and finished third at Kentucky, the first woman to stand on the podium in a major open-wheel, closed-course race.
In 2001, Fisher drove the 13-race schedule and finished second at Homestead-Miami. She had solid sponsorship support, the first female to drive an entire IndyCar season. Fisher had become the most marketable female in IndyCar history, a breakthrough.
Fisher didn't fall into her third at Kentucky or second at Homestead-Miami. She drove her way to the front, passing veteran drivers. At Homestead-Miami, when Fisher passed Chilean Eliseo Salazar on the inside in Turn 3 late in the race, team owner A.J. Foyt told him on the radio, "You just got passed by a girl."
Sam Hornish Jr. won the race and he had a healthy lead in the late stages of the race when Fisher passed Salazar.
"I was praying it was more laps to go," Fisher said. "I was catching Hornish pretty quick."
Fisher also was the first woman to sit on the pole for an IndyCar race, in 2002 at Kentucky. She also led four laps late in the race at Michigan before fading to eighth. The crowd roared when she took the lead.
Fisher's achievements, two podiums, a pole and being commercially viable for a full season commitment, were, St. James said, "Historically significant. I was cheering her."
IndyCar teams and drivers were struggling to find sponsorship in the mid-2000s, the effects of the split in full force, and after another full season in 2003, Fisher found herself driving only at Indianapolis in 2004. She tried NASCAR, driving in the West Series in 2004 and 2005. Fisher restarted her IndyCar career with two races with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing in 2006 and it grew into a full season in 2007.
Fisher decided it was time to form her own team with husband Andy, who she met at Dreyer & Reinbold, and become team manager and crew chief at Sarah Fisher Racing. Father-in-law John O'Gara became the team's general manager. Both O'Gara's are experienced IndyCar team leaders.
Running on a shoe-string budget, some of it supplied by fans at Indianapolis, Fisher qualified at Indy, starting 21st and finishing 18th. The team was able to attract major sponsorship from Dollar General for two more races that year. Dollar General has stayed with Fisher, the primary backer for six races in 2009, 10 last season and nine in 2011 with driver Ed Carpenter, a capable, experienced IndyCar driver whose strength is on ovals. He was fifth in the Indy 500 in 2008 and eighth in 2009.
Fisher turned 30 in October. She wanted to stop driving, but also to keep the team going. Dollar General had to be on board without her as a driver.
"I was very honored Dollar General struck with me and almost all of my partners have," Fisher said. "I went to them and made them part of the selection process."
Fisher faces challenges as a team owner, too, for 2012. IndyCar is going to a new chassis in 2012, an investment of about $1 million, and she needs to plan for that.
"We're kind of looking toward 2012 with the new car coming out and trying to plan that through," Fisher said. "It's going to be a difficult time for us, it's going to be difficult for everyone to try to come up with the capital up front [for the new cars]."
But first, there is the matter of starting a family and making this season a success.
"Being a female athlete, you can't compete and have a family at the same time," Fisher said. "It's pretty much up to nature at this point. Now more than ever, I just turned 30 and I want to start a family.
"A lot of people are asking me, 'Am I really going to miss the wheel?' Yeah, a little bit, but I have bigger and better things planned ahead."
Fisher doesn't completely rule out driving at Indy next year, but it's not her first choice.
"If nature has its way," she said, "I won't be in a car at Indy."