Fisher is the first woman to qualify on the pole for a major NorthAmerican open-wheel race
Sarah Fisher leaned against the concrete wall, looking like a youngsteron the wrong side of the playground. In front of her, the first practicesession for the NASCAR Grand National West cars was underway, and hercompetition was already getting seat time at the short half-mile oval inRoseburg, Oregon.
Behind her, the crew was still getting her Monte Carlo ready for battle,fidgeting with corner weights. She looked over her shoulder at her carand then back at the track--and sighed.
Fisher knows she needs all the time in the car she can get. She's new tothe series, new to the tracks, and new to stock cars.
Sarah Fisher. Perhaps you've heard of her.
Five years ago, at age 19, she was the youngest rookie ever to qualifyto race Indy Cars and the youngest person ever to lead laps in theseries. She is the first woman to ever qualify on the pole for a majorNorth American open-wheel event, capturing the top starting spot andbreaking the track record at Kentucky Speedway. She also finished Secondin an Indy Racing League race at Homestead. For more than three yearsshe was the most popular driver in the IRL, America's homegrownopen-wheel racing series.
But none of that mattered to sponsors, who prefer to buy a quarter-panelon a second-tier Nextel Cup car over the nose or rear wing of an IndyCar. So Fisher was without a ride.
Last summer she was in hock up to her earrings and living inIndianapolis, paying the rent by baby-sitting during the day and workingnights in a pub. On occasion, when there was enough work to merit thetrip, she would go home to Ohio and work for her dad in his fabricationshop. During a dozen weekends last year, she used whatever money sheearned to fly to the West Coast and try her hand in one of RichardChildress' stock cars.
Fisher and Allison Duncan are part of NASCAR's Drive for Diversityeffort and RCR's Driver Development Program, which he runs with BillMcAnally Racing out of Antelope, California.
"We've been friends for a long time," McAnally says of Childress.
It began when McAnally was racing in the old Winston West Series andwoke up one morning to find his truck, trailer, and race car had beenstolen overnight from in front of his house.
"It was pretty much everything I had," he says.
Word spread through the racing grapevine until Childress heard thestory.
"He called me up personally and said if I would tow an empty trailerback East to his shop, he'd make it worth my trip," McAnally says. "WhenI got there, Richard took me back to his parts room and told the man incharge that I could have all the used parts I could fit in the trailer.
"It's what kept my operation alive."
FISHER'S MOVE TO STOCKERS
Crewchief Skip Eyler and Fisher share a laugh before a race on the WestCoast. Eyler flies
It was a chance meeting with Childress that got Fisher the developmentprogram opportunity.
"We were at a Chevrolet function and he jokingly told me that if I everwanted to get out of those little cars and into a real race car, Ishould give him a call," she says.
The next season, her sponsorship petered out and a prior racing contractleft Fisher in deep debt. The only race she entered in her last year inthe IRL was the Indy 500.
"I told myself I'd never do that," she says. "I never wanted to be thekind of driver who shows up for one race a year and struggles to make itwith a team or equipment that wasn't as good as what the regulars had.
"I decided after things with the IRL fell apart that I'd like to givestock cars a try, so Richard set me up in one of Kevin Harvick's cars atCaraway Speedway (in Asheboro, North Carolina). I didn't crash it, and Iturned some good times, so he offered me the ride with McAnally in theGrand National series."
According to Skip Eyler of RCR, Fisher has quickly learned about stockcars.
She's running with the biggest dog in the series. McAnally won threeconsecutive championships in the former NASCAR Winston West Series,beginning in 1999 with Sean Woodside, and following in 2000 and 2001with Brendan Gaughan. He also won the first NASCAR Toyota All-StarShowdown in 2003 with Austin Cameron at the wheel. More recently, he'shad Clint Bowyer and Kerry Earnhardt in his cars, but Fisher isdifferent from all the other drivers McAnally has ever worked with.
"She's not afraid to go fast," McAnally says. "Look at the speed sheturned at Indianapolis. She's not intimidated by the speed."
However, Fisher says it has been a quantum leap from the delicaterear-engined, open-wheel cars backed by a cadre of engineers usingmyriad computer programs to the world of small ovals, sheetmetal, andV-8s thumping in front of the driver.
"She has to be part of the engineering effort," McAnally says. "We don'thave a lot of that fancy equipment. She's the only one who can tell uswhat the car feels like."
That's been a bit of a struggle, though.
"An Indy Car you wear like a tight shoe," she says. "The first time Igot into a stock car, I felt like I could get lost inside there. Icouldn't tell them what the car was doing because I didn't know how itis supposed to feel.
"They're big and heavy and don't respond or turn like an Indy Car," shesays. "Actually, nothing I learned in open-wheel cars has helped onebit. In an Indy Car, on a big oval, you just never lift. You are wideopen all the time. I tried that with a stock car, and it just didn'twant to turn."
"The first time I saw her go into a corner, I couldn't figure out whatshe was doing," says Scott Lynch, who was leading the series late lastsummer. "Everyone else is slowing down for a corner, and she goes bystill accelerating. I had no idea how far she was going to go before shestopped, but I was pretty sure she wasn't going to make it to the nextturn.
Compared to the tight confines of an open-wheel car, Fisher says shefelt at first like she
"Compared to what she was running, these things are pig heavy and haveno power." Lynch says. "If I had to jump into an Indy Car, I'd be aslost as she was. Now that she's getting accustomed to the cars, we arebeginning to see her potential."
That potential is almost without limits, according to Skip Eyler, whoworks for Childress in R&D and flies from North Carolina to be crewchiefon Fisher's car.
"I don't think we've even begun to see her potential," he says. "I thinkshe's a world-class competitor with world-class talent."
Eyler says what his driver lacks most is time behind the wheel: "We needto get her back East in a series that runs more than 13 times a year.There is so much time between races, and we don't really do any testing.As a result, Sarah just hasn't had the opportunity to advance as quicklyas she would if she was driving somewhere else."
Eyler says one of her strongest attributes is her comprehensivedebriefing after a session.
"She's very thorough and very deliberate," he says. "She caught on rightaway to the difference between aero balance and mechanical balance--muchfaster than a lot of drivers who have come up through the stock carranks."
Eyler also says he'd like to see Sarah continue to progress throughstock cars and eventually make her way into Nextel Cup.
"I'd like to get to the point where we don't have women drivers," hesays. "All we have are drivers who are women."
On the track, she races like someone who grew up driving cars wherecontact often resulted in a helicopter ride to the hospital. She issmartly aggressive on the small ovals, taking advantage of opportunitieswhen they open up but not yet forcing their creation.
Fisher is eager to make it to NASCAR's big show, but realizes it willtake time. She accepts that, as a woman, some fans will be more criticalof her and her driving, so she wants to be prepared for the high-profileseries before she gets there.
"I don't want to be that 19-year-old kid climbing into an Indy Caragain," she says. "I want to be sure I'm ready."
For more on Sarah Fisher, visit www.sarahfisher.com
Jerry F. Boone can be reached at Jfboone@aol.com