Rounding turn four at roughly three times the interstate speed limit, Sarah Fisher heard the command from her pit crew crackle distinctly through her helmet’s headset: “Green flag! You’ve got a green flag!” Barreling headlong toward the front straightaway in the number-15 car, she slammed down the gas pedal and rocketed past the grandstand at nearly 200 MPH as 500,000 fans leaped to their feet in rapt anticipation.
The cautionary yellow-flag period following Scott Sharp’s early crash had ended, and Fisher was entering lap six of her second Indy 500 as the youngest driver and the only woman to compete in the 85th running. She would later describe the sensation of “hanging on for dear life” as the slick tires of her Walker Racing car fought to maintain their grip on the cold Brickyard asphalt that morning, while legends Al Unser Jr. and Michael Andretti gained speed in her rearview mirror.
Jerking the wheel from side to side in a desperate attempt to maintain control at escalating speeds, Fisher slid below the white line on turn two and skimmed the grassy apron ringing the inside of the track. That was all it took to send her turquoise race car spinning sideways across the track, into the outside retaining wall and Scott Goodyear’s number-52 car. Her rear engine sparked flames, the yellow caution flag dropped, and Fisher struggled free of her safety harness — her hopes deflated, and her 2001 racing season tarnished.
“Every time you set foot on the track, you have to assume that something unexpected will happen,” Fisher says, one week after the crash. “Accidents happen, especially to rookies. The trick is to evaluate and attribute those mistakes, and then produce results. If you don’t learn anything from a crash, you won’t do any better next time.”
Sarah Fisher is the fastest 20-year-old in the world. She races open-wheeled race cars at higher speeds and with greater skill than any other person her age. She also happens to be the only woman competing in a sport dominated by notorious heroes and hotshots — dashing daredevils whose daddies won the Indy 500 before Fisher was even born. She is an anomaly in racing. But Sarah Fisher is no novelty. This girl is the real thing, and she is working every day to prove that — to the world and to herself.
As Fisher builds her career on the racetrack, she is learning that good race-car drivers concentrate less on speed than on patience and determination. And great race-car drivers demonstrate less bravado than respect and poise. Here is Fisher’s own formula for a smooth-running, long-lasting career built to endure even the most devastating crashes.
Keep Your Composure
“It was a risk to sign on Sarah at the beginning,” says Derrick Walker, owner of Walker Racing and a 21-year veteran of the Indy 500. “I had no idea how good she was. No idea at all.”
That is largely because Walker, a native of Scotland and former general manager of Penske Racing, never saw Fisher drive before he offered her a spot on his national racing team. He says that he didn’t need to. She demonstrated such maturity and clarity during their first meeting in his Ohio race shop nearly two years ago that he knew he had stumbled upon someone remarkable.
It wasn’t what Fisher told him about her 14-year racing career that dazzled Walker, it was how she told it: with total composure and confidence. “I was absolutely shocked,” Fisher says about the day Walker offered her a contract and a race car that costs between $5 and $7 million to run each year. And so was Walker when the 19-year-old rookie brought her father along to oversee negotiations. But Walker remained unfazed — Fisher’s maturity and resolve had won him over.
“Sometimes during a race, you find yourself behind the wheel of a car that you think could get blown into the weeds at any second,” Walker says. “You need to have the inner confidence to stay in the race, make it to the next pit stop, make a few adjustments, and come back with a vengeance. Sarah has that confidence.”
Fisher’s self-assurance was broken in the first 15 minutes of the 2001 Indy 500 — the Super Bowl of professional race-car driving. She never even made it to her first pit stop. But the sport’s youngest competitor is not about to let one mistake — and a little derision from opinionated race fans — sabotage her entire program. With nine Indy Racing League (IRL) competitions left in the season, Fisher knows that she must remain composed and driven to perform well throughout the summer and to earn the respect of her colleagues. This Saturday, she will climb into a new number-15 car to compete in the Casino Magic 500 in Fort Worth, Texas, where she is determined to leave Indianapolis and its heartbreaking seventh lap in the dust.
“In this business, a small mistake can become a dramatic incident,” Walker says. “Accidents are going to happen. The most important thing is how Sarah reacts to her mistakes. Can she pull herself together? Can she maintain her confidence? Can she hold her head high and get on with life? Above all, she’s got to stay in control.”
At last year’s Indy 500, Fisher finished 31 out of 33 cars because of an early accident. This year, she finished 31 out of 33 cars because of an early accident. This on-track consistency does not sit well with Walker, who places a premium on experiential learning. His credo for Fisher: Remember it. Retain it. Act on it.
“When you are young and fearless, you think you’ll never get seriously injured in an accident,” Walker says. “The truth is, you only have so many lives in racing. You must learn a lesson from each accident because the same mistakes will come back to bite you over and over again until you run out of lives.”
Though she can’t afford to dwell on the crash that took her out of the running at Indy this year, Fisher says that she and Walker took time after the race to evaluate all the factors leading up to that fateful spinout in turn two. Initially, they determined that the tires were too cold, and therefore, the car was too loose to keep from slipping on the track in banked turns. But the crucial factor wasn’t a mechanical malfunction. Fisher herself was stretched too thin to perform well.
“I was pulled here, there, and everywhere in the days before the race,” says Fisher, who participated in a marathon autograph session, city parade, and various interviews on the day before the Indy 500. “All of those engagements diverted my attention away from the actual race. From now on, I need to concentrate on delivering quality rather than quantity.”
Walked couldn’t agree more. In the days before a race, he advises drivers to concentrate on four things: concentration, control, decision making, and speed. Focusing on anything else — like winning the race or even passing a rival driver — will distract them from the goal at hand: finishing the race.
Says Walker: “Crashes are the thing you fear most in this business — not necessarily because of the physical impact, but because of the psychological impact. They scar drivers mentally.” Last weekend, Fisher took time off to clear her mind and prepare mentally for the race in Texas this Saturday. There, she will push herself to place well for Walker Racing and to overcome the problems that contributed to her calamity at Indy.
Before joining Walker Racing in 2000, Fisher raced go-carts, sprint cars, and quarter midgets for nearly 15 years. She learned to race hard from beginning to end in short, intense competitions that hinged on adrenaline and guts. The IRL doesn’t work that way. Not even the most experienced driver could sprint through all 200 laps of the Indy 500 — nor would he want to.
Professional race-car drivers learn to temper speed with persistence and strategy to make well-timed pit stops, overtake drivers, respond to changing track conditions, and, ultimately, cross the finish line first. “A young driver has all the enthusiasm any driver could ever want,” Walker says. “The challenge is leavening that enthusiasm with patience, so you don’t go too fast too soon. You must learn the craft and apply it with confidence, rather than just rush into it.”
When Fisher first joined Walker Racing, she tended to push the car and herself a little too far, Walker says. But just one year has taught the rookie to aim for a finish, rather than a win, and to take a measured approach toward racing.
“I’m learning to control my aggression so that I’m not pushing so hard at the start of the race that I’m worn out by the end,” Fisher says. “Patience means plotting out your pit stops and communicating with your team, rather than worrying about letting another car slip by. Patience means thinking globally.”
Public praise is a double-edged sword for Fisher, who de-emphasizes the fact that she is a young woman in a sport dominated by seasoned men. When asked about the drawbacks and benefits of infiltrating an all-male bastion, Fisher politely steers the conversation away from her gender and toward her passion for the sport.
“Sarah simply wants to be recognized, as every driver does, for her skills on the racetrack,” Walker says. “Putting a lot of emphasis on the fact that she’s female is slightly derogatory because it puts her ability behind her sex. Gender should not be the first recognizable point when you talk about Sarah Fisher.”
Despite her reluctance to play media darling, Fisher has attracted a great deal of attention from the press. And before this year’s Indy 500, casual fans and IRL diehards alike smiled to hear Regis Philbin and Bryant Gumbel predict great things from the girl in car number 15. Though exposure often brings more corporate sponsorships, Walker couldn’t help but cringe as the glowing comments escalated before the race.
“It’s very easy to distort the media interest into a false reality,” Walker said before the Indy 500. “She’s competed in 13 IRL races and scored one third place and one second place. And now she’s entering her second Indy 500 with the closest field in the history of the race. She absolutely must keep that reality in check.”
Following Fisher’s dramatic crash on May 27, many of those comments swung around 180 degrees as reporters and race fans publicly questioned her ability to run with the big boys. Fisher would prefer to answer those questions with a win in Texas this weekend.
While she is struggling to balance her personal and public lives in the unflinching glare of an avid media, she does make concerted efforts to keep her image and ego smaller than life. “There are more movie stars than race-car drivers,” she says. “I don’t belong in the elite group unless I can demonstrate the same level of talent that every other driver does. I don’t deserve any special treatment or considerations. I have to earn the right to drive just like everyone else.”
“There are astronauts, there are firefighters, and then there are Indy race-car drivers,” says Bob Reif, senior vice president of marketing for the IRL. “It takes something special to race three-fourths of an inch apart at 240 miles an hour, flat out through the straightaway with your head exposed.”
If the danger and skill involved in race-car driving aren’t enough to keep Fisher humble, the competition will. This year, she found herself competing in the Indy 500 against living legends like Michael Andretti, Al Unser Jr., Tony Stewart, Arie Luyendyk, and Robby Gordon, among others. And doing so in front of 500,000 live fans and millions more watching on television around the world.
“It’s easy to become intoxicated by the history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and by the drivers competing in this year’s Indy 500,” Walker says. “Good drivers respect good drivers. But having said that, if Sarah doesn’t want to beat every one of them, she shouldn’t be here.”
Fisher recognizes that her team and her track standing will fall into jeopardy if she doesn’t perform at the top of her ability, regardless of the competition. To build a long-lasting, meaningful career, she must strike a balance between ambition and respect, intensity and perspective. She must listen intently to the advice offered by racers with more experience and crashes under their belt, and she must continue to prove herself by qualifying and racing consistently well. Above all, she must always be ready and willing to rewrite history by becoming the first woman to win the Indy 500.
“Getting here was the easy part,” Walker says of Fisher’s impressive starting position at this year’s Indy. “Now we just have to go out and consistently beat the boys.”