Wheel, future in Fisher's hands

Driving Infiniti in 500, she has plenty to prove

Auto Racing

May 23, 2002|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

INDIANAPOLIS - One day about two months ago, race-car driver Sarah Fisher was out of a job. Yesterday, she was sitting in her garage at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, contemplating her good fortune.

She is here, driving a suddenly viable, Infiniti-powered race car that she qualified on the outside of the third row, in ninth place, for the start of Sunday's 85th annual Indianapolis 500.

"One week, I was out of a job; the next, I was in a race car, and two weeks after that, I was putting a program together for Indy," Fisher said, her blue eyes dancing. "I've been real busy piecing this puzzle together."

Fisher, in mutual agreement with her former car owner, Derrick Walker, was released from her long-term contract in March. She landed with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing in her Team Allegra Infiniti/G Force race car with No. 23 on its side.

Her teammate, Robbie Buhl, qualified in the middle of the front row and the Infiniti-powered cars are among the most powerful in the field. The question facing them is their reliability, and that, in truth, also is the question facing Fisher, 21.

The Infiniti engine has been known for its power, but not for its longevity. Driver Eddie Cheever, who won the 1998 Indianapolis 500 before switching to Infinity engines the next year, has been the leader in developing the motor.

He won with the car in Phoenix last year in a 500K race (about 300 miles) and was within nine laps of victory in Fontana, Calif., in March when the motor let go, 18 miles short of 400.

But, he said yesterday, Infiniti has tested four engines over 500-plus miles here at this 2.5-mile track and three of them have performed perfectly.

"To break General Motors' dominance, [Infiniti] has to be very aggressive," Cheever said. "It has to use as much horsepower as it can and then delete just enough to keep it reliable. At this point, we've done everything we can to deliver [the right combination]. No one will be happy just to compete any longer."

Cheever said he believes an Infiniti-powered car will win Sunday, but added he doesn't believe it will be Fisher's due to her lack of experience and seat time this season.

In two previous tries at the 500, Fisher has not made it even halfway. In 2000, her rookie year, another racer crashed into her on lap 74, and last year the race was only seven laps old when Fisher spun into the second-turn wall. In both races, she finished 31st.

"She is eloquent, well-educated and very mature," said Cheever. "But there is an impression out there that if something isn't hand-delivered to her, she won't work for it.

"The bottom line is she must not rely on being a female to be successful. I have no doubt she can be a contender. I tried to hire her six months ago, but at that time she was under contract," he said.

"What she has, you can't teach. Her gift is being able to drive the race car fast. What she's missing can be taught - how to stay out of trouble."

"It's a long, hard, grinding process, with lots of knocks," Cheever continued. "She's in the right series, but she needs to grab her career by its lapels and be in charge."

And it is at that point where Fisher finds herself today. At Walker Racing, she was directed to focus on racing, that the team would findsponsorship.

She was simply told: win or finish in the top five and the sponsorship will come.

"Last year, I overdrove the car," she said of efforts that resulted in one Top 5 finish. "I took it into corners faster than I should have. And you can't overdrive these cars. ... if you do that, you're not going to win. But tell a driver they have to win or finish Top Five and they overdrive.

"Derrick Walker gave me my first opportunity to drive in the IRL and I'm grateful for everything he did for me. I learned a lot," she said. "And if they had had more depth in their marketing department and more success in finding a sponsor, concentrating on racing would have been the perfect thing.

"But when you have neither a sponsor nor a race car, it eliminates the purpose. It would have helped to have had a race car."

Whether she will have one after Sunday is a question without an answer. Her new teammate, Buhl, said all he has seen from Fisher is a woman "who wants to race and who is willing to do whatever it takes to do it."

She's the one in charge now, the one planning her future, the one meeting with prospective sponsors.

With the 500 behind her, Fisher said, she'll sit down with her confidants and begin work on "building our brand - me."

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