Fisher now a contender, not an oddity at Indy
INDIANAPOLIS (CNNSI.com) -- Last year, Sarah Fisher was an attraction at Indianapolis, a woman in a man's world. Now, she's a headache for fellow competitors.
The difference is confidence and experience, according to the 20-year-old Fisher.
"In one year, I've matured from 19 years old to 35," she said, sneaking a peek at car owner Derrick Walker, sitting by her side and nodding in assent.
Fisher, who last May became only the third woman to race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, will start Sunday's race 15th in the 33-car field -- ahead of such luminaries as former Indy 500 winners Al Unser Jr. and Eddie Cheever and visiting CART star Michael Andretti.
"Unbelievable," she said. "When you step back and look at it, it's kind of neat. I'm starting in front of Michael. But that goes away. I can't drive up next to him and say hi."
At 20, Fisher is still full of youthful exuberance, her animated answers filled with "awesome" and punctuated with giggles.
A third-place finish last summer in an Indy Racing League event in Kentucky gave her a huge shot of confidence. Her second-place finish last month in Homestead, Fla., was her best showing in 13 IRL races and just another step on her climb to success.
"That filled me with confidence," she said of the Florida race, in which she was outrun only by 21-year-old Sam Hornish Jr., the IRL's other budding star and a longtime competitor of his fellow Ohioan in go-karts.
A year ago at Indianapolis, the amazing thing wasn't that Fisher raced but that she was here at all after Walker plucked her from the sprint car and midget ranks.
"I think about that every day or every other day," Fisher said. "Derrick took a chance of me when there was not a lot of reason to do it. Where I'm at now, I'm a very, very, very lucky kid."
When she got to Indy last May, Fisher had driven in four IRL events. Her arrival at the world's most prestigious race caused an uproar.
"It was like being thrown to the wolves. Last year was completely because of my gender," Fisher said with a shrug. "I don't think it had anything to do with my racing talent at all. I was an oddity.
"Last year, I didn't really know what to expect," she added. "I had driven in three or four IRL races and I came here blank. It was a steep learning curve. It's still steep today, but not the same."
Her newfound comfort level also is allowing Fisher to enjoy the whole Indianapolis experience this month.
"I'm a lot more excited about Indy this year," she said. "Last year there was such a tremendous amount of fan and media excitement around me I didn't have time to appreciate it, but I'm still only 20 years old and racing this awesome race."
Her first Indy race wasn't much fun, though.
On the 72nd of 200 laps, Fisher and Lyn St. James, the only other woman in the race, came together and smashed into the wall.
"The only regret involved in last year's race was that [St. James] got out of the car and immediately blamed the whole thing on me," Fisher said. "It wasn't close to being my fault."
Walker said the aftermath of that crash showed him that his new driver had what it takes to handle adversity.
"When the accident happened, I told her, 'Go back to the garage, we'll talk about it there.' When I got there, she was very upset, and there were about 50 journalists waiting outside to hear her version of what happened."
Walker, who also owns a team in the rival CART series, told Fisher to go out and talk to the media and focus on the positives of the month -- making the race at 19 and having a great month of May.
"She went from crying to a total pro just like that," Walker said. "She went out and told them what a great month of May she had. Her rebound capability, that ability to switch the focus to what's important, is very good."
Although there have been a few comments from competitors and retired drivers about women not belonging in racing, Fisher said most of the response has been positive.
"Even Eliseo Salazar respects me now," she joked, referring to the driver who blasted her after a crash last year in Las Vegas. "I have a lot of respect from the drivers. At least that's the way I feel."
Longtime racing star and 1969 Indy winner Mario Andretti, who has been critical of female drivers in the past, gave Fisher a thrill at a post-qualifying event.
"He came over to me and said, `Hey racer, you really did a good job yesterday, we're really proud of you.' I about fell flat on my face. It made me feel awesome. It made me feel like I was really part of the deal."
What others think about her isn't the motivating factor for Fisher, though.
"I'm very competitive," she said. "The biggest thing is to win races. That's the only thing that drives me."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.