Every High School has a demure girl who can matter-of-factly answer any question the physics teacher poses. Every time there's a group project, she ends up doing all the work. You never see her out on weekends—even though she's kinda cute. Her wheels are terminally unhip, usually a 10-year-old Chevy Cavalier with a bumper sticker that reads HONK IF YOUR FAVORITE NUMBER IS PLANCK'S CONSTANT.
At Teays High in Commercial Point, Ohio, just south of Columbus, that girl was Sarah Fisher, although her preferred mode of transportation was a race car. The reason she never hit the weekend party circuit: She was always off competing at some track in Oklahoma or New Jersey. "High school was kind of weird," says Fisher, who graduated seventh in her class of 178 last June. "There weren't a whole lot of cliques that I stuck to, not a lot of race car drivers in high school. But I didn't care, because I had a lot of friends in racing. I don't regret not going to the prom or doing any of the girlie things in high school. I was doing what I wanted."
Still, Fisher figured that the end of high school would mean the beginning of a more normal existence. She enrolled at Ohio State with plans to major in mechanical engineering. But her racing r�sum�, which includes three World Karting Association Grand National Championships and five wins on the Midget circuit in 1999, was just as impressive as her academic record. Fisher got a one-time offer from car owner Dale Pelfrey to run in last October's IRL race at Texas Motor Speedway (she started 17th and finished 25th after her timing chain broke), so she put Ohio State on hold for the year. The hold became indefinite when Derrick Walker, who won the Indianapolis 500 five times as Roger Penske's vice president of racing, hired her to drive for his fledgling IRL operation this season. They skipped the first race, in Orlando in January, but plan to run for the remainder of the season, including the Indy 500. Last month Fisher finished 13th out of 27 drivers at the Indy 200 in Phoenix.
Fisher began driving at age five, when her parents, Dave and Reba, each of whom did a little racing, bought her a go-kart. She loved the competition and the speed, but she also loved the science. Her mom, who drove a go-kart, and her dad, who competed in go-kart and sprint cars, were her crew, and since Dave spent a lot of his time working at his fabrication shop, where he makes hydraulic presses for large machinery, in Commercial Point, Sarah often found herself there too. "It forced me to work on the cars, to put engines in and mount tires, the whole rigmarole," she says.
When Walker decided late last year to add an IRL car to his CART team, he wanted a young U.S. driver who could win races while appealing to fans and sponsors. Fisher was ideal. "She can drive, she's 19 and she's a woman," says Walker. "What a combination."
The 5'2" Fisher spends much of her time working out and hanging around the shop, which confounds the guys who work on her car, most of whom aren't used to such a hands-on driver.
"They don't want the drivers to work on the cars," says Fisher. "That's what they have six guys to do. But they're letting me hang out. Recently they let me tape carbon-fiber covers for the tethers that keep the wheels on the car. That made my day."