Sarah Fisher grew up around auto racing. Her parents were drivers who first met at a track, and there are two garages in the back of Dave and Reba Fisher's house about 30 minutes south of Columbus, Ohio--one for Dave's auto body business, the other for race cars.
Sarah started getting behind the wheel of mini go-karts when she was 5. By the time she reached high school, it was not uncommon for her to spend Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights racing at three different tracks, possibly in three different states, honing her skills and winning dozens of trophies as she scaled the sport's lower echelons. Often, she would study in the back of a van on the ride home.
"I was doing what I wanted to," Fisher said. "I wanted to race. To not go to the prom or [not] go to basketball or football games, that's not something I wanted to do anyways."
On Sunday, at age 19--and a year removed from graduating from high school with a semester's worth of college credit and membership in the National Honor Society--she will race in the world's most famous auto event, the Indianapolis 500.
She will be the third woman and the third-youngest driver in the race's storied history. She will be, by far, the youngest female entrant. The two other women to run here, Lyn St. James and Janet Guthrie were 45 and 39 years old, respectively, when they first qualified. St. James also will be in this year's race, making it the first Indy 500 in which two women have competed.
But St. James, the 32nd of 33 qualifiers this year, will start behind Fisher, who is 19th in the field.
"I think it is a huge achievement," said Jimmy Vasser, one of the top drivers in IndyCar racing. "I have been impressed with her driving. She is a great talent, man or woman."
In simply starting Sunday's race, Fisher will take the grandest stage in auto racing--the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway--and reach a goal that race-car drivers throughout the world have struggled entire careers to achieve.
Virtually every famous name in auto racing has competed in the Indianapolis 500 since it was first contested in 1911: Legends such as Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt, Johnny Rutherford and Rick Mears. A sellout crowd of more than 400,000 will be on hand when the command is given to start engines.
It will be Fisher's first 500-mile race, and the toll that such a grueling distance exacts on the body and mind is hard to imagine. So, too, is the speed.
Fisher's car will hit speeds approaching 230 mph, covering the length of a football field in the blink of an eye. There is no margin for error; no room for hesitation. At such speeds in open-wheel racing, contact with other cars is a prescription for calamity; contact with the concrete retaining wall is unthinkable.
In addition to the danger, there is the pressure that goes with being the centerpiece of a multimillion-dollar operation. About a dozen mechanics, engineers and other employees work on her cars.
"That's the one thing about this business: You don't hire somebody like Sarah Fisher to do this unless you believe she can do it, because nobody is going to care a damn whether she is a girl or boy if she can't drive," said Derrick Walker, the owner of Fisher's car and a former executive for Roger Penske's fabled racing team who has worked with five winners of this race. "Racing is a great leveler. If you can't deliver the goods, nobody wants to know."
For example, Fisher was in second place during a race in Las Vegas in April when her car spun and she crashed into the car of Eliseo Salazar. In a live television interview, Salazar sharply criticized Fisher and said she should not be on the track. While Fisher and Salazar have not spoken to each other since the incident, Fisher has been accepted by most of the other drivers.
And by all appearances here this week, she has been welcomed by fans. At a mandatory autograph session for all drivers on Wednesday, the line for her signature easily was the longest. She never stopped smiling, even when a middle-aged male fan called her name from a balcony so that she would look up at his camera so he could take a picture.
She has the poise of an adult and already understands how to handle her media obligations. When mechanics began testing her engine while she was giving an interview, she quickly picked up the tape recorder and spoke into the microphone so her voice could be heard above the near-deafening roar.
"I think it's neat that I'm here so young, but I don't have time to sit back and look at what I've done," she said, her brown hair pulled back in a ponytail that had been tucked through a hole in a black baseball cap. "I've always got something going, whether it is the media or racing or something associated with those two. . . .
"I've always been around older people my entire life. I was only around peers that were my age when I was in high school and even then I didn't spend much time there either. I think that's really forced the issue of maturity."
The scene that has surrounded Fisher here is one the sport's organizers clearly would like to duplicate. One of the two IndyCar racing series, Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART), has special programs to help attract and develop female and minority drivers. The women's program, which is directed by St. James and was created prior to this season, has three drivers, all in their twenties. While none is ready to make the jump to the CART championship series, the program could help them reach that goal.
Fisher's professional racing career began in a manner not uncommon among other IndyCar drivers. She drove on small dirt tracks and spent countless hours learning from her father about maintaining, building and rebuilding cars and engines.
As she grew older, she progressed into more demanding racing circuits with bigger, asphalt tracks, more powerful cars and longer races. She passed her IndyCar driving test in September 1999, and on Oct. 4--13 days after her 19th birthday--participated in the Mall.com 500, a 500-kilometer race at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth. She started 17th in the field of 27 and finished 25th, getting knocked out of the race by mechanical problems.
Before Fisher drove in that race, Walker heard about her from Kent Liffick, director of sponsorship for Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Since Walker was starting a new racing team, he wanted to stay away from a high-priced driver. He figured it would be best to go with a younger driver, perhaps giving someone a break in their career.
Fisher, accompanied by her father, met with Walker in January and they agreed to a three-year contract. "She has a presence, a confidence about her that I thought, 'This girl can probably do something different than what any other girl has done before,' " Walker said. "And the thing that played into her favor was she was 19. There have been other women in racing that never really started as early as she did. I was naive enough to think that we could make a difference in her career."
Walker declined to provide financial details of his contract with Fisher, but he said she receives a base salary plus a percentage of her prize money, an arrangement similar to most driver contracts. Perhaps the most difficult part of the arrangement belonged to Dave Fisher, who no longer was in charge of his daughter's cars, even though he wanted to help as much as possible.
"I adopted a pretty strict policy early. Dad is here, Sarah and racing are over here," Walker said, motioning in opposite directions.
Because Walker's shop is in Indianapolis, she moved here and shares a house with her boyfriend of three years, Gary Prall, a mechanic for another race team. While she opted to race instead of going to Ohio State University last fall, she hopes to begin taking college classes part-time this fall and is hopeful that next season's IRL schedule, with 13 races in six months, will allow her to continue her education. She wants to be a mechanical engineer.
Meantime, she finished 13th in Phoenix in her first race with Walker. But this is Indy, where the top performance by a woman in the 500 is Guthrie's ninth-place finish in 1978, when she made the second of her three starts in the race.
"I think it is going to be exciting, thrilling, tiring, shocking, surprising," Walker said. "The Indianapolis 500, when you get there on race day, everything that you have experienced in the month prior, you can almost guarantee it's different."
Staff writer Liz Clarke, in Washington, contributed to this report.