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How Sarah Fisher Could Make A Name For Herself At Indy Again

Now co-owner of CFH Racing, Sarah Fisher and her team pack a solid punch heading into qualifying weekend with three capable drivers. Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY Sports

The phone interview was finished; a range of topics had been covered; and Sarah Fisher paused before adding a final, unsolicited reflection.

"I'm standing here on the balcony of the pagoda," she said of the famed tower in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway infield. "You know, it's unbelievable how much you love a place, right?"

The easy-talking Ohioan who nearly beat Danica Patrick to the punch as the first woman to win an IndyCar race had captured herself perfectly. Fisher is, at the heart of it, a racer with a deep sense of history, an addiction to speed and no more to prove than anyone else. She, like all the others who have descended on the Brickyard this month, has a burning desire to forge a lasting legacy in America's most famous race.

And five years after stepping out of her race car to start a family, she may well have her best chance yet to share in that glory in the 99th Indianapolis 500 a week from Sunday.

Fisher, now 34, is a co-team owner of newly molded CFH Racing. She no longer attracts the attention she did in the early 2000s after coming out of the winged sprint car world as a teen sensation. Fisher made the Indy 500 field at age 19 in 2000, before Patrick arrived and after Janet Guthrie and Lyn St. James became the first two women to race in the 500, and she was a major media draw for years.

Although her best finish in nine Indy 500 starts was only 17th in 2009, Fisher made IndyCar history with a second-place finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2001 (Patrick won at Motegi, Japan, in 2008) and a pole at Kentucky Speedway in 2002 -- the first by a woman in the series. Fisher's success and the tenacity that brought it were reflected in three consecutive most popular driver awards in the early 2000s.

And yet, for her all her accomplishments as a driver -- she still holds the Indianapolis qualifying record for a woman (229.439 mph, 2002) and the overall track record at Kentucky (221.390 mph, 2002) -- Fisher quietly might be having an even bigger impact as an owner. ("I hate hearing that because I love driving so much," she says with a sigh.) What she's doing -- building a contender through an ownership role -- hasn't been done by a woman in IndyCar.

"She understands what it is to be a driver, and I think that's a big help when you go to be a team owner," said Roger Penske, whose teams have won 13 IndyCar championships and 15 Indy 500s. "I give her a lot of credit. She's been a friend and someone I respect. We need diversity in the business, whether it's the driver or the team owner or technicians or engineers. I've been impressed for a while now."

Fisher was the youngest and only female team owner in IndyCar when she and husband Andy O'Gara turned their merchandising company, Sarah Fisher Racing, into a fledgling race team in 2008. Although she and O'Gara are minority shareholders in what has become CFH Racing, the team is an outgrowth of that shoestring startup effort.

The team Fisher helped create through an offseason merger with Ed Carpenter Racing packs a solid punch entering Indy 500 qualifying this weekend. Co-owner/driver Carpenter is the two-time defending Indy 500 pole winner, and Josef Newgarden, Fisher's driver for the past four years, is a rising star who won the Grand Prix of Alabama last month. A third 500 car is manned by J.R. Hildebrand, who nearly won the race four years ago. All are capable.

"I absolutely think we're a threat every time we hit the racetrack," O'Gara said. "Otherwise, I don't think Sarah and I would wholeheartedly participate. It's just not who we are."

A hands-on, do-what's-needed manager

Some serious dollars are behind CFH Racing, thanks in no small part to Fisher's ability to foster relationships and build her brand. Carpenter is the stepson of former Indianapolis Motor Speedway president and CEO Tony George; Fisher partner Wink Hartman oversees Hartman Oil; and Carpenter partner Stuart Reed co-owns Fuzzy's Vodka.

The backing has given Fisher, who never could have thrived on her own, a fighting chance against the powerhouse teams from Penske, Ganassi and Andretti. She has put herself in the game, and she's a serious player.

"I have a lot of respect for Sarah," said Bryan Herta, another driver-turned-team owner. "I know firsthand the challenges of being one of the smaller new teams and trying to get established in the series, and she's done a great job with that. As a small team, they've probably introduced more sponsors to the series the last few years than anyone. She is obviously very good on the commercial side."

Fisher started Sarah Fisher Racing with a simple philosophy: Hire people smarter than you and let them oversee their particular area of expertise.

And then work it. From the outset, O'Gara says, Fisher has been a hands-on, do-whatever's-needed manager. Nothing in her team ownership role has been beneath or above her.

"In my mind, she is fully vested," O'Gara said. "I mean, she will do anything and everything it takes to make her team the best on and off the track. Doesn't matter if it is sewing patches on the drivers' uniforms, doing interviews in the middle of the night for out-of-the-country stuff, building marketing proposals, wining and dining C-level executives to get sponsorships or participating in engineering debriefs. She's there."

Carpenter drove for Sarah Fisher Racing in 2011 before starting his own team and gave Fisher her first win at Kentucky. Now, he and Fisher are essentially co-managing partners at CFH.

"We have five owners on the team -- we're two of the five -- and we're the ones that are in the shop," he said. "We all have our roles, and I think we complement each other well, and we have the mentality of doing whatever it takes to go out and compete to win."

It could be easy to forget that Sarah Fisher Racing came ever so close to having the lifespan of a fruit fly. When a sponsor failed to make payments before the 2008 Indy 500, Fisher and O'Gara had to scramble to find enough money to race. They barely made it by pulling together a few associate sponsorships and $51,000 in donations from fans, and then, on the Friday before the race, a one-off primary sponsor.

But after running as high as third in the race, Fisher got collected in a wreck by Tony Kanaan and wound up 30th with a damaged car. Her tiny team's future was again in jeopardy until July, when Fisher landed Dollar General as a primary sponsor and put SFR on solid footing.

Fisher drove the car in three races in 2008 and six in 2009, and the team ran four drivers in 2010, including Graham Rahal after he encountered his own sponsorship problems.

"I love Sarah Fisher," Rahal says now. "Sarah is, first of all, a great person, a fellow Buckeye, She didn't get too rich off this sport, or even necessarily try. She's in it because she loves it."

Racing a family passion

The story is told that Fisher and O'Gara got together after she plowed into him in the pits at California Speedway in 2003. He was her left front tire changer and front end mechanic, and she came into the pits hot, crossed up the car and pinned O'Gara between the car and the wall. Somehow, O'Gara managed to change the tire.

They did start dating around that time, O'Gara confirms, but the two had already become friends by then.

Sarah had come to Dreyer & Reinbold to fill in for injured driver/co-owner Robbie Buhl, and O'Gara, whose father, John, was the team manager, often visited the race shop to work on his brother's go-kart. Fisher had grown up racing quarter-midgets and go-karts with her father, Dave, a former sprint car driver, and she'd won some national go-kart championships. She and O'Gara, with common passions, hit it off.

Love blossomed, and the couple married in 2007. "The No. 1 thing I am most proud of," Fisher says, "is the fact I met my husband through racing and, together, we've built so much through teamwork."

Two children have come along -- Zoey is 4 and Danny is 11 months -- and, as you might guess, the youngsters are already seasoned veterans of the race shop and racetrack.

"I love this sport; it's a family sport, in my opinion," Fisher said. "It's been my whole life, so why would I not bring my family into it? If they want to be involved in it, that's tremendous and it would be a compliment. But at the same time, I don't want them to do it because I did. Because it's a very dedicated thing you do, and you have to put your whole heart into it to be successful with it."

What Fisher and O'Gara have, they've built together. And their first really big step toward elevating their race team to contender level was landing oil magnate Hartman as a partner at the end of the 2011 season. That allowed renamed Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing to add resources and hire promising 2011 Indy Lights champion Newgarden for the 2012 season.

Hartman was adamant the team needed to become a multicar operation to compete with the big guns in the series, and, as it turned out, Carpenter was also looking for an opportunity to combine resources with another team. The parties worked through some contractual obstacles, and the resulting merger announced this past August is a vastly more fortified effort than Fisher had in the early years.

"I think if you look all the way back to 2008 when she first started the team to now, it's an entirely different operation," Carpenter said. "It was literally a mom and pop thing in the beginning and didn't have the resources to go out and compete at a top level. Now, with our ownership with Wink Hartman and Fuzzy's Vodka and the combination of the two teams, we're in a better place than we were before."

And, although much of this is happening under the media radar, the racing community has taken notice.

"I think people don't understand the amount of effort it takes to coerce people and work with sponsors and car manufacturers to put a team together," said ABC/ESPN analyst Eddie Cheever, an Indy 500 winner and former team owner. And Sarah has very quietly and very diligently done an excellent job."

And maybe, if enough goes right, it could get her a piece of Indy 500 glory.