Fisher making the right calls

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- Sarah Fisher laughed. "I had my big-girl pants on that day," she said.

"That day" was the one when owner/driver Fisher decided to give up her seat and put a more competitive driver in it for the first two American road/street courses of the Izod IndyCar Series season.

Fisher called on one of the series' rising stars, American Graham Rahal, who finished 10th in his debut for Sarah Fisher Racing in St. Petersburg and gave the young program its best finish in 11 races.

"Big time, big-time decision," perennial contender Helio Castroneves said this past weekend in Long Beach, where he finished seventh. "Keep the car running, keep developing the car, develop the team, give an opportunity to someone else.

"I tell you, she might become the first woman to control an IndyCar team and be successful, and I'm hoping for that to happen."

Although Dollar General was supposed to sponsor only two road races -- the other was in Birmingham, Ala. -- the company with a large Southern presence opted in for the 36th Grand Prix of Long Beach even though it has no stores in California.

It wasn't a storybook finish. The team struggled throughout the weekend, and Rahal finished where he qualified, 22nd, after Mario Romancini crashed into him on Lap 59 of 85. Rahal said a crack in the chassis limited performance in practice and qualifying.

Nevertheless, it speaks well for Fisher the owner that she could make a decision at the expense of Fisher the race car driver. Rahal is, without question, the one young driver the series wants in a car right now.

"A lot of us tried to do some things to keep him in the car where he deserves and belongs to be," said former champion Jimmy Vasser, co-owner at KV Racing Technology. "Hats off to Sarah for stepping up and making that happen. ... It's a very smart owner move."

It provided a boost in the team's credibility around the paddock, too.

"When you are a team owner that can drive and enjoys driving, taking yourself out of the car to help your team takes a lot of maturity," said former owner/driver Bobby Rahal, who is also Graham's father. "Sarah's decision to bring Graham on for the street and road-course events at the start of the year shows the rest of the league that she sees the big picture and is working to improve her team.

"Those are the kinds of decisions that can allow her team to grow into a contender."

It won't happen overnight, but that's not the point. Fisher's extraordinary decision showed business, marketing and racing savvy and proved she was in it for the long haul.

A lack of sponsorship prevented Graham Rahal's return to Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing, although there is speculation he may drive for the storied team at Indianapolis. He won his debut in the IndyCar Series in 2008 after spending his first year in Champ Car. This will be his fourth season.

Fisher, who developed a girl-next-door reputation, broke on the scene 10 years ago as a 19-year-old in the Indy 500 and dominated the Most Popular Driver voting before Danica Patrick came along.

"If being a team owner and putting together programs that can help other people and give kids like Graham an opportunity to drive a race car where they should be, I want to do that," Fisher said. "That is fantastic. I don't get any more joy out of it than that.

"I see the big picture of what I'm doing. I'm almost 30 years old, and as a driver, I want to be a part of racing forever."

Fisher will make her season debut at Kansas Speedway, an oval where she has four finishes between 11th and 14th. But she knew, after testing, she wouldn't be competitive in these early road races.

Rahal will probably miss the next race, and there is no guarantee yet for Indy. That's bad news for him as well as the series.

"It's been pretty frustrating, actually it's been disappointing," Rahal said. "We had such a great year last year and thought we were going to do nothing but go forward and get better and better."

New CEO Randy Bernard recognizes the problem. Some drivers in the field are there because they bring the sponsorship, rather than teams choosing who they want to pilot their cars.

"I don't think it's fair that some people buy their way onto our tour, in my opinion, but I understand it because of the economics of our sport," Bernard said.

All of which makes Fisher's decision more impressive.