Saturday, May 27, 2000

Fisher not just a novelty




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        INDIANAPOLIS — She is neither a publicity stunt nor a political statement. Sarah Fisher has no message, no mission, no cause and no contrition. She makes no apologies for being the youngest woman ever to compete in the Indianapolis 500, and she expects no allowances.

        “If we're up there racing with Juan Montoya, so be it,” she said. “But I don't expect to win it my first time out.”

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Sarah Fisher talks with CART champion Juan Montoya.
(AP photos)
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        She is 19 years old, young enough to know everything but smart enough to know better. Though Eliseo Salazar says she's not “serious” enough and belongs in Powder-Puff racing — blame it on a wreck last month in Las Vegas — Fisher has a fan in four-time Indy winner Al Unser Sr. What he likes is that she listens.

        Racing is a bad business for the headstrong and the heedless, and few tracks are as unforgiving as The Brickyard. Thursday, Al Unser Jr. issued a public warning aimed at Montoya, the daring CART champion.

        “You better respect Indianapolis,” he said, “because Indianapolis will bite you hard and you don't walk away from it. They carry people away from here in stretchers.”

        It is the risks inherent in Indy racing that make Fisher's debut here so compelling and so discomforting. Some of us who generally endorse gender equity are troubled by the notion of a teen-age girl competing in this dangerous arena.

        Is this sexist or simply parental instinct? You tell me. Truth be told, most of us wouldn't want our sons racing at Indy any more than our daughters.

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Fisher started racing at 5.
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        Reba Fisher, the driver's mother, compares the injury potential of auto racing to that of football. This is at best disingenuous and at worst delusional. Earlier this month, 19-year-old Adam Petty perished in a one-car crash during a practice run at Loudon, N.H. It is a rare football injury that results in a fatality.

        “It (danger) doesn't really affect me when I get in the car,” Sarah Fisher said. “If it did, I'd have to quit racing.”

        She has been over this ground so many times now that her answers have come to sound scripted. Though Fisher is new to Indy, she has been racing one jalopy or another since she was 5 years old. She attained enough notoriety to warrant a Today Show appearance as a 10th-grader at Teays Valley (Ohio) High School. If she has wearied of answering the same tired questions, she recognizes that media interest begets sponsor interest. Racing team owner Derrick Walker signed her before he had ever seen her drive.

        “It crossed my mind that Sarah could be an asset in the sense where, when you're trying to sell racing, having something different gives you an opportunity to touch people who otherwise wouldn't be interested,” Walker said. “But at the end of the day, I still believe that asset is only going to be worth it if she can bloody drive.”

        Fisher qualified last week at 220.237 mph, good enough for the 19th spot in Sunday's starting grid. She joins Janet Guthrie and Lyn St.James in the small sorority who have competed at Indy. Her goal is to be regarded not as another woman driver but as the one the men have to chase.

        “Lyn helped kick the door open,” Fisher said. “But I want to blow it open. I want to win.”

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your email at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

Indy 500 coverage from Associated Press



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