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Fisher not happy with IRL, may leave

5/28/2004

INDIANAPOLIS -- Sarah Fisher arrived in the pits to take a
spin in an old-style roadster, another of those incessant photo ops
that must be fulfilled in the days leading up to the Indianapolis
500.

Unfortunately, the car stalled before it ever got off the line.

Sort of like Fisher's career.

Feted when she arrived in the Indy Racing League as a teenager --
and still the most popular driver on the circuit -- Fisher has yet
to do much behind the wheel. She doesn't even have a full-time ride
for the rest of the year, though she will start her fifth straight
500 in a second machine provided by Kelley Racing.

"It's tough,'' she said. "I don't have a job.''

Still only 23, Fisher hasn't lost hope that she'll get things
back on track. But the frustration in her voice is unmistakable
when she discusses her inability to line up a major sponsorship
deal, or the direction the IRL has taken with an influx of foreign
drivers and big-money car owners such as Roger Penske and Chip
Ganassi.

"The opportunity isn't there anymore for the short-track
driver,'' Fisher said. "Just look around.''

Then again, she's been more fortunate than most, getting a
full-time ride with Walker Racing shortly after her 20th birthday.
She spent two years with that team before moving to Dreyer &
Reinbold Racing, which employed her the last two years. Neither is
one of the stronger teams in the series, but at least she gained
some valuable experience.

There were flashes of her potential. Fisher finished second at
Homestead in 2001, the best showing ever by a woman in an Indy-car
race. The following year, she became the first woman to capture a
pole when she started up front at Kentucky.

But those performances were hardly typical. Fisher has only two
other top-five finishes in 47 career starts. She has failed to
finish 21 races -- sometimes because of faulty equipment, other
times because of driving mistakes. She has wrecked out of the Indy
500 three times, finishing 24th the only time she made it to the
checkered flag.

If Bobby Rahal has his way, Fisher may even lose her distinction
as the only IRL woman in 2005. Danica Patrick, currently driving in
Toyota Atlantic, will be promoted to Rahal Letterman Racing if
sponsorship can be secured.

Patrick already has made a splash by doing a racy photo shoot
for FHM, a men's magazine. During an appearance at Indy this week,
she also took a shot at Fisher's lack of success and implied that
it's stymied opportunities for other female racers.

"She's done some good things, but then there are some bad
things,'' Patrick said. "Like, she struggles, I think, with the
racing part of it.''

Fisher responded with a few obscenities and a challenge: "I'd
like her to get in that ... car and see what she can do.''

In fact, Fisher takes umbrage with anyone who suggests she
hasn't fulfilled her potential.

"I am looking forward to that first win,'' she said. "That
will eliminate what a lot of people are thinking.''

Derrick Walker, who gave Fisher her first big break in the IRL,
believes she was rushed into a major series too quickly. He wonders
how her career might have turned out if she had spent a couple of
years in the minor leagues -- Toyota Atlantic or the Infiniti Pro
Series -- instead of jumping straight from sprint cars to the IRL.

"She's been able to qualify quite well,'' Walker said. "But
when it comes to racing, that takes a different attitude, different
requirements.''

Walker concedes Fisher got an IRL ride much quicker than most
drivers of her age and experience because of her unique status -- a
woman in a male-dominated sport. She quickly became one of the most
recognized faces in the IndyCar Series, attracting more media
attention than her male counterparts.

There she was on "Good Morning America.'' There she was on
"The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.'' There she was on the pages of
People magazine.

"Everybody felt she was so wonderful,'' Walker said. "I think
that affects you. It goes to your head a little bit. It makes you
think things are a lot easier than they really are. When I knew
her, she was pretty vocal. It's good to be confident, but you've
got to get the results.''

At this point, Fisher doesn't have a ride beyond Indy. A strong
run in the 500 could change that, but she's also weighing other
options. She talks about going back to sprint cars. She would
certainly look at any opportunity to race in NASCAR.

"If there's an opportunity for me in the IRL, I'll stay,''
Fisher said. "If there's not an opportunity, I'll drive somewhere
else. I've got to figure out what I'm going to do.''