Sarah Fisher will be back at the Indianapolis 500, but she won't be in the cockpit of a car. Instead, she'll be a spectator in the Dreyer & Reinbold team suite watching the Memorial Day action from above.
The race no doubt will be bittersweet for Fisher, who became the youngest woman to enter the Indy 500 six years ago. Back then, when she was just 19, Fisher was racing's "It" girl. The teenager from Commercial Point, Ohio, found herself on all of the major talk shows and was interviewed by packs of reporters.
Now she's 25, and she's no longer the poster child for the Indy Racing League. In fact, she's not even racing open-wheel cars these days. She's been following a new career path, trying to break into the world of NASCAR truck racing. And the new racing prom queen is, of course, Danica Patrick, who nearly won the 2005 Indy 500 and became a national phenomenon.
"It was so emotional," Fisher said of watching last year's Indy 500. "I'll be honest, it was tough. One minute I was sitting and watching Danica and thinking, 'Yes!' Then one minute, I'm like, 'No!' It was kind of like having that angel and devil on your shoulders. I have been wanting to be that person in the car but I knew it was really, really great for the sport to have a woman do well. Still, deep down, I thought, 'Man, I wish that could be me.'"
The mother of Fisher's fiancé watched the race with her and provided a source of comfort.
"She told me, 'You did your best, and it is what it is,'" Fisher said. "Then she grabbed my arm and said, 'Now come over here and have a drink.'"
This year will mark the second time since Fisher broke into big-time racing that she won't be driving in the Indy 500. She made her Indy debut in 2000 and had her best finish (21st) in 2004. She had some on-track success in the IRL, becoming the first woman to win a pole in a major North American open-wheel race when she was the fastest qualifier in Kentucky in 2002.
Still, she never could get things quite together to make herself competitive week in and week out. She was immensely popular with fans, but constantly fought for the right combination of a winning team, a competitive car and top sponsors.
And unlike Patrick, Fisher has always had a more wholesome, girl-next-door image. She's friendly, but, unfortunately, that doesn't always sell. You won't find her on the pages of FHM magazine.
"Everyone can be their own individual," Fisher said. "Being a woman just brings another element to the table. But it's the same with guys. You can't sell Mark Martin and Carl Edwards the same way."
Yet Fisher is far from giving up. Indy always will be part of her life. In fact, she makes her year-round home in Indianapolis. She lives in a motor home, however, and said she's ready to pick up and move if need be.
In 2005, she did the racing double, doing TV interviews with NASCAR team owner Richard Childress in Charlotte, N.C., and then flying to Indy the next day to watch the race. She was in the suite of her former Indy team, Dreyer & Reinbold. She has remained close with the team, especially since last October, when she became engaged to crew member Andy O'Gara. They plan to wed in the winter of 2007.
Although her off-track life is going well, she would like to have some racing to go along with it.
"People keep saying it's going to get easier and easier," Fisher said of not being in the Indy field. "But at race time, I think, 'Oh man, I'd like to be in that car.' I just sit there tossing my brain around."
Not that Fisher didn't have a chance to be behind the wheel this year. In fact, she was presented with two opportunities and said she had "serious" meetings with IRL chief operating officer Brian Barnhart about working out a deal. But in the end, nothing was signed.
"One opportunity was way overpriced," Fisher said. "The other was not with a contender.
"It's tough, but I'm a winning person, and I'm at the point in my career where I need to have the opportunity to do that."
So what is she doing these days?
She's trying her hand at NASCAR truck racing, of all things. And, as of about a week ago, she became an account executive with an Atlanta-based marketing firm, ignition. She has started taking college courses online through Ellis College, part of the New York Institute of Technology, in hopes of earning a marketing degree.
Fisher had planned on racing this season in the Busch East series and perhaps in some Busch Series races for Richard Childress Racing, but she never even wound up testing a Busch East car. So within the past month, Fisher asked Childress if she could pursue racing opportunities elsewhere. So now trucks are her goal.
"We hadn't even gotten the cars yet," Fisher said of the Busch East program. "It's hard in the smaller series because they don't have the value of TV.
"So I'm not with Richard Childress Racing anymore. I think he's great but his plate got too full and the sponsorship just wasn't there. If I had a couple million dollars, I think he'd gladly take it."
Fisher made the jump to stock cars in late 2004, driving in the NASCAR West Series. She was excited to get an opportunity to work with someone of Childress' stature and with Bill McAnally. Although she had some success out West, posting four top-10 finishes, she spent most of her time there incognito. Most of the buzz in stock car racing happens in Charlotte and she was thousands of miles away. She was lucky to have race reports in the local newspapers.
Only one woman, Shawna Robinson, has qualified for NASCAR Cup-level races, but she hasn't raced in that circuit since 2002. No woman has run a full Cup season.
Fisher has worked closely with NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program in an effort to groom a woman racer to reach NASCAR's top series.
Fisher said she wants to stick it out with NASCAR and isn't deterred by the fact that she has never driven in a racing truck before.
"I'd never been in a West car before last year, either," she said.
Fisher estimates that it probably costs about $3 million to sponsor a truck team properly.
"Money changes everything, huh?" she said. "It's just hard to justify some of the smaller series. I did well out West and there were some tests where I was the fastest in the test. But anymore, racing in general costs so much money. It's very difficult for all drivers to secure sponsorships. But I think we're getting close to some opportunities."
And Fisher said she has been exploring virtually every option possible.
"I need to go somewhere and get experience," Fisher said. Then she laughed and added, "I even thought about calling World of Outlaws."
The thought of retiring has never crossed her mind.
"Racing is too much part of my blood," Fisher said. "There's never been a moment when I've said, 'I'm done with racing.' I'm not ready for that yet, not any time soon, at least."
She just wishes she knew what was in store for her future.
Would she try running at Indy again?
"If the right opportunity presented itself, yeah," she said. "But my focus right now is in the stocks. I can't tell the future, although I really would like to. I just have to keep digging. A crystal ball would be nice."
She knows exactly what the past looks like. When she watched the media following Patrick last year, it brought back memories of the days when Fisher was booked on Jay Leno's "Tonight" show and her name made front-page headlines.
"I remember when I qualified for Indy the first time," Fisher said. "I got out of the car and there were like 50 reporters around me. I was like, 'Oh my God. This is crazy.' I just needed some room."
Now the media attention is focused on Patrick, and Fisher is literally on the sidelines. Still, Fisher will be among those keeping close tabs on Patrick.
"I follow her a lot, both Danica and Katherine Legge in Champ Car," Fisher said. "Like Danica or don't like Danica, she's a woman in a good race car, and I want to see her do good. And I want to see Katherine do good, too."
And perhaps one day, Fisher won't just be watching them.
Amy Rosewater is a freelance writer based in Baltimore.