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Fisher ready to see where dream takes her

8/12/2006

It was all a blur for Sarah Fisher, those early years and successes in the Indy Racing League.

Racing down the famed frontstretch at Indianapolis at age 19. Finishing second a year later at Homestead-Miami. Winning the pole at Kentucky in 2002. At the time, all were remarkable for a female driver in major open-wheel racing.

All a blur.

"It was a zoo," Fisher recalled. "I wish I could have enjoyed it more. I was so young and so stressed, trying to do well at every moment."

Those memories, piecemeal as they might be, are what help propel Fisher into this weekend at the Kentucky Speedway, where the now-25-year-old returns to IndyCar at the Meijer Indy 300 (3:30 p.m. ET Sunday, ABC), driving the No. 5 Dreyer & Reinbold Racing Dallara-Honda.

Where will this race lead her, if anywhere? Fisher doesn't know.

But this time, she promises to enjoy it.

"I'm so very excited," she said. "I love the sport. To be able to have the opportunity to jump back in, especially at Kentucky -- where all my friends, family, a lot of my core fans go -- that's awesome."

The last time she was in an IndyCar, and in the national spotlight, was the 2004 Indianapolis 500. She finished 21st, 23 laps off the pace, and a few months later emerged again in the minor leagues of stock car racing in California, running NASCAR Grand National West Series events for a team in Richard Childress' stable.

While Fisher was out west under the national racing radar, someone took her place as female phenom in open-wheel -- Danica Patrick.

The inevitable comparisons between Patrick's nearly-two-year IndyCar career and Fisher's four-plus years reveal similarities and differences. Patrick, driving a good car from the very start of her IRL career for Rahal Letterman Racing, exploded onto the scene with a fourth-place finish in the Indianapolis 500. She led 19 laps, including a few tantalizingly late in the race, and landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated instead of Dan Wheldon, the man who actually won.

Since then, Patrick has matched that personal high of fourth on three other occasions but has not topped the second-place finish Fisher had in 2001. Both have won poles at Kentucky -- it was Fisher's lone career pole and one of three for Patrick -- but Fisher still owns the track record of 221.390 mph.

This year, Patrick mostly has struggled, a feeling fellow Midwesterner Fisher knew for much of her IndyCar life. She never ranked higher than 18th in season points, and in 2003, her last full season, her best finish was an eighth-place at Phoenix. Her 48 races without a victory tied the series high with Davey Hamilton (since passed by Vitor Meira).

In a comparison of publicity and hype, it's hard to argue against Patrick, but she is also the current flavor. Six years ago, Fisher owned the spotlight, as well.

"I gotta remind my wife and daughter, 'Don't you remember all the play? When you were at Indy at 19, it was huge,'" said Dave Fisher, Sarah's father and her crew chief from her early midget-racing days. "The fan hype was greater with Sarah; the media hype is greater with Danica. But it's both good; it gets people to watch those cars."

That's the most refreshing thing that emerges from the comparison: the lack of rivalry or jealousy. For one thing, it's tough to have either when Fisher and Patrick never have faced each other on the track. (It's not, however, the first time two women have raced in the same open-wheel event, as Fisher and Lyn St. James both were in the 2000 Indy 500). And neither woman has kept tabs on the other, with each being busy enough in her own series.

But the contrast is still striking. Two women will race at Kentucky this weekend, one with a multimillion-dollar contract with Andretti Green Racing already lined up for next year in the IRL, the other with no guarantees in open-wheel or any other series.

"She put herself in a position to be in a great ride with great equipment," Fisher said. "She's done a great job. It's a really tough deal, but her age was perfect. To start at 19 like I did and to have all that attention, that was tough to deal with."

"I remember her from IndyCars somewhat," Patrick said. "I think that times changed, drivers changed, things evolve. It's probably difficult, even if I did know, to compare everything because it's always changing and evolving. I know that she did well at times, and that's great."

Fisher stayed close to Dreyer & Reinbold, her employer during the 2002-03 IRL seasons, in part through fiancé Andy O'Gara (a team mechanic) and owner Dennis Reinbold.

The team has struggled this season with three drivers -- Al Unser Jr., Buddy Lazier and Ryan Briscoe -- with road course specialist Briscoe delivering the only podium finish, a third at Watkins Glen. He'll drive again next week on the road course at Sonoma, Calif., but for the season finale at Chicagoland and beyond, the driver is anyone's guess.

But Fisher's hat is in the ring.

"She basically came up and said to me that she has an interest in getting back in the car, and we worked with her," said Reinbold, who agrees with Fisher that a top-10 is a worthy goal this weekend. "She's always done well at Kentucky, she's led quite a few laps, so it's a pretty good track for her to get back in an Indy car. For us, the timing was good on all sides.

"Our plan for this year is to kind of evaluate different drivers, see where we're at for next year. We know her talent level."

The deal for this week's race came together so late that Fisher had her seat fitting Monday and won't have time to get her helmet painted. Instead, she'll turn the tables at an autograph session and let fans sign the helmet.

But when she climbs into the cockpit for her first testing session Thursday, she expects the flood of memories and experience to come back. She has compared it to bowling, saying that she's not likely to roll her average right away but that at least she'll get the feel of the lane again.

And she knows Kentucky Speedway.

"I've been dreaming at night, waking up at 3, 4 in the morning," Fisher said. "I've been picturing the track -- I can see Turn 1, 2 and 3, hitting the bump at the exit of 4."

How does the dream end?

Said Fisher: "I haven't gotten there yet."

John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at johnschwarb@yahoo.com.