IndyCar: Influential Face Missing From the 100th Indy 500

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports /

Though there might not be a big production about Sarah Fisher not being at Indy this year, but there should be. She has meant more to the sport than any woman in history.

When Sarah Fisher first came to Indy with her signature smile at the age of 19 in 2000, she was not the first woman to race at Indy. She was following in the footsteps of trailblazers Janet Guthrie and Lyn St. James. As a driver in the 500 she has never finished better than 17th or even led any laps. All that said, as her Indy 500 career comes to an end, she has done more for women in the sport than any other.

Her first trip to the brickyard in 2000 was a combination of joy and frustration. Being only the third woman ever to start the Indianapolis 500, she was going to race against one of her idols, Lyn St. James. For the first time in history two women were gong to start the 500, Fisher 19th and James 32nd. After surviving her first month of May, she got collected in an incident during the race with James that ended her inaugural effort with a 31st place finish.

Fisher was able to continue to continue to prove herself in 2000 with strong runs in her Walker Racing, Kroger sponsored car. That year she became the youngest person to ever lead laps in an IndyCar event, and youngest woman every to finish on the podium with a third place finish at Kentucky Speedway. Not one to rush to the spotlight, she continued to work hard and let her driving get her noticed.

2001 was another year where Fisher continued to build her name as a racecar driver. Her 2nd place finish at Homestead in the second race of the season was the best finish for a woman ever in IndyCar. A record that would stand until Danica Patrick won in Japan in 2008. She ended the season with two top 10’s and was able to qualify 15th for her second Indy 500. She won the IRL Crew Most popular driver that season in voting that took place throughout the season.

The 2002 season would prove to be a high water mark in Sarah Fishers driving career. The season started poorly with her requested release from Walker Racing due to the Cart IRL split. She was given a chance by Dreyer & Reinhold Racing after the start of the season and made the most of it. She finished the season with four top 10’s, twice as many as she would score the rest of her career. She was also the first woman in north American Motorsports to earn pole position at Kentucky.

That year at Indy she qualified for what would end up being a career best 9th, being the first woman to average more than 229 MPH. She would also become the first woman to make a pass for the lead racing on the track during an IndyCar event at Michigan. She was voted most popular driver for the second consecutive year in 2002.

Related Story: Indy 500 Ticket Prices Hint at Past Glory

The 2003 and 2004 seasons would be a series of difficulties for Fisher as the IRL Cart split continued to deteriorate open wheel racing. Sponsorship was difficult to find for teams and exposure was greatly diminished as television deals became splintered. Fisher stepped away from IndyCar racing for the 04 and 05 seasons after a contract dispute and ended up racing the NASCAR West series. In 2005 she was able to win the rookie of the year award after four top ten finishes and a 12th place finish in the series standings.

After not being able to get her own NASCAR program together for 2006 Fisher decide to make a comeback to open wheel racing. After an exhibition race in 06 she was signed to drive again for Dreyer & Reinhold Racing where she finished the season and hoped for a strong 2007. Unfortunately 2007 was another disappointment for Fisher, but that disappointment led her to start Sarah Fisher Racing.

Fishers racing career as a driver was never able to recapture the glory of her first couple seasons that showed so much promise. What she did as an owner though, she proved to have an eye for talent and getting the right driver in the car. Even though she had the desire to race, building a successful team became her focus. Bringing on a young Graham Rahal for road course racing, hiring Ed Carpenter and Josef Newgarden helped get the program from a field filler to a contender.

The First win for Sarah Fisher as an owner came in 2011 with Carpenter behind the wheel at the track where Fisher herself has had her most success, Kentucky. A dream fulfilled, she has proven that she is more than just a driver, but a smart team owner. As much publicity Danica Patrick gained from her only win on the track, the win as an owner for Fisher opened even more doors going forward for women in the sport.

She retired from racing herself in 2011, continuing as owner and popular face around the paddock. She never had the glamorous photo shoots of several woman drivers that have come and gone from IndyCar racing. She never grabbed the headlines from publicity stunts, but she has done more for women in racing than just about any other. Her 9 starts in the Indianapolis 500 is sill the most for any woman.

She sold her racing team to partner Ed Carpenter prior to the season this year and began her life outside racing. Sort of. She opened her own indoor karting facility not too far from where the 100th Indy 500 will be run this year. In an interview with USA Today Fisher described her new challenges.

"“In the past eight years, it’s just a lot to shoulder and this facility just down the street is just a $5 million dollar project so it’s a lot of stress in itself. And we don’t have any investors in it. It’s just Andy and I. It’s not like I’m wiping my butt with money. You can ask the bank.”"

Looking back on her career and how hard she has worked at every level, I have no doubt that she will be making sure her facility is one of the best you will ever race at. All you have to do is follow her on Twitter to see her dedication to her new venture.

There will be no celebrations this May at the track for Sarah, no parade laps commemorating her accomplishments at the speedway. There might be a short mention of her history during a pre-race package, but that is undeserving a true pioneer in the sport. She was not the first female driver at Indy, but she is the most experienced. She opened doors for women all over the sport and showed what is possible.

From behind the wheel or on top of the box, Sarah Fisher has been a fixture at Indy for most of 16 years. He infectious smile will be missed as she leave a giant hole to fill. The sport needs more people, not women, but people like Sarah Fisher who’s heart and passion for the sport are undeniable. Her name might not adorn any car on the track this year, but her influence will long be a part of Indy lore.