Family, Team Take First Place with Sarah Fisher
Sarah Fisher made her first appearance in an IndyCar at age 19. She has raced in the Indianapolis 500 eight times in the 10 years since and in a sport dominated by men, she has become an unusually accomplished woman.
Her celebrity was assured.
"Yeah. I'm famous for my chicken and dumplings," Fisher crowed. "There are no leftovers when I make chicken and dumplings."
It's pole day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Sarah Fisher Racing's celebrity chef is one of at least 36 drivers, five women among them, who today and Sunday will attempt to qualify for the 94th Indianapolis 500.
The top practice laps by Fisher and teammate Jay Howard are well off the pace set by pole contenders such as Team Penske's Helio Castroneves and Ganassi Racing's Scott Dixon.
While Penske and Ganassi are about winning poles and races, 3-year-old SFR is about aspiring and building, about team and family. They're about Crock-Pot Wednesdays when it's all smiles and second helpings at the Fisher shop, whomever is cooking.
Lady and gentlemen, start your pots.
"Sarah's pretty good," conceded fabricator Robbie Ott. "(Data engineer) Mark Albert does a pretty good Crock-Pot lasagna. Those are two of my favorites - next to my pulled pork."
Fans had voted Fisher the most popular driver three times by the time she became a team owner in 2008. By then, she realized she was "the girl next door," that her sponsor, Dollar General, was the store next door, and that they could grow and thrive together if they acted their parts.
She and her husband and shop manager, Andy O'Gara, have built their team accordingly.
"When you start a company and lead a company, I think the culture of that company echoes off the type of character you are," she said. "Having that family atmosphere really helps because we're building and we feel like a family and we're all trying together."
Fisher and O'Gara were married in September 2007. Their first-born arrived four months later: SFR was launched.
Their "team" consisted of Sarah and Andy, Andy's father, team manager John O'Gara, John's wife, Jean, and daughter, Colleen, and Sarah's dad, Dave Fisher, a mechanical engineer.
There were four employees: Albert, front-end mechanic Nick Allen, rear-end mechanic Joe Ward and since-departed publicist Klint Briney.
"A P-R guy and three minions," Albert said.
It was a true startup. SFR not only had no transporter, it had no car to transport.
"For the first four to six weeks, we painted walls, we painted floors, we built cabinets and shelves," Andy said. "We did inventories of what we needed to build and run a team."
The character of the team is a reflection of its members.
John has 11 brothers and sisters. When Fisher began racing go-karts and midgets at age 5, her father was her crew, and later her crew chief. As a teenager, Sarah would come home from school in Commercial Point, Ohio, do her homework, then go next door to Fisher Fabrication, her dad's shop. She would help with business or they would work together on her sprint car.
SFR currently has 20 full-time and five part-time employees. Along with Sarah and Andy; John, or "Johnny O;" Colleen, now the publicist; are two nephews, Casey O'Gara, who handles subassemblies, and Mike O'Gara, an engineer on Howard's car.
No wonder Howard, who was brought on to run five races in the second car this season, feels he was adopted as much as hired.
"It's definitely a family organization and the atmosphere is always good. No one is ever arguing or fighting," Howard said. "It makes people want to go to work."
Family first and team first are pretty much indistinguishable. That's why Fisher stepped aside and put Graham Rahal in the cockpit of car No. 67 for the season's first three U.S. races, road courses at St. Petersburg, Fla., Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala., and Long Beach, Calif.
It's was Fisher's idea, her call. She's an oval racer. Rahal excels on road courses and delivered the team's first top-10 finish, a ninth at St. Pete.
It's about the team, not the owner, the ego.
That's why Fisher ran only three races that first season, 2008, and six last year with 10 planned this season. That's why SFR turned down the opportunity to run a third car in the 500 this month. When the team met to plan the season, Howard said, it talked about "baby steps, quality over quantity."
Build slowly, build right, and it will grow. Said Andy, race strategist on Howard's car: "We don't want to be a one-day wonder."
With a budget in the $5 million range, SFR has no more than one-third of the money of the big dogs, the likes of Penske, Ganassi and Andretti Autosport. But the team has come a long way from May 2008, when its sponsor bailed, Fisher wrecked her car and sympathetic fans donated $20 here, a check for $100 there, more than $50,000 in all, to keep things moving until Dollar General rode to the rescue.
Crock-Pot Wednesdays have grown from one pot to three, but there's so much to be done this weekend, this season. The hope for 2011 is to run a full schedule with at least one car and possibly two, to begin the transition from building to refining. Eventually, Fisher hopes to pick the right time and the right driver, to move from owner/driver to owner/manager and start a family of her own.
Whenever that happens, the plan is to maintain the SFR family.