May in Indianapolis means racing. The tradition is a century long and grows deeper this year with the addition of the Grand Prix, giving us two races this month. Can you feel the excitement? Yes, I’m sure you can.
For most of the rest of the United States, however, May is about Mother’s Day, which occurs the second Sunday of the month. Consider this a friendly reminder so you can purchase her gift now.
Intersections between racing and Mothers’ Day are few, but I doubt we could find anyone who embodies the spirit of both any more passionately than does Sarah Fisher, whose team not only has already managed two top-ten finishes in this young IndyCar season, but is, simultaneously, very pregnant with her second child due just two weeks after the Indianapolis 500. Oh, and she’s going to school to complete her degree. Did I mention she’s involved with a number of charitable causes as well? Are you beginning to get the feeling this young woman just doesn’t stop?
I should probably pause for a moment and introduce Ms. Fisher to those who have their heads buried in the sand when it comes to racing. Sarah started racing quarter midgets and go-karts when she was five and kept going from there. She was the youngest woman to ever compete at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS), the fastest woman to ever qualify for the Indy 500, the first woman to qualify fastest for a major North American open-wheel event, and started the Indy 500 nine times, more than any other female driver. Now in her seventh year as a team owner, Sarah is married to Andy O’Gara, the team manager, mother to two-year-old Zoey, and anxiously anticipating the arrival of a son in June.
Ms. Fisher has been voted “Most Popular Driver” four times in both the IndyCar and NASCAR series, but Sarah’s not the driver who over-publicizes herself. You won’t see her appearing in sexy Super Bowl ads. You won’t catch her in stormy arguments with other drivers. Being loud and showy simply is not the Sarah Fisher style. She’s more focused on creating a winning team than boosting her own ego.
Sarah even downplays some of the acknowledgements she gets being perhaps the most dominant woman in racing. “I never look at it like, ‘Oh I’m a girl and it’s a challenge because of that.’ For me it’s about performance and the bottom line,” she told me in a recent conversation at the team’s Speedway shop. “I’ve never been about being in a race car because of gender. I’m about being in a race car because I can win races. I’m more competitive and more capable than the next guy. And it’s sort of the same way in business. It’s how successful can we be and what steps do we need to take to do that in comparison to our competitors and our peers. What can we do to give ourselves an advantage? It’s really not about being a girl. “
While Ms. Fisher may hold a gender-neutral approach on the track, she doesn’t back away from her roles as wife and mother, even though she admits trying to balance everything sometimes poses some significant challenges. With her husband holding the very busy position of team manager Sarah admits not every day is smooth sailing. Like any couple in any relationship, there are days they disagree, and days they don’t. “But it works for us,” Sarah says. “It doesn’t work for other people, and I get that, but we’ve been working together since 2003, so that’s just the situation that we trust.”
Not everyone understands, of course, and Sarah has dealt with some questions and criticism from some other publications for things such as putting her daughter in daycare, a move Ms. Fisher sees as beneficial to her child.
“A lot of moms go through feeling like they shouldn’t be working and that they should be raising the kids, but my daughter can count to 20, she knows all her colors, she can say her whole ABCs and she’s only two and a half. So it’s like, you know, she’s learning a lot and it’s like a school environment,” Sarah told us. “I’ve done interviews with mom’s magazines and they’re like, ‘How do you not feel like you shouldn’t be working?’ I take my daughter on the road with me, she goes to the races, quite a few of them… but it makes sense when we’re home that we have our own things that we do.”
Being a mom naturally involves making some sacrifices and for Sarah that has included what was previously one of her favorite pastimes: shopping. Between managing the team and keeping up with the family, the young mom considers shopping a luxury now and admits that most of the time she quickly dashes in to the most convenient store, grabs what she needs, and keeps running.
There again, though, Fisher’s style isn’t flashy or attention-getting even when it comes to her clothes. Granted, being seven-plus months pregnant rather limits one’s wardrobe choices a bit, but even under otherwise normal conditions, Sarah’s clothing style matches her straight-forward and focused personality. She prefers ensembles that are flexible, giving her the ability to go from the boardroom to the shop floor without feeling the need to change. Sharp lines built on a few key pieces keep her wardrobe professional and manageable.
Sarah is also finding the need to make some adjustments at work, being pregnant during the racing season. Those of you who are mothers understand that once into the third trimester comfort pretty much becomes the impossible dream. Just imagine being that pregnant and still having to manage a team through what may be the busiest month in racing and perhaps you can appreciate what Ms. Fisher is enduring. She learned from her first pregnancy and is trying to not walk as much or be quite so “hands-on” with the team, but those are things that don’t come easily to someone accustomed to being involved with every aspect of the operation.
Motherhood has also had its effect on the track: Sarah’s no longer driving. I asked if there was any chance of her getting back behind the wheel and her answer was a very emphatic, “Nope!” She then elaborated:
“I think being a mom is different than being a dad and I want to make sure that I’m here to raise my kids. I think that if I get behind the [wheel of a race] car, I won’t be focused. I won’t be the athlete that needs to be behind the wheel. Hell, it was hard for me to do it just as a team owner/driver. That was tough. So, to add being a mommy and being an athlete and being a owner, hell no! I figured out how to be mom and still working on team owner and how to do those two successfully together. But I think being a driver and being an owner, you almost have to pick which one you want to do, to be the most successful at it that you can be. To be a mom on top of that, I don’t think that would work. I wouldn’t be as sharply minded and focused as the other competitors I’d be racing against. To put my team in that position wouldn’t be fair to the individuals here.”
All this talk about motherhood and family shouldn’t overshadow the fact that Sarah Fisher is one of Indianapolis’ most notable business women. Standing at a window in the board room, Sarah watches over activities in the shop below. Entrepreneurship is something she picked up from her father, who instilled in her the idea that she could start her own company, run her own team, and be successful with anything she might want to pursue. Having such strong encouragement is not something every child gets, and an awareness of that advantage is part of what fuels Ms. Fisher’s involvement with charities such as Lemonade Day, an organization that teaches entrepreneurial skills by helping children set up and manage lemonade stands.
“… it was real natural for me to have that [entrepreneurial] outlook I guess … whereas other people are not as aware of that opportunity because mom and dad have a traditional job or they’re just not in that environment. For me, Lemonade Day is a neat way to support those kids and those families who don’t have that environment to educate kids how to be entrepreneurs and there’s that opportunity out there.”
Getting started early and having strong role models is especially important in racing, where the number of women involved in the traditionally male-dominated sport remains exceptionally limited. By “starting early” we mean five years old, as Sarah did. One doesn’t suddenly decide at age 17 or 18 that one is going to be a race IndyCars for a living without any prior experience. As with baseball or football, there is a whole range of intermediate steps before hitting the “big time” of IndyCar.
“You have kids that are starting when they’re five years old that are only 15 to 19 years old right now so they just aren’t quite ready for that next step yet but they’re just sort of at the brink of that,” Sarah told us. “So, I think in the next maybe five years you’ll see more [girls in racing] because they’re at that age where they can have more opportunity.”
Again, Ms. Fisher emphasizes that gender doesn’t need to be a factor in whether someone does well behind the wheel. Sarah and Andy privately sponsor Andy’s brother Kyle in the USAC series and Sarah admits she would be just has hard on a girl in that driver’s seat as she is her brother-in-law.
Developing new talent is part of the plan for growing Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing (SFHR), but even there Sarah avoids any pie-in-the-sky visions of grandeur, preferring instead to take a long-term approach with a carefully planned progression. “It’s so hard right now to fund car number one that I don’t see any expansion until car number one is fully paid for in sponsorships, which is a tough thing to do” she says.
In that regard, the team was excited to announce earlier this week that Indianapolis-based Klipsh Audio is their primary sponsor for the Grand Prix on May 10. SFHR’s primary driver, Josef Newgarden, will drive the No. 67 car for the inaugural race at IMS, and Sarah expressed excitement over the new course.
Still, the path to success is one Ms. Fisher knows doesn’t happen overnight. “We’ve only been in existence since 2008. We try to make our building steps sort of small steps into a successful long term goal instead of, ‘Oh, we’re going to be two cars next year and see how that goes.’ We need to make sure it goes well so that, for the long term, that’s where we stay and we stabilize at that.”
With two top-ten finishes under their belt, SFHR seems well positioned for a strong showing in May. After this past Sunday’s race at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, AL, where Newgarden started fourth and finished eighth, Sarah commented, “After resetting from the Long Beach weekend, it was great to get our feet planted again with a top 10 at Barber. With the changing conditions, we were focused on a solid result rolling into Indianapolis and I feel we achieved that.”
May is always eventful, but the next few weeks are going to be especially exciting for Sarah Fisher and the SFHR team. We wish her and the team the best and look forward to congratulating her on all the good things to come.
You can read more about Sarah and keep up with current happenings on the team web site, sfhracing.com. Sarah answers questions the Friday after race weekends.
Special thanks to Becca Bornhorst at GRand Solutions for helping arrange the interview with Ms. Fisher.