And you can’t miss it when Sarah laughs. It’s no tiny chuckle or demur giggle. Sarah’s is a big, throw-your-head-back-and-let-er-rip laugh that you’ll probably experience within five minutes of starting virtually any conversation with her.
Even after qualifying deep in the pack Sarah usually manages to unleash The Laugh at least once or twice.
What does Sarah Fisher have to guffaw about? For many drivers, the level of happiness Fisher shows lately would only come with a seat in a premiere team like Penske or Ganassi, and the visions of podiums and championships that come along with it.
Yeah, Sarah Fisher would love to hoist the trophies and have her mug on the Borg Warner Trophy as much as anyone. But what has Fisher chortling these days is a prize of a different sort — Sarah Fisher Racing — a small business start-up filled with family members in its third year of existence.
As an owner, Fisher sees the Big Teams as examples she wants to emulate, but not as companies she wants to join.
“I think you have to look of them and be supportive of them,” said Fisher. “But I love what I do. I love working with the people I have. I would love to be in their shoes to be in great race cars and they do have a great team there, but I also have a great team here. I have wonderful people I work with here. I enjoy what (the big teams) are doing and that’s fantastic, and I want to be like that. I want to win races more than anybody or else I wouldn’t be here and sweating it out and trying to figure out how to make this thing work and stick, but I like what I do here.”
What Fisher “does here” is be co-owner of a small business, a move that has taken her from driver/employee to owner/driver, a quantum leap in both authority and responsibility, and one she seems to thrive in. Jealousy of the big teams isn’t on the agenda.
“They work really, really hard at it,” said Fisher. “I think a lot of people don’t see the background that goes into making that happen, the people that are behind that and the amount of work it takes to get to that point (of success like Penske and Ganassi). That’s a little ways off for our company. You have to respect the kind of work that goes into those two teams for sure.”
While Ganassi and Penske fight for the top spot on the podium, Sarah Fisher Racing is the plucky part-time team that may run in 11th on a great day, or maybe lead a few laps under yellow and stick around in P2 for another 25 laps mid-race at Chicagoland — and get a big thrill out of it.
For Fisher, the thrill is in the process. Actually, the thrill is in the ownership of the process, the sense of controlling your own business destiny she shares with tens of thousands of small business owners around the world. For the first time since she left USAC Midgets to come to the Indy Racing League in 1999, Sarah Fisher is calling her own shots — in partnership with her husband of nearly three years, Andy O’Gara — and for her that's as exciting as running P1 late in a race.
“It’s the whole experience (that I love),” said Fisher. “Being here and being a team owner and being a driver. I wake up every day thinking about it positively. What are we going to do today to make it better? What are we doing to do today to make it grow? And it’s hard to do that when you don’t have any control over what happens, even if you try your absolutely hardest. Here is where I find that to be something I can achieve.”
In the decade since Fisher exploded on the IndyCar scene, she’s discovered that horsepower, hardware, carbon fiber and cash only get you so far. She says the real keys to success are the people who work with you every day.
Back when Fisher’s fame was in ascension (2000, 2001, 2002) she learned from experience that people can make or break any endeavour, whether it's running a team or helping a 19-year-old girl cope with sudden fame.
“I think I could have had better people in line to handle (the initial fame) better,” Fisher said. “I think from an athlete standpoint, I handed the athletic abilities pretty well. I think the off-rack stuff, I didn’t have the right people, the right company in line, the right folks to handle that. That’s where the failure happened. Nothing wrong with the on-track stuff, but had I had IMG (a high-powered sports and celebrity management agency) or someone like that in line the first year when it exploded, I think it could have been a little bit better. Probably only thing I would have done differently.”
The time of tumult started for Fisher after the 2001 season, her second full year in the league. Her main sponsor with Walker Racing, Kroger, decided not to renew. She asked for and received release from her three-year contract as Walker Racing headed back to the Champ Car World Series. Fisher eventually landed at Dreyer & Reinbold Racing where she stayed through 2003.
By 2004, however, Fisher was again out of a ride with no open-wheel prospects in sight. Looking for a job, Fisher took Richard Childress up on an earlier offer to give her a shot in a NASCAR feeder series. Fisher, her future husband Andy O’Gara, and her dog, Wrigley, loaded up the motor home and headed west to the NASCAR West Series to run with Bill McAnally Racing, a sort of contract talent developer for RCR. Uprooted from the Midwest and driving stock cars for the first time ever, it was what Fisher now identifies as her most difficult time of her racing life.
“The program just wasn’t a fair shot at it," said Fisher. "It wasn’t the right program. And being on the West Coast it was very difficult for (North Carolina-based) Richard to oversee that. RCR and their people are just amazing. That’s a great team. I think if it had it had been one of their true programs, it would have different.”
Out of a ride in IndyCar, miserable in the NASCAR feeder league and eventually out of racing entirely for nine months in 2006, Sarah Fisher laughed the least of her life so far. So how did she keep going?
“Andy,” Fisher says quickly. “Andy, mostly. And Wrigley. And my parents (Dave and Reba Fisher). It was just really tough. I think everybody goes through that at one point of their life. Mine just hit me a lot earlier than a lot of people normally because I started doing this so young. Man that was tough. I had a regular marketing job working for (a marketing company). That was just hard. I didn’t know where I was headed and what was next.”
It turned out Andy O’Gara and his extended family were next. Fisher and O’Gara got married in September 2007. The two met when O’Gara was Fisher’s left front wheel changer at Dreyer & Reinbold in 2002. Fisher actually ran into O’Gara during a pit stop. He was uninjured, but it was love at first impact.
The old saying goes you can’t chose your relatives. If that’s true, than Sarah caught a huge break when she bashed into her future husband. Because like the Fisher racing family, the clan O’Gara, more than a dozen of them, was a racing family. O’Gara’s father, Johnny, was team manager for Dreyer & Reinbold. After the 2007 year back with Dreyer & Reinbold, Fisher and O’Gara huddled up and decided to take their destiny into their own hands and start their own team which debuted at the 2008 Indy 500. The rest of the O'Gara's joined in, and a racing family was born.
Ironically Fisher's rocky start at the 2008 Indy 500 attracted sponsor Dollar General Stores who, as the Indianapolis Star put it, thought the girl next door was a perfect match for the store next door. (More on what attracted Dollar General to Fisher here.) Since then, Fisher’s smiles and laughs gradually increased. Today she says that’s because while being the boss is a lot of responsibility, it’s also a lot of authority. Meaning she finally gets to call the shots, something Fisher hasn’t been able to do since she stopped running midgets with her dad in 1999.
“I think I’ve always been the same person I am now,” said Fisher. “I guess I had some different people at one point in my life and it wasn’t successful having those people around me. I think people are so key to your support. Your family, your friends, your team, your guys. People — that’s what makes you who you are. There was a point in my life where I didn’t have the right people. Then I met Andy and his family and all that changed.”
Lesson learned for Sarah Fisher, who says she now puts the most effort into finding the right people for her team. While some fans or even other teams may think the key attribute for a driver is technical driving skill, Fisher says attitude is as important as acceleration when it comes to drivers, and the rest of the team for that matter.
“It's everybody in the team. The driver is a big part of a successful team, because if they don’t have a good attitude it’s very tough for people on the rest of the team to have a good attitude,” Fisher said. “You have to go in every day and care and want to be there. It can’t be fake. It’s team leadership. You have to be a leader at that point. When you have someone like that, it brings out the best quality in everyone on the team. But then if you have an engineer (or any other team member) who doesn’t have that quality, that reflects on everyone too. You have to have that quality in everyone that why people selection is so important.”
In an Indy Racing League dominated by a two or three strong teams, the ability to think long term is also very important, Fisher said. It's what keeps small teams going out on the grid when they know they have virtually no chance to win.
“I go out there because I am going to build on what we did last time, to build on the race we had the last time," Fisher said. "That’s the measure of what we are capable of. I have to work with my guys to prove that this team is capable of something miraculous. Whether that a top 10 or solid finish, it’s building upon the last thing that you did. That’s how I look at it.”
So does Sarah Fisher see herself as a Penske or Ganassi-like figure in a decade or two? A CEO astride an SFR empire with teams in multiple series and disciplines?
Sarah lets go with one of her big laughs. “I don’t have that kind of money,” said Fisher. “I’d like to, but I’m looking at two years right now because the new car is coming out that is going to be a huge slap to our budget. We gotta get through that before we have to talk about anything else.”
Still, some day Fisher would like to be the one who calls up promising drivers and gives them their big break, just as Dale Pelfry called her "out of the blue" in 1999 about an IndyCar rookie test. “That’s my dream,” she says. “Yeah, I’d love to be able to do that. We’ll see. I don’t know. That’s a really incredibly tough challenge.”
As for the decade between testing at Las Vegas and standing in a Sara Fisher Racing hauler at Chicagoland, Fisher is philosophical, but not bitter or even too distressed. “For me it (the trying times) was just a learning curve,” Fisher said. “It happened. I’m cool with that. Whatever. It’s great now, and that’s what counts. That’s what counts. I have an amazing family. My parents are as supportive as ever and I’ve got a great team still on top of all that.”
A big smile. Then a big laugh. And she’s off to the next thing. Sarah Fisher, CEO.