Sarah Fisher is just like most of the other small business owners in the IndyCar paddock. She formed her own team with her own money, has grown it in a controlled manner, and is now looking for ways to turn the program into an every-round contender.
That last item, however, could take years to happen, but the team's most pressing goal at the moment is to see how far it can come before next season arrives.
The biggest step for the Indianapolis-based team came in 2012 when, and with the backing of Kansas oil man Wink Hartman, Sarah Fisher Racing expanded to become Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. Thanks to Hartman's benevolence, SFHR made its first full-season campaign with rookie driver Josef Newgarden, and Hartman's backing continues to adorn the No. 67 Dallara DW12-Honda, but as Fisher tells RACER, improving the team's commercial standings is her first priority as 2014 draws closer.
“Well, first of all, we've got to find a sponsor for next year,” she declared. “Mr. Hartman is committed to the team but, we just can't keep doing this on his sponsorship. So from a business perspective, we're taking a harder look at improving that than anything else.”
The team is coming off a forgettable weekend in Mid-Ohio, but Newgarden has given Fisher and Hartman a lot of ammunition to work with while courting sponsors. The sophomore driver sits 15th in points, directly ahead of notables like Sebastien Bourdais and Graham Rahal, and has shown considerable progress in his consistency and maturity behind the wheel.
“From a numbers side, if you take a look at some of the things we've done this year, Josef is right there at the top of drivers who've passed the most number of cars; I think it's in the 80s,” continued Fisher. “We're advancing a bunch of positions, but that tells us that we haven't qualified very well. But we've certainly come back from it and had fairly good race pace.
“And we've had some pretty solid finishes. We haven't won our first race with Josef but that doesn't mean we're not getting there. We're having a lot more solid runs than we did last year and that's important when you're talking to possible sponsors. The pressure's on for this year to deliver an even stronger finish than it would be for 2014, because we really, really need to find that big brand partner that'll carry us through.”
Asked if having a promising (but relatively unknown) driver to sell to sponsors was a help or a hindrance, Fisher says Newgarden hasn't been a limiting factor.
“I think it depends on who you're talking to,” she added. “Some of these folks that we're talking to know Josef quite well. And some of the recommendations that we've had have come from some strong brands like Dollar General. And we're certainly talking to Century 21; everyone knows that. But I think having known him and having recommendations from big CEOs that have seen and interacted with him has helped.
“The only problem that a new star like that would bring is to people who aren't familiar with our series. But then we have trouble selling the series before we start talking about an athlete. So, once they believe in the series and where it's going, then talking about the athlete doesn't seem to be holding us back.”
With questions concerning SFHR's funding, the team could look to sign a paying driver, but Fisher confirmed that Newgarden's place is safe and the 22-year-old American will continue to be the team's priority.
“We believe in Josef 100 percent,” she said. “He's contracted for another year and we believe in him and we're continuing forward. We've spent a ton of money building on him, as a rookie and now as a sophomore, so we fully intend to have him behind the wheel.”
SFHR's focus could expand to include two cars in 2014 if all goes well with during the final months of the year. The team recently announced the addition of a second entry for Sonoma with sports car champion Lucas Luhr at the controls, and as Fisher explains, becoming a two-car team is necessity if they want to become a force in the IndyCar Series.
“We're continuing to take a look at a second car opportunity and exploring that with our partner Steve Weirich and RW Motorsports,” she noted. “We're trying to build our team out and will see how that goes on a limited basis this season. We've built a hell of a shop to do that and we're just trying to be smart and be ahead of the game.”
SFHR has a short but daunting to-do list to accomplish in the off-season: find a big brand sponsor for Newgarden, and then find funding for a second entry to double the size of the program. Fisher knows it won't be easy, but says she and Hartman will continue looking for ways to tick both boxes.
“I think we've come a long way in a short amount of time,” she said. We've been improving our own brand, and have had some success in finding sponsors for select races, but being a one-car team is also one of our weaknesses. I think if we had a second car right now, Josef would greatly benefit from it and he would develop much sooner. We want to improve on all fronts, on the business side and the racing side.
“So we're going after both at the same time. Being able to have feedback from another driver, hopefully one that would be more Josef's senior, I think it would just be a huge help for him. Unfortunately, right now because that first car isn't sponsored, we can't bite off two cars. So until we get there and have the money to make everything happen that we want to, we have to do one car really well.”