Q&A with Sarah Fisher at Kentucky
This weekend, Dollar General / Sarah Fisher Racing owner-driver Sarah Fisher is revisiting a track that is highlighted twice on her resumé. Kentucky Speedway is where in 2000 she became the first woman in Indy car history to score a podium finish, and where in 2002 she became the first woman in Indy car history to score a pole position.
Due to running just three races so far this year (Kansas, Indy 500 and Texas), Fisher hasn’t raced for almost two months, so was frustrated to be sitting watching a wet track at Kentucky on Friday; especially as she, along with her rivals, is eager to try out the new rules package that IndyCar has brought in for its oval races following its dire show in Richmond. These include the option of rear tire ramps, sidepod extensions and wheel backing plates as well as the mandatory removal of half-inch rear wing endfence wickers, which should not only remove drag but also allow chasing cars to draft closer. RACER caught up with Fisher as she waited during the rain-out in practice.
RACER: What do you think of the new technical rules package?
Sarah Fisher: I approve that the Indy Racing League is trying to make the racing better. We need to be more entertaining, because that’s the business we’re in. But right now it’s hard to tell obviously!
R: The push to pass is the change that’s gotten everyone talking. Can you think back to races where you thought, “Damn, I’d be quicker than this guy if I could only get by him”?
SF: Well probably Texas, because that’s so drag limited. Kentucky is a little more technical because it’s not as easy flat. I think it should be a help, though, wherever we go, and let’s hope that’s true: we’ve got to get the racing better. If this is it, then great, and if it’s not, then let’s work again to make it better.
R: What are the special demands of Kentucky (other than getting the track dry)?
SF: It’s a little rougher than some of the other tracks we go to, so your car has got to have good balance for that. And the track doesn’t have the big banking that a lot of the mile-and-a-half tracks do. It’s like a mix between a short track and a big track: it has the physical characteristics of a short track, but it’s long.
R: Is it one of those tracks where you can actually feel your lap times improving, or do you have to see the read-out to know whether you’ve gone quicker or slower?
SF: Oh, you can feel a difference on this track, for sure. If you can’t feel speed gains, you ought to reconsider your job. But if you make a change to the car, you can feel it, for sure, and to run a good line around here and let the car drive itself is key.
R: On new tires, are you able to run flat-out all the way round?
SF: We have in the past, and I’m expecting to be able to do that this year, but you never know. So the quickest way round is hugging the white line down the bottom.
R: So do you have to crank on a fair bit more wing between qualifying and race, if you haven’t got the banking to pin you down when you’re running in traffic?
SF: We try to not be too aero dependent, because your car’s handling isn’t so consistent when you’re right up behind someone. What you need is good mechanical grip, so that your car’s more comfortable in or out of the draft. Plus, not being too aero dependent means we can use aero tweaks to fine-tune the car’s handling.
R: You haven’t raced for two months, so hard is it for the team to just pick up where it left off?
SF: We’ve been practicing and working on the car the whole time, actually. That’s the advantage of being the team owner: I can be at the shop every day and see what’s going on. We’re working together, constantly thinking about it, and doing pitstop practice. What can show us up is when we have to encounter the unexpected; when you have a failure and you’re not able to deal with it, because you’re not going to every single race, that can be tough. So we just have to be on our toes and practice as many different scenarios as we can, preparing for what could happen. I think we’ve been pretty good, but there can always be little things that get in the way.
R: And in those circumstances, what’s the camaraderie like between teams? If you were using a part or using a package that didn’t really work, would someone from a rival team help out and say, “Yeah, we discovered that was crap four races ago; have you tried this or this?”
SF: Absolutely, and the same goes in return. For example, there were incidents in races that we weren’t even at where teams needed something of ours and
they’d call up and ask to borrow it. And that’s fine; we should all work together. It’s a small world and a close environment and sometimes you have to do those kind of favors for each other to survive.
R: And personally, as a driver, is it a bit of a headrush to come back to racing after two months of down time?
SF: It’s fun, and I’m too busy enjoying it for that to happen. This is what I’ve been working toward, so when I step in the car, all the stresses go away at that point. It’s the most fun I have!
R: And so you don’t feel the tension worse because you’re not used to it every second weekend?
SF: I was nervous at Indy, but that’s because I had all the Dollar General people there, so I was anxious to produce a good result. So it’s not race weekend tension: it’s the tension to just perform in front of all these decision-makers, who can ensure our team is sponsored next year! That’s where the tension comes from. But I have to confess I’m getting more and more comfortable in that situation, so that’s given me more confidence on track.
R: And that confidence means that you’re determined to go for gaps now, and make strong moves? Or would you say that finishing is No. 1 priority?
SF: At the beginning, it’s the latter of the two. I mean, at Texas, when we started having some gearbox issues, we had to play it cool. We just thought, ‘We
are where we are, let’s get it to the end.’ But up to then, it’s full bore. We’re only doing six races this year, it’s not like we’re running for points, so we can go as hard as we need to.
R: I’m sure we asked you this last time, but are you planning on a full schedule for 2010?
SF: We’d like to, that’s for sure. If we grow even a little, we’ll be very happy. We grew 100 percent this year, from three to six races, which in these times is pretty good, so if we grow just a little next year I’d be happy. Whether or not it’s the full season…I don’t know: that’s pretty tough. Our partner isn’t international, you know, so you don’t find Dollar General in Japan or Brazil! That’s where we could run into tough problems.
R: And would you be happy to run the road courses, or would you employ a ringer?
SF: Oh, I’d love to! The difference is Tom Brown, my engineer. He believes in me, wants me to be in the car, and where I was at in 2001 [Walker Racing] when I did a full season, they didn’t want me in the car for all the races. Having the support of the team makes all the world of difference when you’re trying to do something new, and so to do road courses we would take the same attitude as we do for oval racing. We’d be prepared, whether that means testing, being in a simulator, and just working together to make it a really good effort.
R: I was just thinking that if you ran all the races, you’d get the full TEAM support of $1.24m, though I know that wouldn’t completely cover your costs.
SF: Yeah, but it does really help, and if you’re only four races away from doing the whole season, you won’t get it. You’ll only get half of the payment, even if you’ve done 12 of the 16 races, so that’s tough.
R: Final question then: what would be a good result for you this weekend?
SF: Definitely a Top 10. We’ve been fighting there all year: we’ve had issues that took us out of the race, but we’ve been there. Now we just need to finish there.
And so RACER left Sarah Fisher to wait out the rain stoppage. As things transpired, however, the weepers forced the Indy Racing League to set the grid by entrant points, and so the lady from Columbus, OH, will have to start the Meijer Indy 300 from 22nd.