When Sarah Fisher made her first start at the Indianapolis 500 aged just 19 she became the youngest – and only the third – woman to start the iconic race. While much was made of her youth at the time, what was overlooked was that she already had 14 seasons of racing behind her.
She was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1980. Her parents, David and Reba, were both involved in motorsport but they tried to steer their daughter in other directions. There were gym classes and piano lessons, but they soon fell by the wayside, and there was a soccer camp. “I didn’t enjoy having to hit the ball with my forehead,” she recalled later, so she quit that too. She wanted to race.
Young star in the making
She began competing in quarter-midgets aged five, and by eight she had moved up to karts. Success came quickly and frequently. In the early 1990s she won the World Kart Association Grand National Championship on four occasions. In 1995 she began to race Sprint cars on dirt ovals and carved out a successful career in the World of Outlaws series until she set her sights on IndyCars in 1999.
Being the youngest to achieve something is very much a part of Fisher’s racing CV, and in August 1999 she took her IndyCar rookie test in Las Vegas and became the youngest person to pass, aged just 18. She made her debut in the series at Texas Motor Speedway in the season finale and qualified 17th before her race ended with a mechanical failure. In the off-season she tested for Derrick Walker’s team and made an immediate impression with both her speed and her engineering knowledge. What Walker didn’t realise was that Fisher had been able to change an engine unassisted since she was 16. She signed for a full season with Walker Racing in 2000.
After a couple of races with an outdated Riley & Scott, Walker gave Fisher a new Oldsmobile-powered Dallara for her Indianapolis 500 debut and she qualified comfortably in 19th, but her race ended in a crash on lap 71. Throughout the remainder of the season her results improved steadily, and she caused a sensation when she finished third in Kentucky.
Staying with Walker for 2001, she raised the bar even higher by coming second at Homestead, near Miami, at the time the best result by a woman in the history of IndyCar racing. She really felt she belonged at the highest level of American racing when, having qualified 15th for the Indy 500, she was visited by IndyCar and Formula 1 legend Mario Andretti in the team garage. “Hey, racer,” said the hard-to-impress Andretti, “you did a good job yesterday, we’re really proud of you.”
Walker withdrew his team from the IndyCar series at the end of the year and Fisher, still only 21, joined Dreyer & Reinbold and came fourth in her first race of 2002. For the Indianapolis 500 she qualified on the third row but it would be in September on the Indianapolis road course that she would attract global attention. Between the Friday practice sessions for the Formula 1 grand prix, she did a demonstration run in Kimi Raikkonen’s spare McLaren Formula 1 car.
McLaren Formula 1 Demo Run
Fisher impressed the McLaren team and the car impressed her. “”I was quite nervous before the start of the demonstration, but once we got going I really enjoyed myself,” she said afterwards. “I think most American racing drivers will agree that the ultimate is to drive a Formula 1 car for a couple laps to see what it’s like. I did expect the high g-forces in the corners, but the acceleration and braking was something else. The entire experience was great. I didn’t really push as I didn’t want to end up making a mistake and Kimi had told me to be careful.”
Fisher only completed two more full seasons in IndyCar, recording a handful of top-10 finishes, although she was a regular starter at the Indy 500 each May. In 2008 she started her own team with Andy O’Gara, whom she had married the year before. She retired from racing in 2010 and the following year her team scored their first IndyCar win when Ed Carpenter won in Kentucky.
Fisher sold her share of the team in 2018 and now runs a karting facility just a couple of blocks from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where she has made more starts than any other woman, and where she once drove a Formula 1 car.
Read more about other women with drive such as Lyn St James, Desire Wilson and Maria Teresa de Filippis.