Judging from the media reaction (295 stories and counting) to Sarah Fisher’s return to Kentucky Speedway next week – not to mention the “pants-wetting” outbreak among fans – the obvious question remains: What happened to the one-time Queen of the IRL?
On October 17th, 1999, just 13 days after her 19th birthday, Fisher started from the 17th position at Texas Motor Speedway, and became (at the time) the youngest driver ever to qualify for an Indy Racing League event. The next year she raced fulltime for Walker racing, finishing as high as 3rd at – where else – Kentucky Speedway.
It was the following 2001 season where everything changed. She had a modest 17th place finish in Phoenix before driving her Walker Racing/Kroger Special to second place in Homestead. Both races were won by a young 21-year-old named Sam something-or-other, but all eyes were fixed on the progress of the 20-year-old young lady behind him.
For those who might recall, these two young drivers were suddenly heralded as the future of the IRL. Indy fans were watching every race in anticipation of dominance by Hornish and Fisher, but while Hornish went on to win his first series championship in 2001, Fisher found herself tied in 19th with Didier Andre. It became all too apparent that while the comparisons with Hornish provided her with unparalleled fame, the measure of success proved to be a double-edged sword for the Fisher Queen.
Fisher would spend the next three years (2001-2003) being voted as the most popular driver in the league while trying to live up to the expectations of her growing fan base. She would switch to Dreyer & Reinbold for 2002 and 2003, but by the end of a dismal 2003 season she would have a career record of 47 starts and only 7 top 10s. What’s worse, she would have completed only 26 of the races. It wasn’t so much accidents (although there were nine of them) that doomed her career as mechanical problems (13 of those) that prevented her from racing competitively for much of her races.
This is probably the largest reason she still holds a bit of creditability among race fans, in that due to the mechanical issues she is viewed with the impression she never got a fair shake. The Walker D&R entry was a low-budget single car team and even though D&R had a bigger budget her teammate Robbie Buhl was not able to crack the top 10 in driver points in either 2002 or 2003.
So after completing only 177 laps in the 2004 Indy 500, her IRL story ended. Sarah had a conversation later in 2004 with prolific NASCAR owner Richard Childress (the longtime employer of the late Dale Earnhart) that led to a deal for sponsorship in the NASCAR West series. Fisher had little luck in these NASCAR minor leagues, and in her words her career stagnated because there isn’t much of a future in NASCAR if you are on the West Coast.
"We did good, it's just, that's in California, and all the decision makers are in Charlotte and in Daytona," Fisher said. "So it's really hard to express to them, when you come from the tail to the front, you make this cool pass here, this cool pass there, it's hard to describe that on the phone unless they see it and say, 'Oh, this is for real. Let's sign on.'"With her NASCAR career going nowhere and after seeing how well Danica! has done in admittedly better equipment (I’m speaking about the car, boys), Fisher decided it was time to go back to the league where so much potential was left unrealized. With only a mere one-race deal, the Fisher Queen will now return with trumpets and fanfare to the scene of her greatest IRL accomplishments. Perhaps a newer level of maturity or a better appreciation for her fan base will propel Fisher back into the league for good, although she herself says she seeks only a top 10 finish for the beleaguered D&R team on August 13th.
What happens in Kentucky is just one race, and if Fisher doesn’t do anything stupid her popularity alone may carry her to a sponsored ride next season with a better team. The truth is that just as being paired in stories with Boulder Sam proved to be a double-edged sword, so to will be the inevitable comparisons to Danica!, whom Jack Arute called “The First Lady of the IRL”. In 2007 Fisher may find herself yet again bearing the burden of undue expecations, but let’s hope a newer level of maturity, a better appreciation for her fan base, or even a healthy dose of luck will help her finally meet the promise she showed just a few years ago.