From her time racing sprint cars and midgets, to Indy cars and then as an INDYCAR team owner, Sarah Fisher was used to being a pace setter.
Now, she’s setting the pace once again in the truest sense of the word as the new primary pace car driver for the Verizon IndyCar Series.
With longtime pace car driver Johnny Rutherford scaling back this season to drive only at Phoenix International Raceway earlier this month and the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil in May, INDYCAR officials went searching for a successor.
They didn’t have to look far. Like four blocks south of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where Fisher has her base of operations at the recently opened Speedway Indoor Karting facility.
“I got a call from Jay Frye (INDYCAR president of Competition and Operations) probably two weeks before the St. Petersburg race. It was a little last-minute,” Fisher said with a laugh. “Jay asked if I’d be interested in helping them out and taking up in J.R.’s footsteps or footprints. Absolutely. That was such a neat opportunity that I didn’t want to pass that up.”
Her first two races, the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, were both learning and experiential endeavors for Fisher.
“I wasn’t planning on traveling this year with the new businesses I just opened,” Fisher said of the karting center and restaurant that opened April 1. “(INDYCAR) flew me in and out of St. Pete on the same day, so it was kind of a whirlwind day, but it was a lot of fun.”
She then added with a laugh, “Long Beach wasn’t quite as exciting because there weren’t any yellows. But it was good for the race, I suppose.”
Fisher approached her debut as a pace car driver the same way she did as a racer and team owner: with professionalism and aplomb, but also taking time to enjoy the moment. There were no prerace butterflies or anxiety, just the notion to do her new job well, despite a changing "office" that saw her drive a Chevrolet in St. Pete and a Honda in Long Beach. The pace car varies by track depending on INDYCAR and race promoter agreements with manufacturers.
“I had a pretty decked-out Corvette at St. Pete,” she said. “I got to drive one of those Stingrays after hauling around two kids in a Suburban. So it was quite a nice car to perform in.
“Having that type of car, I wasn’t nervous about the performance. I just wanted to make sure I made all the right calls from an officiating side. There’s a lot of guidance and help.
“And I have a gentleman named Mark Sandy that rides with me. He’s kind of like my pace car assistant, if you want to call it that. Mark’s been J.R.’s right-hand man for a really long time, knows the ropes and what to do. Without him, I’d probably be lost.”
Her former competitors have welcomed her back behind the wheel and know she’s the boss when she and the pace car are on the racetrack.
“It’s been really supporting from the folks I’ve talked to, it’s been very welcoming, I would say, for sure,” she said. “They like to see me still involved and having taken a break from ownership this year, this is a good way to still be involved in the series.”
As for stepping into Rutherford’s shoes, Fisher says she’s long respected and admired the Indy car great not only for his racing career, but also for the way he sets the pace during races and keeps drivers in line, literally and figuratively.
“It’s such an honor and he means so much to me because he helped me when I was a rookie,” Fisher said of Rutherford. “He helped me figure these cars out because I came from sprint cars and midgets, so I had a completely different background than a lot of kids coming along.
“He had somewhat of that background, so he was very helpful to me. Just having him around the paddock was very key and important to a lot of kids coming up, just having that level of comfort and having some identity or association with someone else who has done it, who can help you, be on your side and it’s not biased.
“So we had a relationship prior to the pace car thing. To follow in his footsteps is just amazing. I never thought I would be able to do that, so it’s very special.”
Now that she’s settled into her new role, Fisher is particularly looking forward to driving the pace car for the upcoming Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis as well as being part of the festivities for the Indianapolis 500.
“It gives me chills just hearing you say it, honestly,” she said. “It means a whole lot. To be at the Indianapolis 500 for nine of the 100 years and to be there in some capacity of driving, even though I’m not in a competition mode, as a part of that is just awesome. I’m so happy and honored that they chose me to do that.
“Wow, I couldn’t ask for a more honored position and I’m sure for something on race day of the 500, they’ll have me involved to some extent. I just don’t know what that will be. But really, I’m just happy to be there and to be part of it.”
Having taken a hiatus as a team owner, Fisher knew the restaurant and karting center would take up a great deal of her time in 2016. Still, she hoped to have some involvement in the INDYCAR world.
All it took was one phone call from Frye and Fisher now feels she has the best of all worlds.
“My heart is so much vested in the sport of Indy car racing,” Fisher said. “When I got the phone call to be a part of it somehow, all I wanted to do was to learn to what capacity that was and how I could help.”