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Women Find a True Calling Under the Hood

You grow up in a family that sings, you sing. In a family that rides horses, you ride. In a family that races cars, you compete in the Indianapolis 500 at age 19.

That’s the best explanation Sarah Fisher can offer for her unconventional career and her youthful ascent to the top ranks among professional auto racing teams.

The only child of two racing veterans--her mom drove go-karts and her dad raced sprint cars--she grew up with her foot on the gas pedal, her head under the hood. By age 11, she was winning national go-kart racing championships. When she was 17, she rebuilt the engines in her two sprint cars. At 19, she became the youngest woman--and only the third woman ever--to compete in the Indy 500, the pinnacle of American auto races.

Now, at 21, she’s the star of a $3-million auto racing team and--voted the most popular Indy Racing League driver by fans--has become an ambassador for auto racing, traveling around the country teaching young women about cars.

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Fisher was in Los Angeles last week, hosting a series of car care clinics for teenage Girl Scouts--most of them still too young to drive. Her instructions about oil pressure and tire gauges seemed to get lost in the cavernous garage, amid the din of passing cars.

Then the girls started asking questions:

What kind of car do you drive every day? , one girl asked. A Corvette, said Fisher, to murmured approval.

How much money do you make driving race cars ? Last year, her first year as a professional, Fisher made more than $300,000.

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And the idea of perpetually dirty hands and hair caked with auto grease suddenly didn’t seem so bad.

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I do yardwork, make home repairs, go camping and coach basketball teams. But when it comes to cars, I am out of my league. Buying, selling, taking them in for repair; I’m vulnerable the moment I walk in the door.

Was I just charged $600 to fix a hissing sound that might well have been caused by a leaky hose? How often do rotors really need turning? And what are rotors anyhow?

All I want to do is get behind the wheel and drive, and leave the maintenance to the guys. And just as Fisher’s parents handed down a love of cars, I’ve probably, unwittingly, passed along to my daughters my fear of things automotive.

My eldest had had her driver’s license for months before she managed to muster the courage to pull into a gas station alone. All those levers and nozzles and dials. What if she couldn’t get the pump to work, or filled her tank with the wrong kind of gas? Would the nozzle fit, would her money go in, would fuel spill out on the ground if she didn’t stop it in time?

Automotive repair instructor Clyde Nakamura encounters women like us all the time, in his class at North Valley Occupational Center in Granada Hills. Each semester, a few women enroll, most of them middle-aged and fresh from confusing encounters with auto mechanics.

“They want to learn the basic stuff, so they can feel comfortable talking to a mechanic or doing minor repairs,” he said. “So they can understand and not get taken advantage of.”

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Fisher understands the feeling of incompetence auto repairs can provoke in women unfamiliar with cars. Small and blond, with big blue eyes and nails polished red, she’s endured her share of patronizing lectures and condescending looks from the men she’s hired to maintain her cars.

“Just the other day, I had to take my Corvette in for new tires,” she said. “I was in my normal clothes, had my hair down, was wearing makeup. And the guy treated me like I didn’t know anything.

“I had all my specs written down and I handed him the paper. And he still went out and checked out the tires himself, like I didn’t know what I needed.” She shook her head. “A mechanic can even make me feel stupid.”

Growing up in a small farm town 20 miles south of Columbus, Ohio, the future Indy driver took piano and played with dolls. She tried several sports--soccer, gymnastics, swimming. But she found her passion early, and kept climbing back behind the wheel.

Other women, like student mechanic Patricia Greer, come late to the realization that a woman can parlay a love of cars into a career. It took her 20 years--and a series of dead-end jobs, wrong turns and personal crises--to find her way to an auto repair class.

“I’ve always been a ‘Daddy’s girl,”’ said Greer, 35. “When he crawled under the car, I crawled under the car. I always wanted to know how this works, what’s that for. And I always had a knack for fixing things.”

But it wasn’t until she and her five children wound up homeless, living in a San Pedro shelter, that the idea of becoming a mechanic surfaced. “A lady came into the office and said she was having problems with her car. I said, ‘Would you like me to take look at it?’ And I popped the hood and fixed it,” Greer said, pride in her voice.

Shelter workers referred her to the Harbor Occupational Center, where instructor Ben Lopez is teaching her to conduct tune-ups, replace brakes, rebuild transmissions. “I just love it,” Greer said. “Tinkering with things, the feel of the tools in my hands.”

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And just as Fisher loves the rush she gets from races, Greer gets her rush at the garage.

She loves the reaction of folks “who see me with my apron and my glasses and this grease on my hands and ask ‘What do you do?’ I say, ‘What do you think, I’m a cook? I fix cars!”’

Ladies, start those engines.

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Sandy Banks’ column runs Tuesdays and Sundays. Her e-mail address is sandy.banks@latimes.com.


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