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Before Danicamania, Fisher Was the Star

Remember Sarah Fisher?

In today’s frenzy of Danicamania, it is sometimes easy to forget the accomplishments of the young woman from Ohio who was the teenage darling of the Indy Racing League a few years ago.

Danica Patrick caught the brass ring on the media merry-go-round when she qualified fourth for the Indianapolis 500, led it for a few laps and finished fourth. Later she won the pole at Kansas Speedway.

Fisher was 19 when she qualified for the 2000 Indianapolis 500 -- four years younger than Patrick was when she qualified. She finished second at Homestead-Miami and third at Kentucky Speedway -- no other woman has finished better than fourth in an Indy car-style race. Her fastest lap at Indy was 229.695 mph in 2002, fastest for a woman. Patrick’s official best was 227.860 mph, although she bettered 229 mph in practice.

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In her three years as an IRL regular, Fisher was voted most popular driver each year.

In the financially heartless world of motor racing, that wasn’t enough. When her under-funded team, Dreyer & Reinhold, couldn’t find a sponsor, Fisher’s Indy car career was over.

Like many others who could not find open-wheel rides, she turned to NASCAR.

Saturday night, at Irwindale Speedway, Fisher will be driving the No. 20 Chevrolet in the King Taco 150, a Grand National West race -- a stock car racing rookie at age 24. Her car is from the Richard Childress Racing stable, the team that the late Dale Earnhardt drove for when he won six of his seven NASCAR championships.

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“I was at a Smithsonian Institution affair for Chevrolet a couple of years ago, representing the IRL, where I met Richard Childress,” Fisher said. “He was there for NASCAR and he said if I wanted to drive a stock car one day, to let him know.”

When she took him up on it, Childress sent her to Bill

McAnally Racing, his West Coast development team, and she had her first test on the half-mile oval at Irwindale last October.

“The first time I got in the car I didn’t even know how to start it and it felt kind of funny having a roof over my head,” she said with a laugh.

Making the transition from sleek open-wheel machines to heavy stock cars is not the first time Fisher has faced such a problem. It was a similar situation when she left sprint car racing for Indy cars.

“Going from dirt to asphalt was tougher for me than what I’m doing now, but a stock car is a handful,” she said.

“It is twice as heavy as an Indy car and has 100 less horsepower, so it is a lot less responsive and takes a lot more time to stop, and a lot more time to get up to speed.”

Fisher said she has not turned her back on Indy, but at the moment she is focused 100% on stock cars.

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“I still have a lot of friends there and you can never say never, but right now I am fully in NASCAR,” she said. “The IRL has changed its approach since I was there. We had more of a team attitude with Little Al [Unser] and Eddie Cheever and Scott Sharp and myself all trying to sell the IRL. Today it seems they’re trying to build on one individual.”

That individual would be Patrick, for whom Fisher has the utmost respect.

“It’s only a matter of time before she wins a race, she has fantastic equipment, and she knows how to use it,” Fisher said. “When she wins, it will be good for all women who want to race.”

Patrick also exploits her glamorous side. In a recent issue of FHM, she appeared skimpily dressed in a four-picture spread in which she was referred to as “the hottest thing on wheels since Roller Girl.”

When a reporter asked Fisher if she might do something like that, she blushed. That was all the answer that was needed.

Fisher was not at the Indy 500. She had already started her new life and was in Charlotte watching the Coca-Cola 600.

“I felt honored to be invited to sit in the Childress box and feel the enthusiasm for the race. I didn’t miss Indy,” she said. “I drove in the 500 five times. Now I want to be in the Brickyard 400 five times.”

Tuesday, she was in St. Louis testing a NASCAR Busch series car for the first time.

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“Sarah was there all day, getting valuable seat time,” McAnally said. “That’s what she needs most. Everything is new to her. What she learned in St. Louis will help her at Irwindale. We may see her in a Busch race or two before the season is over.”

The King Taco 150 will be the fifth race in the Grand National West series. Scott Lynch, the 2003 champion from Burley, Idaho, is points leader, 61 ahead of Steve Portenga, Fisher’s teammate from Fellows, Calif. Portenga won the first NASCAR race held at Irwindale on June 19, 1999.

Nextel Cup

California Speedway’s Nextel Cup race on Sept. 4 will be known as the Sony HD 500. Sony Electronics Inc. has agreed to be a multi-year sponsor of the Labor Day weekend event, it was announced by speedway President Gillian Zucker.

All three NASCAR races that weekend will finish under the lights. The Sony HD 500 will start at 5:10 p.m., the Busch series race on Saturday at 5:35 p.m. Friday’s Grand National West feature will start at 8 p.m.

Ford will have a new look in the 2006 Nextel Cup series. It will retire the Taurus and introduce the new Fusion at the Daytona 500 in February. The Taurus has won three series championships since making its racing debut in 1998.

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West Coast Hall of Fame

Fourteen old-timers will be inducted into the West Coast Stock Car Hall of Fame tonight at the Monrovia Holiday Inn.

Drivers Sam Hanks, Ernie Irvan, Len Sutton, Allen Adkins and Dick Meyer head the group. Others include: promoters Marion Collins of Mesa Marin; Harry Schilling of Oakland Speedway and Ron Ail from the Northwest; auto dealers Vel Miletich and Bob Estes who sponsored cars; crew chief Richard Elder; parts supplier Tom Hamilton; car owner Leon Ruther; racing official Floyd Johnson.

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Perris Sprint Cars

Cory Kruseman, after winning Indiana Speed Week main events at tracks in Haubstadt and Mount Vernon last week, will return to the USAC/CRA wingless wars Saturday night for a 30-lap main event at Perris Auto Speedway. The Ventura veteran is third behind defending champion Rip Williams and Damion Gardner. Williams has 1,051 points, Gardner 938 and Kruseman 914.

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Passings

Roger Deppe, who handled credentials at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for more than 50 years, died July 14 while driving to his vacation home in Minnesota. He was 83.


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