Sarah Fisher was too busy racing quarter-midget cars at 5 to play with dolls. By the time other teen-age girls were obsessed with hair and makeup, she had graduated to bigger, faster race cars.
"I spent so much time with my family and my father racing on the road," she said. "I was different, that's all I can say."
Now 18, a confident Fisher is ready to become the first female regular in the Indy Racing League.
"I've just had this dream forever," said the bespectacled Fisher, who braids her curly brown hair to fit under a racing helmet. "I focused so hard, and only did school and racing, and didn't have time for anything else."
Fisher plans to make her IRL debut on Oct. 17 at Texas Motor Speedway in the circuit's season finale. She'll run a full schedule next year for car owner Dale Pelfrey, who has known Fisher since she was a youngster in Commercial Point, Ohio.
"She is as cool as anybody I've ever seen. She's unshakable," he said. "She's natural for a race car driver."
Pelfrey decided to sign Fisher to a three-year contract after watching her drive on slippery dirt tracks in the Midwest. He also wanted to beat out any CART rivals interested in Fisher.
"Driving on that slick track, you have to have finesse, you have to have that real fine feel of the throttle and feel of the steering wheel," Pelfrey said. "I believe that's a good indication for a serious Indy car driver. She's going to be a winner."
Fisher knows she's going to garner a lot of attention simply because she's a woman in a male-dominated sport. She already has her own Internet site and some drivers' wives wear T-shirts advertising her.
But she lets others play up the gender issue.
"I've gone with a different attitude all my life," she said. "I've always said I am an equal to everybody, and I'm going to treat myself that way."
Her goal is to be a racer.
"By being just another driver and just another competitor, the other teams and drivers respect that," she said. "They don't want somebody coming in saying, `Well, I belong here because I'm a female.' That certainly shouldn't be the case and it's not the case here."
But Fisher believes women have certain innate skills when it comes to driving more than 200 mph.
"It's a lot of finesse, and it's a lot of brain work and that's where a woman has a better opportunity," she said. "A woman, her reaction is a lot smoother, calmer, at least that's what I've had through my circumstances. I've been a lot smoother to react in a crash situation."
Fisher has never been seriously injured racing sprint and midget cars, usually at the front of the pack. Her confidence comes from success in racing's minor leagues, where she said she's never been harassed by male competitors.
"I think that's just because they have respect for my capabiliies," she said. "I feel I can drive, I feel I'm successful at it, and I think that's the only reason they're respecting me."
Fisher passed her rookie test at Las Vegas Motor Speedway with help from IRL driver Robby Unser, who lent her his helmet and adjusted her seat during testing. She passed, driving about 204 mph on the 1 1/2-mile tri-oval.
"You don't have to be a big, brawny guy to drive 220 mph," said Pelfrey, who has helped Indianapolis 500 driver Lyn St. James, who's also competed in several other IRL races. "Regardless of what gender she is, she's just a darn good driver."
Most of Fisher's competitors are older, including some her father's age. Still, David Fisher, a mechanical engineer, doesn't worry about anybody bothering his daughter.
"She's got about a 6-foot-4 boyfriend." he said with a laugh.
With his daughter aiming for big money in the IRL, Fisher knows his days as her team manager, engineer and mechanic are over. Now he'll just be her father.
"I'm going to make sure that I'm always there, and that's what she wants," he said. "There's some security in that."
Fisher graduated from high school last spring and plans to enroll at Ohio State as a mechanical engineering major. If driving doesn't work out, her backup plan is to be an engineer on a team's car.
But she hasn't failed at much in her young life, giving her the ammunition she might need to handle critics.
"If you're successful," she said, "what can they say bad about you?"
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