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Fisher set for Watkins Glen debut Indy Car history-maker back in open-wheel series

While Danica Patrick was racing for the lead in the 2005 Indianapolis 500, Sarah Fisher watched from a luxury box at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In the days that followed Patrick's fourth-place finish, Danicamania was everywhere, creating a buzz that lifted the entire IndyCar series and continues to linger.

Fisher appreciated that her beloved open-wheel racing was getting attention. But it sure seemed like everyone forgot really fast that she too could drive really fast.

The native of Commercial Point, Ohio, was the first woman to win the pole in a major auto racing series and still owns the best IndyCar finish by a woman (second). While Patrick was the first woman to lead the Indy 500 and recorded the best finish at Indy by a woman, it's Fisher who is the fastest woman in qualifying at the Brickyard.

"A lot of people, with all the hype, seemed to forget I was on the podium twice [for top three finishes] and on the pole first," said Fisher, who will make her first visit to Watkins Glen International for this weekend's Camping World Watkins Glen Grand Prix. "They sort of forgot about that, with all the FHM [magazine] articles and everything. And that's cool. She was drawing attention to open-wheel racing, and I was happy that she was growing the sport."

Fisher, who has made six starts in the Indy 500, claimed the pole at Kentucky in 2002 and she finished second at Homestead-Miami in 2001. As Fisher returns to the series after a three-year absence, media attention continues to focus on Patrick -- now part of the powerful Andretti-Green team -- in anticipation of her first win.

A.J. Foyt has said, "Danica's had a little more success than Sarah, but she's had better equipment, too. If they had equal equipment, it would be interesting to see who beats who."

"Unfortunately for me, I didn't get the opportunity to race with the equipment she's been in for her whole career," Fisher said. "I'm happy with what opportunities I had and I'm thankful to be here, and just focusing on growing our program to be in that kind of competitive race car."

While it seems she would have good reason to be bitter, Fisher sounds far from it. She speaks with a perspective -- maybe even a wisdom -- gleaned from a career that has seen a few turns. At 26, she's only about 18 months older than Patrick, but Fisher grew from a 19-year-old rookie, who was the series' youngest driver to race, to a five-year veteran, voted the series' most popular driver from 2001 to 2003. After sponsorship difficulties, she left open wheel and took a turn at NASCAR's minor leagues, doing some IndyCar marketing work last year before making her return.

"The opportunity I had at 19 was incredible, but I'm a different person now," she said. "Going from 19 to 26 is a big difference. I've simply grown up, had a lot of real-world experience, and I handle things differently."

Fisher is part of Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, with husband-to-be Andy O'Gara as her crew chief and former Indy 500 winner Buddy Rice, a teammate. She is 16th in points among 18 regulars but posted her best finish (seventh) two races ago at Iowa. The Glen will be just her second career stop at a road course (the series ran only ovals until 2005); she finished 15th in April at St. Petersburg, Fla.

"We're a small team and we don't have the budget to do research and development work that other teams have now and even have in place for next year," said Fisher. "It's tough to catch up, but we're working as quickly as we possibly can."

Fisher was part of the first IndyCar race to feature two female drivers when she raced in the 2000 Indy 500 with Lyn St. James. This year she made history at Indy by being part of the first female triumvirate along with Patrick and Milka Duno.

But Fisher seems to take a back seat in the female driver talk. During her first teleconference this season, she wasn't asked about being back, but being one of three women. Still, she takes it in stride.

"I think it's great, it's drawing fans and growing the sport," she said. "We're all happy to answer questions because it helps us draw more fans, gives us more chances to do what we love, which is racing cars."

But wouldn't it be fitting, she was asked, if she was to earn that first major auto racing win by a female and remind everyone who Sarah Fisher is?

"Absolutely," she said.

But even then, she put racing first: "That would be really good for the sport."

e-mail: kmcshea@buffnews.com

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Watkins Glen Grand Prix

Event: Camping World Watkins Glen Grand Prix

What: IndyCar Series race 10 of 17

Where: Watkins Glen International (60 laps, 204 miles)

Race: Sunday, 3:30 p.m. (Ch. 7)

Practice: Friday, 10:15 a.m.-12:15 p.m., 3:30-4:35 p.m.; Saturday, 9:45-10:50 a.m.; Sunday, 10:15-11:45 a.m.

Qualifying: Saturday, 1:30-3 p.m.

2006 winner: Scott Dixon

Tickets: (866) 461-RACE or theglen.com

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