Sarah Fisher puts team above self in alliance with Graham Rahal

Is it a sponsor with millions of dollars in funding? Is it a team owner with complete confidence in your abilities? Is it a crew that does pit stop practice every day to get you out of the box faster? Is it a group of engineers that beat their brains out to attain that difference-making extra tenth of a second?

Or is it, simply, an ego? After all, what else could possess a human being to strap into a machine capable of ungodly speed and fight wheel-to-wheel with other human beings at 200+ miles per hour? Surely, that is it an aura, a swagger, a sure-shot coolness that he or she is the best at their craft and that no challenge is too tough for them to handle.

But even in the high-stakes world of IndyCar racing, egos can be neutralized by a trait that seems to have grown more subtle with time; namely, knowing what you can and can’t do well at a particular moment. Sarah Fisher appears to have this trait and it’s proving to be very important. After a trying Open Test last month at Barber Motorsports Park, the IZOD IndyCar Series driver/owner was facing a tough problem. Having grown her own race team gradually over the last several seasons, she knew that bad results from her at St. Petersburg next weekend and Barber later in April wouldn’t be part of her goals for Sarah Fisher Racing.

“I had two tests this winter, getting ready for the road courses and we’re doing one‑offs this year,” she recalled. “We don’t have a complete full schedule, and it didn’t ‑‑ the first test, it didn’t go that great. So I went back to the hotel and just thought about it. And I reached out to Rick Dreiling over at Dollar General and said, ‘What do you think about this idea,’ and he was very supportive of it.

“And so, we started discussing who was available, and Graham was. So it all just worked itself out from there.”

“Graham” is, of course, Graham Rahal, the young American with the burden of becoming the U.S. heavyweight that the series has lacked since Sam Hornish Jr. jumped to stock cars. The 21-year-old was unable to find a full-time ride after leaving Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing and also turned down an offer to drive for Dale Coyne over the off-season.

His goal of eventually driving for a top-tier squad (i.e. Target Chip Ganassi Racing, Team Penske, or Andretti Autosport) presumably remains intact, but while he attempts to finalize his 2010 program, he’ll be in Fisher’s No. 67 Dollar General-backed machine for the next two IZOD IndyCar Series events. When the alliance was announced, there was initial shock and then, almost universal applause from the league’s fan base. Combining two of the IRL’s most popular homegrown talents has been a home run for SFR and Rahal in terms of publicity and support.

Now Rahal will look to make sure the hype is worthwhile.

“Obviously, it’s extremely exciting for me, and the call came from Andy O’Gara, Sarah’s husband,” he said. “When I got it, it was a complete shock. Things were looking really ‑‑ it wasn’t looking good for us to make St. Petersburg or Barber. And so, obviously, being that there was one race, other than the 500, I don’t want to miss every year is St. Pete. So when the opportunity came from Sarah and obviously Dollar General for me, I just had to jump right at it.”

Rahal’s arrival at SFR seems to be a milestone for Fisher’s team as it continues its steady evolution. In addition to a larger schedule for Fisher, the team is going to a two-car operation for five races this season as former Firestone Indy Lights champion Jay Howard will drive the No. 66 at Kansas, the Indy 500, Texas, Mid-Ohio and Chicagoland.

Both Fisher and Rahal have made their fair share of history in the IZOD IndyCar Series. Rahal has rewritten the series’ record books twice at St. Petersburg by becoming the youngest race winner with his 2008 win, and the youngest pole winner with his P1 run in qualifying last season. Fisher, the league’s first female star, gained headlines back in 2002 when she became the first woman in North American motorsports history to win a pole for a major league open-wheel race.

Now they have the chance to make Fisher the first female team owner to win an IZOD IndyCar Series race. But while Fisher and Rahal will love nothing more than to score a stirring upset next Sunday in Florida (or on April 11 in Alabama), they also have realistic expectations.

“Graham says it best that we’re quietly optimistic,” she said. “But the whole point of what we’re trying to accomplish here is really big picture thinking with the team and where it’s going, and trying to have a shot at having good results. And I didn’t see that as being a part of the big picture when I was testing at Barber.

“…My team is a whole lot more important to me than my ego, and Graham’s going to do a better job than I would have [driving the No. 67] for those two particular events.”

It’s important to have pride in self, but sometimes, it’s better to put it away for the greater good. No matter what happens for Fisher and her partnership with Rahal, she at least deserves credit for showing us that.