As crazy as it may seem, Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing nearly missed the start of the season. When Chevrolet and Honda had to increase their engine supply after Lotus stumbled out of the gate, Fisher’s team was left in a quandary; they had a chassis, which they were developing throughout the off season, but no engine and no promise of one until Indianapolis in May.
Outsiders worried about the team’s fate, and there may have been even more concern within the team. “Oh absolutely (I was worried), because it’s just an issue of supply and demand,” said Fisher, whose team has run on a part-time basis since 2008. “(The engine makers) didn’t think there were going to be this many cars and there weren’t enough crankshafts to go around.”
Fortunately for them, Bobby Rahal, who had secured an engine deal for a second entry in his own team, agreed to transfer that contract, for Honda engines, over to Fisher, preventing what certainly would have been an unnecessary stumbling block before the season even started. “It was quite the process,” said the relieved Fisher. “But, it’s behind us and we’re moving forward. So, we’re just very lucky.”
With that dilemma behind them, the focus turned to testing ahead of the season opener. The delay of their engine contracts meant they were behind in that department, and their first session together came earlier this month at Sebring as part of the official “Spring Training” test. Overall, with rookie Josef Newgarden, they turned the 15th quickest lap over the four-day stretch. But, while the timesheets have them in the middle of the pack, Fisher was over the moon with their performance.
“I think it was a fantastic test,” she emphasized. “Yeah, in the lap times, we weren’t sitting P1. But, it was the first time Josef had ever been in an IndyCar. It was his first ‘big car’ test and he did a wonderful job for us. He had really great car feedback, which is going to be important and crucial in developing this new car. But, as far as giving him the tools necessary to go out there and win races, we haven’t left any stone uncovered.”
Her jubilation stems the team’s preparation through the winter; despite the uncertainty surrounding the engines, everyone in the shop had been working on the chassis, ensuring it would be ready to go once an engine was fitted in. “Regardless of the engine contracts, we were still doing quite a bit of R&D behind the scenes to make sure the car was as ready as it could be,” Fisher elaborated.
Though their bread and butter has been oval racing, the emphasis on road and street racing in 2012 means a change in the approach, or so we assume. However, as Fisher explains, their road course package has been solid. “I think our road and street program has been at a level where it could perform, I think it’s a total combination. And Josef proved that the last few weeks for us.”
She indicates that the reason it may appear their road and street course program lagged was a result of her. “It was entirely because of the driver, and that was because of me. I’ll be the first to admit it: I have no ego, that’s why I pulled myself out in 2010 and put Graham (Rahal) in the car for the road races. There are so many kids out there who deserve an opportunity and may not (get it), for whatever reason.”
She explained further that, because of budget constraints, it made sense to place the emphasis on the ovals. “For myself, I came from USAC Midgets and Sprint Car days and ovals were my forte, that’s what I did well on. So, when we only had a limited budget to work with, how do you best spend your money? You spend it in the areas you’re best at, and that was oval racing for us.”
Of course, that emphasis paid off in spades last year with Ed Carpenter taking his and the team’s maiden win at Kentucky. “When we had the same kind of limited budget in 2011, we again said ‘Well, we want to focus on ovals again, because that’s where we’re going to best be able to spend our money, and who better than Ed Carpenter to do well on ovals?’ He has the same exact background that I do and he has the same expertise on ovals that I did. So, it matched extremely well and that was the opportunity that we put together as a combination.”
But, with Carpenter leaving to form his own team and the 2012 schedule heavy on road and street circuits, bringing in Newgarden, whose background is in road racing, both in Europe and in the U.S., was the best fit. And, though he is a rookie, Fisher is elated with his performance so far. “He is more prepared for the opportunity than any other talent that I have worked with,” Fisher said of the up-and-comer. “He is more prepared for this opportunity than I was, in my opinion. It’s so refreshing to see how hard he works at being the best race car driver car and we’re very lucky to have him in the No. 67 car for sure.”
She is especially pleased with how he has fit in with the team, immediately establishing a rapport with their engineers and mechanics. “I was very impressed, though, with how well Josef and the engineering staff have already gelled together. Since we hired him back last year, he’s been in the shop pretty much every day; he’s in the shop as much as the other guys. That’s very encouraging and he’s very genuine. And to work with the guys all off-season while Andy (O’Gara) and I were figuring this engine deal, they gelled and formed a big chemistry with our engineering staff and it really paid off for that test.”
Yet, Newgarden remains a rookie and has not yet competed a full weekend in an IndyCar. This means, like all rookies, there will be growing pains this year. But, as Fisher points out, there is no harm in that. “We’re expecting to have scenarios where we’ll have to put cars back together and we’re hoping for scenarios where Josef (can show) he’s the star we know that he is,” she added, “He just has to be, for lack of a better word, nurtured, I guess, and molded. But, he’s doing such a great job.”
But, for her optimism as the season nears its curtain raiser, she is careful not to make expectations too lofty. “I don’t expect to put a number on it,” she said. “We all want to be in the top 10 or top five, but I think right now we got to see where (Josef) shakes out. I think he’s incredibly talented and I think we’re a lot further ahead than where I thought we were going to be already. That being said, it’s just like ‘Let’s get to St. Pete and see how it goes,’ and then we can sort of lay out what we’re going to expect this year.”
Still, it would not come as a shock if they run well as the year goes on. “I think he sets the bar a lot higher for himself than any of us do, for sure. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some results out of him already,” Fisher of Newgarden’s attitude. “I think it’s going to be very interesting. When you have a rookie, and he comes in on day one, his very first time in a big car with anything over 400 horsepower, and he comes in and starts debriefing the car like a veteran, it’s so refreshing to see how well-prepared he is for the opportunity.”
The season kicks off this weekend in St. Petersburg, Florida, with the scheduled race time of 1:00 on Sunday 3/25.