At the racetrack, you can tell when a driver is losing control and heading for a wreck solely by ear.
You hear the engine revving higher than it should under normal acceleration. The pitch climbs higher, faster... then suddenly it falls off completely, leaving a foreboding near-silence. Then you hear the squealing of rubber on asphalt and you know what's probably coming next.
On this day, though, nobody at Phoenix International Raceway had to rely on their hearing to see what was going to happen. Everyone was watching. They saw the front wheels racked to the right, the rear bumper coming around, and within seconds you could almost see her face as the windshield turned to face the onlookers and the rear bumper crumpled against the turn two wall.
As the tire smoke slowly settled in the weak breeze, nobody said much. The rescue crews rolled to the scene of the accident, the driver's crew dejectedly turned on their heels and trudged toward the garage, and then one loud voice brayed over the silence: "SHOULDA STAYED IN INDYCARS, SARAH."
Even here, Sarah Fisher could not avoid the second-guessers.
That afternoon in Avondale, Arizona probably represented the nadir of Sarah Fisher's racing career. Once regarded as an up-and-coming female racing ingénue, Fisher's IndyCar career had gone from promising to tepid to nearly non-existent faster than anyone - including Fisher - could have expected. A short handful of years was all that separated her from the buzz and heady anticipation of her USAC stardom and this... this inexplicable dalliance in a stock car among the has-beens and never-weres of NASCAR.
The crowds of well-wishing fans had been joined by an ever-present, thoroughly critical band of second-guessing schadenfreuders - self-appointed experts who thought Sarah Fisher was in over her head. Never mind the "Most Popular Driver" awards. Never mind the track records. Never mind that she was (and still is) the fastest woman ever at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. All they saw was weakness. All they saw was a gimmick.
All they saw was a failure.
That was back in 2005. Sarah Fisher's experiment with the NASCAR Winston West Series would net her yet another "Most Popular Driver" award, but it would also bring her career to the point of extinction. Many other race drivers have faced less pressure and challenges and have given up completely, retiring to car dealerships, family businesses, and obscurity.
Those drivers are not as strong or as smart as Sarah Marie Fisher.
I don't know how long it was after that brief sojourn in stock cars that Sarah officially decided to become an IndyCar team owner. And I don't know whether the seeds of that idea had anything to do with her exposure to Richard Childress, with whom her Winston West effort was affiliated in 2005 as a development team.
Childress, of course, is NASCAR's ultimate rags-to-riches story. A journeyman racer who spent years futilely trying to make it on his own, he was convinced to hang up his helmet and become a car owner for a young Dale Earnhardt. Now he is one of NASCAR's reigning moguls - incredibly wealthy, wildly famous, and overseer of an iconic racing dynasty.
It would be too perfect, though, to think that Sarah Fisher elected at that moment to become the IndyCar version of Richard Childress. The truth is, she didn't. But maybe that was the moment when she began to plan for the long term instead of struggling to survive in the short.
The thing you must understand is that Sarah Fisher is tougher than anyone ever gave her credit for. In relaxed moments, she can be incandescent with her winning smile and warm personality. But put her in a tough spot, and she can calculate the coldest of odds with the best.
People were skeptical about Sarah Fisher Racing when it debuted in 2008. Once again, the critics began their harpy songs about how she couldn't get a ride any other way, about how she was washed up and holding on to a hope for the future that was mired in futility. She doesn't know when to let go! they chortled.
I often wonder whether those folks are capable of hindsight. Surely, they should have employed some earlier this year when Sarah stepped out of her #67 Dallara and turned the reins over to Graham Rahal. Maybe then they realized that Sarah is not stupid, nor is she desperate or short-sighted.
The Rahal deal was a masterstroke. Not too many of even the brightest stars in racing have the foresight and the balls to do what Sarah Fisher did in that instance. Sarah could have raced out the string, but she didn't. In that moment, weighing her career as a driver in the balance against her future as an owner, she came to the stark realization that there was nowhere to go but down behind the wheel.
Her heart kept saying, "Maybe... maybe... maybe." Maybe if she got a top ride... maybe if she tried hard enough, long enough, the breaks might still come... maybe.
But, like Childress, she knew that the end of that road was far closer and far more abrupt than the end of the other path. Like Childress, she accepted that you can't race forever, even though every racer worth his salt has tried to. In the parlance of The Shawshank Redemption, it was, "Get busy livin', or get busy dyin'." And her driving career was inexorably dying, bit by tiny bit.
So she decided to wear the owner's hat. She had a car. She had a sponsor. And one of the most desirable young talents in the series couldn't buy a ride with anyone else. All it would take would be for her to step out of the cockpit.
Rahal, of course, was not long for Sarah Fisher Racing. Nor did anyone expect him to be - everyone figured that young Graham already had a deal in place for 2011, including Sarah. That wasn't why she hired him anyway. She hired him to show her team and sponsors that she was serious about making a go at this as an owner. She wasn't doing Rahal a favor to keep him in the limelight - she was doing herself a favor by building her business.
Today's announcement that Sarah was retiring as a driver should have surprised no one. In the instant that she decided to give her seat to Rahal, her career as a race car driver was effectively over. Now she is Sarah Fisher, team owner, still the youngest owner in the IZOD IndyCar Series ranks.
Her decision to hire Ed Carpenter, if you think about it, is a logical progression for Sarah. Another driver who has been chronically second-guessed, Carpenter is an underdog favorite among series fans. When Carpenter called Sarah three weeks ago, the pairing seemed so natural that it was virtually decided then and there over the phone line.
Sarah Fisher Racing's 2011 season will span less than half of the IndyCar schedule - that is, unless she can pick up funding for additional races. But it is also a function of Sarah's determination not to do anything half-assed. This is, after all, her future. She could try to run Carpenter over the full schedule, but it would be an unnecessary expenditure of resources - particularly with 2012 and the new rulebook around the corner. A strong, respectable limited run in 2011 makes better business sense... and better bait for investors keen on jumping on the ICONIC-inspired bandwagon.
So, fans, shed no tears for Sarah Fisher's driving career. It's a near certain bet that Sarah herself is not shedding any for herself. Of course there will be nostalgia and sentiment. But Sarah Fisher Racing will be entering 2011 with a plan - a solid sponsor, a solid driver, a manageable schedule, and bright prospects for the future. In a way, her current situation is very much like IndyCar's - once left for dead, now back on the rise with hope for tomorrow.
Second-guessers need not apply.