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Savvy Sarah's golden Graham gamble

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Sarah Fisher drives her #67 Dollar General Sarah Fisher Racing Honda Dallara during the IRL Indy Car Series Spring Testing at Barber Motorsports Park on February 23, 2009 in Leeds, Alabama. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
Sarah Fisher drives her #67 Dollar General Sarah Fisher Racing Honda Dallara during the IRL Indy Car Series Spring Testing at Barber Motorsports Park on February 23, 2009 in Leeds, Alabama. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

For the past two weeks, it seems like the only thing IndyCar fans could talk about was the fact that the series was being overrun by ride buyers.

For the past two weeks, howls of outrage and hales of derisive laughter issued from die-hards who pointed at drivers getting rides thanks to their wallets while one of the series’ top potential star drivers, Graham Rahal, sat on the sidelines.

For the past two weeks, pundits and fans were simultaneously castigating IndyCar’s management and team owners for allowing this to go on and begging them to do anything, everything to get Rahal a ride. Someone, they cried, must step up and show the world that somebody in IndyCar understands the value of a rising young talent, no matter the sacrifice necessary.

And for the past two weeks, someone has been preparing to do just that.

But it was not the IRL’s new CEO Randy Bernard.

That’s not to say that Bernard hasn’t been doing due diligence with Rahal. He’s met with Graham and, if Rahal’s tweets are any indication, the advice Bernard has given the young driver will go a long way towards securing a full-time ride - if he hasn’t already.

Still, the hero in the white hat who rode over the hill to save young Graham from the sidelines wasn’t wearing Bernard’s boots. Rather, it was perhaps the last person virtually anyone expected to ride to the rescue - Sarah Fisher.

Graham Rahal entered 2010 cast adrift from the Newman-Haas-Lanigan race team that gave him his break into major-league US open-wheel racing. Paul Newman was gone, a victim of cancer, and the team’s other owner, Carl Haas, has been increasingly distant from the operation. Financially, the once-mighty racing powerhouse was struggling, and Rahal’s McDonald’s sponsorship was gone and there was no replacement.

But Rahal didn’t know that until very late in the going, and when the hammer finally fell he was shocked. Worse, he was not only rideless, but now stranded at a point in the season when the top teams’ sponsors’ annual budgets are set and last-minute deals are difficult to come by.

Of course, a free agent of Rahal’s caliber doesn’t come along every day. Several teams, including KV Racing Technologies, scrambled to come up with a package for him. Dale Coyne Racing took perhaps the biggest risk, laying a two-year deal and a six-figure salary in front of the youngster.

Rahal was in a bind. He needed - desperately - to have a place to drive this season to keep himself in practice and, more importantly, relevant. But over the horizon lay the promise of a drive with one of IndyCar’s top teams. What he needed, he realized, was a stopgap - a short-term deal with a capable team that would leave him free at season’s end to hunt for the golden ring.

With a recession on, however, getting the money for a seat was a tall order. Most teams were already at their budgetary limits in terms of available equipment and personnel. To add Rahal, teams would need to pony up for another car, an engine lease, and a crew - and this late in the season, the odds of being able to do that without a significant check to pay for it were very low. One by one, the interested teams fell out of the running... except for Dale Coyne Racing.

It had been a hard off-season for Coyne. After the high of winning his first race with Justin Wilson last season, he was experiencing a major low after Wilson, his engineer and his sponsor moved on to greener pastures. But here - here was an opportunity for a major windfall. It was as if a young baseball star had been put on the waiver wire and Coyne was the first claimant.

Rahal politely, but firmly, declined.

It’s not that Rahal did not respect Coyne, but there were some harsh realities to face. Put bluntly, DCR was a low-tier team, and Bill Pappas - the man who had milked Wilson's Watkins Glen win out of a nine-year-old Dallara chassis - no longer worked there. And then there was that second contract year - the security of a full-time ride would come at the cost of Rahal's freedom to pursue a seat with a front-running team for 2011.

The trouble was, with Coyne's offer off the table, Rahal had precious few options left. In years past, Rahal knew, top-level drivers without rides could depend on IndyCar management to provide an "assist," so to speak. But with new management and a turnover in power at the series’ top levels, it was understood that the purse strings were now too tight to allow for driver welfare.

And so it was that as the IZOD IndyCar Series loaded up and prepared for the season-opening race in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Rahal - one of the series’ brightest prospects - was on the sidelines.

Sarah Fisher was despondent. Testing had not gone well for her at Barber Motorsports Park. Her #67 Dollar General Dallara was off the pace, and much as she would like to think otherwise, it probably wasn’t the equipment’s or the team’s fault.

It rankled Sarah, because lately all of the momentum had been going her way. Thanks to an aggressive social media campaign and smart business decisions, Sarah Fisher Racing was on the rise with fans and within the sport. Always a popular figure as a driver, Fisher was making waves as an owner - this year, she was expanding her team to two cars with Jay Howard, an underrated driver in his own right, taking a part-time role. On top of that, she enjoyed an excellent relationship with her sponsor, Dollar General.

But it became clear quickly at the twisty, momentum-based road course in Alabama that it was likely that SFR would start the season in the hole. Sarah often can be her own harshest critic, but in this case it all came down to the simple fact that she did not believe herself to be a skilled road-course driver. With time, she knew, that might change, but the time sheets spoke for themselves: she was not getting it done.

And then she had an idea.

It was a long shot, she knew that. And it would require her to shuck her driving suit and put on her saleswoman’s outfit to make it work. But a long shot is still better than no shot at all.

So she contacted Rick Dreiling, the CEO of Dollar General, and laid it all on the line: Graham Rahal was on the market, and she wanted to pursue him. She told him that Rahal was an exciting young talent and was clearly on the road to stardom in IndyCar racing. She told him that Rahal was looking for a short-term solution while he planned his long-term future. Then, swallowing her pride in the interests of her team, she let Dreiling know that if Graham Rahal were to drive the #67 Dollar General Dallara at St. Petersburg - a track where he won in his first-ever start in 2008 - and Barber Motorsports Park, it could represent a windfall of exposure that she frankly did not believe she could match.

Dreiling was impressed. Clearly, it took a lot of guts for Fisher to make that admission. There is nothing healthier than a race driver’s ego, and it is only rarely that one driver will admit that another is a better option for a sponsor. Fisher clearly had set her ego aside to do what she thought was right not just for her race team, but for Dreiling and his company.

Thus, with Dreiling’s approval, Sarah Fisher pitched the offer to Graham Rahal. It was a win for all sides - Rahal would get the track time and exposure he needed, Dollar General’s TV time would skyrocket, and Sarah Fisher Racing would enjoy the services one of the series’ top road-course talents for two races.

When the story trickled out over the Internet - broken first by Curt Cavin of the Indianapolis Star and then expanded upon by USA Today’s Nate Ryan - it’s safe to say that almost everyone was shocked. Once the shock passed, however, it was replaced by a sense of amazed delight - both for Rahal and for Fisher.

Naturally, cynics are already suggesting that Randy Bernard had bought Rahal his ride with Fisher’s team. This is patently false. The very idea does a disservice to Fisher, her initiative and her willingness to make a hard choice to benefit other parties. Like NASCAR's Richard Childress did thirty years ago, Sarah Fisher voluntarily decided to step out of the cockpit to give a talented young star an opportunity that he needed - and for that, she deserves all the credit in the world.

In reality, this is nothing less than the biggest feel-good story of the IZOD IndyCar Series season so far. The series’ acquisition of IZOD as a title sponsor and the hiring of a clearly capable new CEO in Bernard were definite positives, but in recent weeks the series had suffered from a drought of good buzz. Let us also be frank - many fans had decided long ago that the odds of something like this happening in an era of ride-buying and politics were very low. And yet, it has happened - an American team owner is gambling on an American race driver.

If there is one thing that can be said about Sarah Fisher, it is that she has made a career as a driver and now as an owner out of defying the odds and taking risks. Happily, this is one gamble that has every indication of paying off for everyone involved.