IndyCar driver Sarah Fisher is probably best known as one of the few female drivers on the open-wheel circuit, and last year she made headlines by becoming the first woman to also own an IndyCar team when she launched Sarah Fisher Racing. She spent much of last year dealing with financial struggles after one of her chief sponsors, ResQ energy drink, failed to pay up. She managed to scrape up enough support to race at the Indianapolis 500 (where she exited early due to a crash) and then received last-minute support from retailer Dollar General to race in Chicago and Kentucky.
Sarah Fisher Racing announced this week that Dollar General would return as the car’s primary sponsor for the races in Kansas, Indianapolis, Kentucky and Chicago.
SportsBiz spoke with Sarah via phone this morning.
TL: So how did this deal with Dollar General come together?
SF: We’d been working with Dollar General since [last year’s race in] Chicago. They knew our plans and growing toward the future and they were really excited about the momentum we created. Unfortunately for us they had already signed with the Nationwide Series team program even before the Kentucky race last year, so for us to get them on board as a primary sponsor for these four events was really quite a feat, I guess. It was one of those things you can be really proud of because it’s more of a direct sponsorship program. They really wanted to be a part of it and we very glad we could deliver it for them.
TL: So you’re trying to do four races, including Indy?
SF: That’s the sponsorship that Dollar General covers, but we’d really like to do all the superspeedways and maybe even a short oval or two. So we’re out there actively trying to sell sponsorship and trying to bring back all of our partners. We have a couple that we have in the negotiating stage right now that are going to be returning, so that’s exciting. Direct Supply, IUPUI and AAA and all those folks are back as well, so that really tells us we did a great job from a business standpoint last year. With all those things accounted for, we’re still building and taking from those experiences and growing and trying to do better than what we did last year. We know there are some areas we could do better and we’re attacking those areas right now.
TL: It seems to me the sponsorship area has been challenging. Is it like pulling teeth out there when trying to get corporate support? What’s the environment like when you’re out talking to these companies?
SF: Well, it’s changed a bit from the past in that now they’re saying “unless you can help me sell my widget, I really don’t care.” It’s a little bit of a different idea plan. If there are certain ways that we can prove to them ahead of time that we can provide those opportunities and increase their business for sure, then obviously they’re more open to talking with us than before. It’s more of just the story we need to provide them, more value. As the league moves forward and tries to think big picture, all of the teams are trying to increase the value because at the end of the day, we’re in the entertainment business. Our sport costs so much, at the end of the day what else can we provide to make it more reasonable to hop on board and that’s the goal we’re constantly trying to achieve.
TL: What is your story and pitch when you go to companies?
SF: Well, mainly, we’re the only female-owned driving team in the league. So that makes us unique. We also have [Women Business Enterprise] status, so that makes it official for some companies that are required to spend a certain amount with a diversity angle. We tell owe are compassionate people and that we over-deliver. We’ve over-delivered time after time after time. We also obviously try to have our pitch more in line with what their business is. We try to think ahead of time of what opportunities we can provide with our current partners, and what opportunities we can provide them with league and other team partners. So we try to create a business outlay for them that makes sense.
TL: Is there a bit of a value argument here, where if a company is looking to get into sponsorship of auto racing, they might be able to get more bang for their buck with you?
SF: The IndyCar Series is considerably less [expensive.] And there are different programs that we can tailor that make it look even bigger than what the partnership really is. I think what we have to offer is incredible, but I’m a 100% open wheel fan. This is something I’m very passionate about. I’ve put my entire life-savings on the line because I believe in it that much. So that’s something that has to come across in those types of meetings. For me to say “this is the most value that you’re going to get in any motorsport,” well, that’s something I personally believe in and I’m constantly trying to provide numbers that agree with that.
TL: What are your expectations on the track this year?
SF: I think we’re going to be a lot better than last year. We were running in the top ten in most of those races. We had some issues that kept us from finishing in those and some of those issues have been written down and gone over with a fine-tooth comb. Also, we credit a lot of our competitiveness with our limited schedule. Because we have such a limited schedule, we have some more ability to test and do the things you need to do to prepare yourself for the race. Instead of stretching ourselves incredibly thin to achieve all nine ovals we take the time to focus on the outlets that are most important to us and where we have the most fans. And then we prepare ourselves as much as we can to do well. I think a lot of teams have the point of view of ‘oh, we have to spread ourselves thin and make every event,’ but at the same time they aren’t nearly as prepared as we are. We show up with an amazing footprint right out of the trailer. And also, we have one of the most successful engineers in open wheel history coming back to work with us. Tom Brown and Forsythe Racing are going to be part of our team from an engineering platform. We worked really hard and spent a lot of money on that. We invest in our people and we hire the best people in their fields who are flexible and can do more than one thing.
TL: So much was made of the merger between IRL and Champ Car last year. My sense is people were really looking forward to this year because you had a full year of the unified series under everybody’s belt. Do you have a sense that there is a good amount of momentum heading into this season.
SF: I certainly think so. Just from our perspective, being a first-year team and going through all those growing pains and trying to figure out who goes when, where and why and how it all fits together, that’s a big challenge, especially when you have a new race car. I’m sure some of that is what a lot of those [former Champ Car] teams were doing. There are several months in the offseason, so folks who know they will be returning will have a lot of time to rev on it and make it perfect.
TL: One of the lasting images from the 2008 Indy 500 was of you clearly upset after being knocked out of the race. Do you have any regrets about breaking down a little bit on TV?
SF: It wasn’t my fault entirely! [ABC pit reporter] Jamie Little was crying and I couldn’t help it! [laughs]. Ah, Thank God I’m not a male. I’d get ridiculed. But no, I don’t have any doubts about it. That’s the story about the IndyCar Series. I’m one of the characters that they talk about, and so emotions come about in different ways. You might have Paul Tracy who will throw something. Or then there’s myself, who might get upset because I crashed my half-million dollar race car that I paid for myself. That’s the emotion of the sport. For that to come across…people can identify with that. They can identify with being upset and with being happy when we announced that Dollar General came in to save the day at Kentucky. I was elated! So people were just as compassionate about that as when we had the crash at Indianapolis. So that’s a part of the sport and I think people really like that we’re not straight-laced and just get on the TV and be monotone. I think they want that emotion.
TL: What are your long-term goals with Sarah Fisher Racing?
SF: Ultimately, long-term I want to be in an owner’s position soley. As a female, I want to start a family. I can’t tell you what year that will be. Who can, even if you’re constantly going after that goal? But ultimately I want to have someone else driving the 67 car and I want this team to make it without me being the driver. So that’s the long-term goal. Who’s out there and what sponsorship exists for such an opportunity, I don’t know. We’ve actually approached some folks and talked about putting in another driver for the road courses this year. That could happen, still. You just have to be smart, as a small team and small business, you can’t have any mistakes. No big ones, at least—those will bite you.