The confetti rained on the Verizon IndyCar Series’ newest champion, Josef Newgarden, at Sonoma Raceway on Sept. 17. As it did, Sarah Fisher also enjoyed the celebration.
For Fisher – the former driver and team owner who now pilots the pace car at races – the moment was a long time coming.
The first team owner to gamble on Newgarden when he joined the Verizon IndyCar Series as a fresh-faced 21-year-old in 2012, Fisher took pride in seeing him evolve into the champion he has become with Team Penske.
“Oh, he earns it,” Fisher said while watching Newgarden bask in the glow of the championship celebration following his second-place finish in the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma.
“It’s just that he’s such a fun person to watch because he’s 100 percent genuine in everything he does, and he works hard and earns it all on his own.”
Fisher made her mark as one of the most successful women in racing with two podiums and eight top-10 finishes in 83 Verizon IndyCar Series starts over 11 years. That focus turned into team ownership when she put Sarah Fisher Racing on the grid in 2008 while still driving. Fisher ultimately decided to step out of the cockpit and focus on ownership duties completely in 2011 – the same year that Ed Carpenter delivered the team’s first win, at Kentucky Speedway.
Two major developments occurred for the 2012 season. First, Fisher took on Wink Hartman as a partner in what became Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. The second was hiring Newgarden, who had captured the Indy Lights championship the season before.
In four seasons with SFHR and then CFH Racing when the teams of Fisher and Carpenter merged in 2015, Newgarden drove in 67 races. He broke into the win column twice in 2015, finishing what was then a career-best seventh in the standings. Fisher is shown above smiling as she watches Newgarden following his win at Toronto in 2015 - the second of his career.
Fisher could tell from the beginning that Newgarden was special and had the makings of a champion.
“I think we knew … that we had a gem,” she said. “He works really hard out of the car. He works as hard out of the car as he does in the car and that makes him first class.”
For his part, Newgarden said working in what was a tight-knit, family-oriented, one-car team when he started with Fisher helped make him the driver he is today.
“I feel like starting out as a one-car team and trying to figure things out myself was very beneficial to me,” he said. “I think what's given me all my strength that I have in racing is that, when I first started, it wasn't the best situation.
“I loved driving for SFHR and they did so much for me, but I'll be honest, it wasn't the easiest situation. We had our backs against the wall a lot of times. We were a brand new team, it was a brand new car. We were a one-car team, so it was hard to go through those times with no previous setups, no information, no data to look at, no real thought process. You just had to formulate it yourself. And I think all those moments prepared me to get to this point with Team Penske and being able to sort it out with the best of the best.”
Fisher bowed out of team ownership after the 2015 season to focus on raising her family with husband Andy O’Gara and opening the Speedway Indoor Karting facility they own. Newgarden continued to progress with Ed Carpenter Racing in 2016, winning a third race and finishing fourth in the championship. He caught the attention of Team Penske, which added the Tennessean to an already-potent lineup in a move that paid off with the championship in Newgarden’s first season with the powerhouse team.
“Everything happens for a reason,” said Fisher. “The same thing for my career. When I got out of the car to have a family, I had a wonderful opportunity to put an oval specialist in the car in Ed Carpenter. That’s when we won our first race at Kentucky because Ed Carpenter is spectacular at ovals.
“And I wanted to put in an individual who needed an opportunity. It had nothing to do with money, it was just I wanted to put a kid in a car that could win races, and that was it. The same thing happened and Wink wanted to hire Josef. Everything happens for a reason.
“You get out of the car to put individuals like him in a situation like that.”
Fisher, 36, takes pride in the role she and her team played in the development of INDYCAR’s newest marquee driver.
“He just matured like we all do,” Fisher said of Newgarden. “You know, when he started out at 20 years old, he couldn’t even have a beer. Not that he drinks, but he grew up. We all grow up and, when you’re put in such a big-pressure situation like our sport puts us in, you grow up a lot quicker – and he handles it extremely well. It’s great to see that and it makes us really proud of him.”