IRL: Indy500: Al Unser, Sarah Fisher form interesting odd couple on Pole Day

INDIANAPOLIS, Saturday, May 20, 2000 -- The time it took Sarah Fisher to drive four qualifying laps Saturday for the Indianapolis 500 was 41-hundredths of a second more than Al Unser Jr. Her average speed for the 10-mile run was a scant ...

IRL: Indy500: Al Unser, Sarah Fisher form interesting odd couple on Pole Day

INDIANAPOLIS, Saturday, May 20, 2000 -- The time it took Sarah Fisher to drive four qualifying laps Saturday for the Indianapolis 500 was 41-hundredths of a second more than Al Unser Jr. Her average speed for the 10-mile run was a scant 56-hundredths of a mile per hour slower than his.

Yet these two race drivers, it would seem, are light years apart in most every other way.

First - and most obvious - they are of different genders. Second, he is 38, and she exactly half his age at 19. He is a two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, and she is a rookie. Unser comes from one of the most famous families in racing, based in Albuquerque, N.M., she from a schoolteacher mother and a father who owns a machine shop in central Ohio.

But on this cool, overcast day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway they were more alike than divergent.

Both felt like rookies. They were excited and happy to get their cars in the field and at the same time relieved to be finished with Pole Day.

Said Unser: "I guess I was a little bit nervous. We definitely had butterflies we haven't had for five years. I can honestly say we're back."

Said Fisher: "Actually, I don't think it (qualifying) was that intense. Once I got on the track, I was in the same zone I've been in all week, that is to run very consistent laps and laps that are fast. So it's a matter of going out there and doing what you know how to do."

Unser had butterflies because he was attempting to qualify at Indy for the first time since 1995, when Fisher was 14. Unser learned then that the Speedway has no regard for a driver's stature as he failed to go fast enough to make the field only a year after he had won both the pole and the race.

Fisher, on the other hand, is young and yet to fully understand how cruelly the Speedway can treat a driver.

Unser was first to complete a qualifying attempt, so his four-lap average of 220.293 mph in his Galles ECR Racing Tickets.com Starz Encore Superpak Dallara/Oldsmobile/Firestone put him on the pole for 10 minutes. His downfall was an opening lap of 218.187. Fisher took the racing surface 45 minutes later and put together four laps in her Walker Racing Cummins Special Dallara/Oldsmobile/Firestone that varied only 63-hundredths of a second between fast and slow for a 220.237-mph average.

The crowd cheered heartily when Unser took the checkered flag and did the same when Fisher became only the third woman through 84 races to qualify.

"The first lap wasn't what I wanted," said Unser, who admitted he was overly cautious after watching several spins in practice caused by cold tires.

"I thought it was the best thing to do. But we're in the show. It's the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, and we're in. There's been a lot of buildup and a lot of hype, and we're officially back now. We've got 500 miles to go."

Although Fisher can be all business at such a young age, she was a bit giddy when she entered the media interview room. She giggled as she approached the microphone, but quickly was back to being Sarah the race driver.

"The worst of it seems to be over now," she said. "The beginning was a little nerve-wracking. I'm not in the race yet, but it's a big thrill. Indianapolis is a very unique place, a unique facility. It's not a stamped track, it's its own place."

Here's the real irony of Fisher's qualification preparation. She listened to and relied on the counseling of Indy Racing Northern Light Series driving coach Al Unser, Al Jr.'s father.

"He showed me the line around this place, and who better to learn from than a four-time winner?" she said.

"I don't think we risk missing the field with a solid 220," Unser said. "My dad has proven that you can start this race from anywhere and win (20th to first in 1987)."

The one thing you don't want to do is question Fisher about whether being 19 and qualifying for the race or being a female and making the race is more meaningful to her. She almost snorts out her answer.

"That's an easy question to answer," she said. "Definitely being 19 years old and making the race. I've made this perfectly clear in all my media statements that I'm looking at this as just another race car driver."

Standing in the pits when Fisher qualified was 81-year-old Rolla Vollstedt, who brought Janet Guthrie to the Speedway in 1976 and got her into the race the next year as the first woman driver.

"I think Sarah's perfect today," he said. "She was terrific as was Lyn St. James in 1992. But there will be only one Janet Guthrie, the first woman to make the race. At the time Janet qualified, I never thought I'd see a girl come here at half her age and qualify and adapt so well."

Janet Guthrie and husband Warren Levine attended the 500 Oldtimers/Hall of Fame banquet in Indianapolis Friday night. St. James is trying to qualify for her seventh Indianapolis 500 start at age 53.

Unser and Fisher have one other similarity. They came into the Indy Racing Northern Light Series this season with new teams. Unser signed with his old car owner Rick Galles late last fall after driving for Roger Penske in CART, while Fisher was introduced by Derrick Walker as driver of his new team at Walt Disney World Speedway on Jan. 29. Walker, a CART owner, formed a special team just for her.

"It relieves a lot of tension that has been festering for five years," Unser said. "It's the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, and it's a great thing for me, my family and my team."

Said Fisher: "I thought I'd spend at least another year in a midget before I 'd have a chance to test an Indy car"But Derrick gave me this opportunity, and here I am."

Nowhere but at Indy could Al Unser Jr. and Sarah Fisher be brought together on an even playing field. Especially with four left turns at 220 mph.

-IRMLS/IMS-

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