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Sarah Fisher roars into a man's world

Sarah Fisher inhabits a world of helmeted heroes - faceless figures roaring around racetracks in brightly-coloured cars. So it is perhaps not surprising that the 22-year-old American driver does not make a big deal about being a woman in a man's world.

She may be the only one who wears lipstick and high heels when off duty but Fisher does not like to dwell on differences that she says vanish once the action starts.

"As long as you can provide the results, it doesn't matter whether you are a man, a woman or a monkey," Fisher told Reuters at the weekend after becoming the first woman in a decade to drive a Formula One car.

In an opportunity arranged by mutual sponsors TAG Heuer, Fisher stepped into David Coulthard's and Kimi Räikkönen's spare McLaren at Indianapolis last Friday for three demonstration laps before her home crowd. It did not faze someone who two years ago became the third youngest driver and youngest woman to race in the Indy 500 at The Brickyard before a 400,000-strong crowd. In 1999 she had become the youngest driver ever to pass the Indy Racing League (IRL) rookie test and she has been voted the series' most popular driver for two years running.

"A race car is always a race car," said Fisher, who competes in the IRL and in Kentucky last August became the first woman to qualify on pole position in a major open wheel series. This year she has also finished second and third.

The last woman to drive a Formula One car on a grand prix weekend was Italian Giovanna Amati who created a swell of media interest when she tried and failed to qualify an uncompetitive Brabham in 1992. "It's a male environment and they want to keep it that way; the drivers, the journalists, everyone," Amati said bitterly later.

With some irony, McLaren chief Ron Dennis said earlier this season that he did not see a woman cutting it in Formula One. Jaguar's Eddie Irvine, asked if he would be watching Fisher's demonstration, laughed and said he did not think that would in any way enhance his life. But Fisher, who is the highest-profile woman racer in America but not the only one, bats off questions about prejudice and discrimination.

"It has not been a problem. I have experienced equal treatment from everywhere that I go," she said.

After 17 years as a woman in racing, Fisher has grown used to a certain line of questioning. "I have answered this question maybe millions of times," she told a news conference after her first taste of Formula One when the gender issue surfaced. "As long as I can do what I have the ability to do, drive race cars and put up laps, capture poles, lead races, give results that are needed to win and succeed then that is really all that matters. Racing is a mind game. It's what you are made up of in the mind, it is not so much physical."

It has not been all sweetness and light. Fisher acknowledged that she and IRL champion Sam Hornish junior did not get along socially but she says ability is all. "Until someone comes to my face and says you don't belong, then I'm not going to worry about what other people's opinions are," she said. "I'm not saying that women belong in racing because not all men belong in racing either. But I've done better than most of them. I've led races and I've won poles and I've done extremely well for the situations that I have been in so far."

Born in Columbus, Ohio, Fisher had a normal childhood, learning piano and enjoying any sports that came along. Both her parents raced go-karts and she would have been the odd one out had she done anything else. "I was a typical five-year-old -- here, there and everywhere," she said. "Racing was one of those things that they showed me and I just loved racing."

Fisher said that the absence of women drivers in Formula One had more to do with so few starting young than with any lack of aptitude. "I am the only girl that I can think of who's started at the age of five and come along," she said. "But there are many more girls who are starting at a young age because that's quite necessary to make it in a very competitive sport."

The IRL is Fisher's focus but she switched on to Formula One after Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya made his debut for Williams last year. The two raced together in the Indy 500, which Montoya won in 2000, and became friends.

"I don't see any reasons why a female shouldn't be able to compete in Formula One. I don't see any reason why they shouldn't be able to compete in the IRL," said Fisher. "It's certainly something that is very possible."

Whether she will ever make the transition herself remains an open question, however. "I'm about performance and if I can't perform in that certain car, then I would not want to set myself up to fail. That is not appropriate in my life," she said.

By Alan Baldwin

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