"We invited Wink and his wife, Libba, out to Indy to be our guests at the race. They loved it, and they've been with us ever since. The amount of that first deposit was a big reason why we are where we are today. They're a very big part of this."
Willis "Wink" Hartman is a millionaire Kansas oilman, businessman, jack-of-all-trades, restaurateur, failed congressional candidate and serial philanthropist who lives with wife Libba on a ranch outside Wichita with some camels, a few llamas and a miniature donkey that's a ringer for the Eddie Murphy character in Shrek.
But calling Hartman eccentric would be a mischaracterization. Eccentrics are odd. Wink is not odd. Wink just likes to help people, in very unusual ways.
"You've got to help your neighbor to get by in this life," Hartman says. "I get a kick out of helping people. It's just something I do. I've been very blessed and fortunate in my lifetime, and I like helping. I've never done anything like this or anything on this level, but I am known for doing things that people think are unusual."
One afternoon in 2008 — "I had nothing better to do," he says — Wink was watching a TV report about the Indy 500. Fisher was attempting to qualify for the race, but a sponsor's check had not arrived. The team she owned was nearly broke. Without that check, she wouldn't be able to afford to compete at Indy, where teams with "only" a million dollars struggle to compete against teams with many millions, and teams with empty bank accounts go home.
Hartman thought about it. He imagined her plight. He felt her pain. Then he went to his computer, found Sarah Fisher Racing's website and crafted an e-mail. "I'd like to help," he recalls writing. "I can wire you the money you need. Just give me your bank account number and routing number."
The first attempt went unanswered. And the second. And the third. "The more I e-mailed, the more they must have laughed," Hartman says. "I'm sure they thought, 'He's a nut job. He'll never send the money.' Eventually, after the third e-mail, they were like, 'We've got to meet this guy.'"
Finally, word got to Fisher that a guy in Kansas named Wink wanted to wire money. "I said, 'What harm could it do?' " she recalls. "There's nothing in there to steal."
Hartman wired the money, and Fisher made the race. Four years later, with Hartman as a partner, Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing is starting seventh in Sunday's Indy 500 with a terrific rookie driver, Josef Newgarden, who has poise and form not usually seen in 21-year-old racers. People are whispering about this little team and its unusual story and how it could surprise everyone Sunday.
Fisher's inspiring back story
Fisher has been to the Hartman ranch, a 600-acre spread southeast of Wichita. Wink and Libba have about 200 animals, few of them indigenous to central Kansas. There are watusi — African cattle with massive horns — and buffalo and goats.
"The goats run off to the neighbor's place every once in a while," Hartman says. "But then they come back."
The scene touched Fisher.
"All the animals know Libba," she says. "She rides around in a cart and feeds them. They all come up to greet her. It's an amazing thing to see."
Had they seen Fisher race, the Hartmans would have been impressed. At 16, she competed in the Knoxville Nationals, the Indy 500 of winged sprint cars, a rough-and-tumble, wickedly fast and dangerous form of dirt-track racing.