A Wealthy Guardian Angel Lands at Indy 500

Willis "Wink" Hartman
Bill Clark | Roll Call | Getty Images
Willis "Wink" Hartman

Suppose you're having a financial struggle. So big that it's on national television. Strangers send you emails offering help. There's even one from a guy named Wink who says he's going to wire you a massive amount of money.

You might expect him to ask for a deposit so he can secure the transaction. Or that he's the prince of an oil-rich country in the Middle East. But you probably wouldn't send a reply.

This is the story of Sarah Fisher and a guy named Wink, who really did wire a massive amount of money and really did save her race team. Not just saved it, but helped put it within striking distance of winning the Indianapolis 500. All because he was watching ESPN one day in 2008 and wanted to help, and all because someone answered his seemingly crazy e-mails.

"It really is an unbelievable story," Fisher says. "When he wired the money, I was like, 'Oh, my God.'

"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.

By 19, she was in Indy cars, holding her own at more than 200 mph. She holds the record for most Indy 500 starts by a female driver (nine), was the first woman to win a pole position in a major open-wheel race and is the first female team owner to win a race (with Ed Carpenter last year at Kentucky Speedway). She's often called the original Danica Patrick.

Hartman always had an interest in the local dirt tracks — "I was a regular Saturday night guy at the tracks," he says — but hadn't seen Fisher race before he wired the money. He did, however, know about her background. That's why the bulb lit when he saw her on TV.

Four years later, the Hartmans have a second family and a rather cool hobby.

"Normally you would expect something different from someone with his accomplishments, but he's a very down-to-earth guy and very humble," Newgarden says. "The same goes for Libba. They're genuine people. They're normal. They want to help out, and they want to be the underdog with this team. … I wouldn't be in a car without them. They believed in what I can do. They took a leap of faith, and I want to repay that."

Goodwill finds a family

Fisher left the race car in 2010, but she's never far from it. She and husband Andy O'Gara, the team's general manager, had a daughter, Zoey, in September, and their lives are as busy — if not more so — than when Fisher raced. SFHR is running the full 16-race Izod IndyCar Series schedule this year, a first for the team, and has two entries in Sunday's race: Newgarden and another promising rookie in Bryan Clauson, who has sprint-car roots.

Throughout it all, the Hartmans have been in Indianapolis, enjoying the new sport they've found. They're not strangers to sports; Wink, an avid polo player in his younger days, owns the Wichita Wild indoor football team and the Wichita Wings indoor soccer team. He also built the arena in which they play — Hartman Arena in suburban Park City.

He's not shy about attention or ambition. In 2010, Hartman, a conservative Republican, ran for the U.S. House of Representatives. He lost in a primary after spending $1.5 million of his own money on the campaign. Then he bought a bank.

But there's also the Wink Hartman who isn't seeking anything other than goodwill. Wink and Libba didn't arrive in Indianapolis until Hartman Construction completed a voluntary mission to help Wichita and its surrounding suburbs clean up after multiple tornadoes damaged the area April 14.

You've got to help your neighbor to get by in this life.

It's what they do.

"It's neat because they're just normal people," Fisher says. "We had our qualifying picnic the other day, and they loved it. It's just the team and their families, just a 'yea-we-qualified' party where everyone gets together with their families and kids and goes swimming and has fun together. They came over and had a great time. They're just really good people."

There's more to it, of course. There's aspiration and competition and the desire to try something different. The foundation was in place before the e-mail, but the unexpected wire transfer put in motion the wheels of something unusual, dramatic and personal.

"I did bring money to help, but they already had good people in place," Hartman says. "We're really on track to be a major team, and that's because of Sarah and Andy and the work everyone on this team has done. Honestly, I'm the winner in this whole deal. I was accepted from Day 1, and not just because of the money. She has a family team, and that means something to me."

"Any business deal I get into, I do my homework. I saw the right people in the right places with this team, and it paid off."