Safiulla had been involved behind the scenes in open-wheel racing for several years. But in De Silvestro, he saw a unique opportunity to do something that had never been done before -- orchestrate the career of a female driver who wasn't defined by her gender. He became De Silvestro's manager, big brother, benefactor, deal broker, father figure, marketing maven, and moral compass.
"Racing is dominated by alpha males, and it objectifies women," he says. "When you see a woman in racing, she's usually in tight knickers, holding an umbrella. We're not promoting a feminist agenda, but we're trying to promote gender equality. Danica has opened the door, but she's chosen a path that, in my opinion, is slightly easier because she's leveraging her sensuality. Simona won't be doing any [innuendo-laden] commercials. If she's selling a road car, she won't be lying on the floor in front of it in a bikini."
That said, nobody's going to mistake De Silvestro for Patrick. De Silvestro is fresh-faced, disarmingly open, and delightfully eager to please, but she looks more like an athlete than a runway model, and there's none of the diva in her. "She's my same brand -- the girl next door," says Fisher, who was the IRL's poster child before Patrick arrived. "She's a really great girl, and you could take her anywhere. She could fill my shoes pretty easily."
Safiulla insists that his goals for De Silvestro are -- his words -- a vision statement rather than a sales pitch. But he's also trying to create a brand with broad commercial appeal. "This is a chance to deliver merchandise to a consumer market that doesn't have a voice," he says. "Of course, you can talk about this until you're blue in the face. But until you are standing on the podium, the credence is not there. She has to win races."
De Silvestro's confidence was shaken during her first year with Safiulla, in the supercompetitive Atlantic series. The next season, she won the first race of the year -- the same weekend that Patrick scored her IndyCar victory -- before her performance plateaued, so Perona was brought in to unlock her innate talent. "She was fast but inconsistent," he recalls. "She'd come back from a session and spew information, 1000 miles per hour in semibroken English. But I realized that I could really push her, so I started cracking the whip."