Simona De Silvestro: Rookie No More

Decades from now, when some clever doctoral candidate writes his or, more likely, her dissertation about the history of women in sports, the 2010 Indianapolis 500 may be cited as a watershed moment.

The scene was Pole Day, a week before the race. Shortly after a disappointing qualifying effort, Danica Patrick complained about her ill-handling car during an interview broadcast over the trackside P.A. system. Patrick is racing’s It Girl, the most recognized face and best-known body in IndyCar racing, thanks to her exposure in Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue. Yet the crowd responded by booing her lustily, with all the bitterness of a jilted lover.

But that wasn’t the watershed moment. No, that came a few minutes later when a twenty-one-year-old Swiss rookie by the name of Simona De Silvestro outqualified Patrick for the fifth time in six IndyCar races this season despite making her run in the heat of the afternoon-the most diabolical conditions she’d ever experienced at racing’s most daunting circuit-and taking to the track immediately after the previous driver had crashed during his run.

“Think about the mental toughness that requires,” her race engineer Michael Cannon says. “We’d drawn a terrible qualifying position. It was hot. Another car had just splattered against the wall. And we’re telling her to go flat into turn 1-230.5 mph before turning in. Well, off she went.” And qualified solidly at 224.228 mph. “She’s bloody good,” Cannon says in the team’s garage in Gasoline Alley, two days before the Indy 500. “I’d be very surprised if she doesn’t win championships.”

De Silvestro is the anti-Danica, bubbly rather than sultry, a tomboy rather than a sex kitten, less sizzle, more steak. Janet Guthrie was the first woman to race at Indy, back in 1977, and Lyn Saint James carried the feminist torch during the ’80s and ’90s. In 2002, Sarah Fisher became the first woman to qualify on the
pole for an IndyCar race. Then, two years ago, Patrick scored the first, and so far only, IndyCar win for a female driver. Now, De Silvestro-the winningest female driver in Formula Atlantic history-is poised to achieve the biggest first of all: she could become the first female racer (outside of drag racing) whose gender doesn’t matter.

This isn’t to say that De Silvestro is androgynous. Although it’s often noted that her ears aren’t pierced, she seems like a perfectly typical young woman who smiles a lot, laughs easily and often, and can be girlishly silly. She shrieks when she spots a spider, and she’s seen the chick flick Twilight seven times. But what sets her apart from those who came before her is that she’s not a woman racer who happens to be seriously quick. She’s a seriously quick racer who happens to be a woman.

“Before I worked with her,” says her driver coach, Bob Perona, “I thought she was just another girl race car driver. After I started working with her, I knew she was going to be very good. But she’s turned out to be great. She’s the whole package. She’s got the talent. She’s got it mentally. She’s got it emotionally. I don’t think there’s anything she can’t do in a race car.”

De Silvestro is one of those preternaturally gifted athletes who excel at every sport they pick up. She won her first ski race when she was three, was a top regional fencer at age four, and played championship tennis not long after that. Considering that motorsports were banned in Switzerland in 1955, racing wouldn’t have seemed to be in her future. But her father, Pierluigi, was a car dealer who also did driving instruction at tracks in Italy, France, and Germany, and his daughter was born with racing in her DNA.

“When I was a baby, my dad says I was quiet only when I watched Formula 1 on TV,” she says. “When I was four, he did a go-kart demonstration, but I couldn’t reach the pedals, so I cried the whole day. By the time I was nine or ten, I knew that racing was what I wanted to do, and my whole life has been about it. Driving open-wheel race cars has always been my goal. I really never had anything else in my head.”

When she was seven, De Silvestro won the first kart race she entered-in the rain. When she was eleven, her father let her drive his Porsche 911 GT3 at Hockenheim, sitting on a pillow, and she got it up to 135 mph before he ordered her to slow down. At sixteen, she graduated from karts to Italian Formula Renault. The De Silvestros didn’t have enough money to pay for a second season in Europe, but with the help of friends, family, and an American sponsor, they put together a Formula BMW program in the United States.

At seventeen, halfway through the Swiss equivalent of high school, De Silvestro moved to Indianapolis. She didn’t know anybody and barely spoke English. But she was already fluent in the language of speed. She won once, made the podium repeatedly, and went into the last race of the season with a shot at the championship. The title eluded her, but her pace earned her a propitious meeting with an entrepreneur by the name of Imran Safiulla.

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.”

Last year, De Silvestro won four races, all from the pole, and was leading the Atlantic championship until she was punted into a tire barrier in the season-ending race. With nothing left to prove in Atlantics, Safiulla arranged a test at Sebring in an Indy car campaigned by HVM Racing. She’d never driven anything remotely as powerful as the Dallara-Honda, but that didn’t dissuade her from lighting up the rear tires as she left the pits for the first time. “You always have to show off a little bit,” she explains with a contagious laugh.

Keith Wiggins, HVM’s phlegmatic team owner, raised an eyebrow as he watched her slither off. But he figured it would take her time to get up to speed, so he climbed into the trailer to grab a cup of coffee. “While I was inside,” he says, “I could hear her down the back straight. Christ, she was on it! I had to get back out there, as much out of concern as out of interest.”

Cannon was equally surprised. “Typically, rookies don’t start making sense of the car until the middle of their first day. But she came in after her second outing. I think it was her thirteenth lap in the car. She said, ‘It has some understeer. But I’d like to settle the rear under braking first.’ So we made some changes, and the next time she came in, she said, ‘Better. Now you can fix the understeer.’ That’s a professional race car driver. I told Keith, ‘She was very impressive. If we can find a way to run her, I’d like to take care of her car.’ “

HVM is a small team whose success on the racetrack belies its meager resources. This year, after funding for other drivers failed to materialize, Wiggins agreed to run De Silvestro for a budget he reckons is maybe one-sixth of what Penske Racing spends on each of its three drivers. Because the team is running only one car,
De Silvestro can’t share data with a teammate. Also, most of the tracks are new to her.

So what happened at her debut in Brazil? She led four laps. In fact, her pace has been good all season, allowing her to run solidly in mid-pack before being victimized by rookie miscues. Kansas Speedway, her first oval, was the only track where she seemed in over her head. “She threw out the parachute the first few laps,” Perona says. Says De Silvestro: “It’s funny, because last year and the year before, when I watched oval races on TV, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s easy.’ Then when I got to Kansas and everybody told me it was flat [full throttle], and I’m like, ‘Are you sure about that? It doesn’t look possible.’ ” She smiles. “The first fifty laps, I was so confused. But when I passed Justin Wilson, the light bulb came on.”

Cannon was convinced that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway played to De Silvestro’s strengths-high-speed corners and the ability to provide high-quality feedback. She breezed through rookie orientation and practiced well before drawing a bad qualifying number on Pole Day. During the autograph session the day before the race, the drivers were seated according to their grid position, which placed De Silvestro next to Patrick. Hundreds of fans showed up with Danica apparel and merchandise. And there was one remarkably self-possessed thirteen-year-old girl wearing a Simona hat and T-shirt.

“I don’t like Danica because she’s always whining,” Jessica Hoopengardner said after snagging De Silvestro’s autograph. “I found it fairly funny when she got booed last week. I like Simona because she’s a good, new female driver. I think she’ll finish between tenth and twentieth tomorrow.”

Out of the mouths of babes . . .

Race day is obnoxiously hot and humid. This means De Silvestro will have to deal not only with brutal conditions in the cockpit but also with a treacherously greasy racetrack. The tension ratchets up during the interminable prerace festivities, and after getting to the grid, she fights the almost irresistible urge to go to the bathroom. It’s a relief to finally be strapped in the car. Still, during the pace lap, for the first time in the middle of a full field of thirty-three cars and a racetrack filled with fans, she’s so nervous that her legs are shaking.

Immediately after honorary starter Jack Nicholson waves the green flag, De Silvestro picks up a position. But before the first lap is over, Davey Hamilton wrecks in front of her — a taste of what’s to come. Ten drivers will crash out of the race, and three more will park their undrivable cars. De Silvestro struggles with an ultraloose car that constantly threatens to end her day. On several occasions, she dirt-tracks the car around turn 3, and she survives half a dozen heart-stopping moments in turn 1.

With fifty laps to go, De Silvestro’s drink bottle stops working. With thirty-seven laps to go, the team goes to a fuel-conservation strategy. De Silvestro is poised to pick up several positions when the field is frozen by a hellacious wreck on the last lap, and she finishes fourteenth, running out of fuel as she takes the checkered flag. After being towed to the pits, she has to be helped from her car. “She did an awesome job,” Perona says. “She deserves a raise.”

An hour later, revived with food and water, De Silvestro is still jazzed by the experience. “It was crazy out there!” she says, her eyes shining. With time, perhaps, her sense of wonder will dissipate. But at the moment, she radiates her passion for racing, and she openly expresses the sense of joy she gets from balancing a car on the limit of adhesion.

When the race began, she says, the buffeting was so fierce that her tires didn’t feel like they were touching the ground. Then her car was wicked loose, and on one occasion, she countersteered so violently that she ran out of steering lock. What else? She was dehydrated. She barely avoided Vitor Meira’s wreck. Her right foot was numb from matting the throttle for so long. Sounds like a nightmare, right? “Oh, no,” she says, genuinely horrified. “That was the funnest thing I’ve ever done. I can’t wait to come back next year.”

Like Saint James and Patrick in years past, De Silvestro was named Rookie of the Year. Patrick, who’d been booed again during the driver introductions, ran a gritty race to finish sixth (and ate plenty of humble pie afterward). Nobody’s ever doubted Patrick’s bravery or determination, and she’s always been especially good on ovals. But nothing on her résumé — one professional race win — suggests that she’s going to be a dominant driver in IndyCar, much less NASCAR.

Still, no matter what trajectory Patrick’s career takes, it’s impossible to overestimate the adversity she had to overcome or the impact she’s had. Thanks in part to Patrick’s success, De Silvestro has never had to deal with the issue of gender. “For me,” she says, “it’s always been about results.” For better or worse, she’s not a pioneer. She’s just a driver with two X chromosomes, and her goal isn’t breaking down barriers or beating the boys. It’s winning races. And if she can win enough of them, it really won’t matter that she’s a woman.