There's no stopping Simona de Silvestro
INDIANAPOLIS -- Simona de Silvestro cried like a little girl when her father told her she couldn't race go-karts. She should have. She was 4 years old.
But there she was, unable to reach the pedals of the kart during a demonstration at her father's auto dealership in Thun, Switzerland, wailing, "destroyed," she recalls.
"I was crying the whole day, and I was pretty much putting a tantrum out there," she said. "My dad finally gave in and said when I could reach the pedals he would get me a go-kart. I think every two weeks we would go to the go-kart shop and try one. Finally, when I was 5 1/2, he bought me my first go-kart."
Many things have changed for de Silvestro, now 22 and in her second season in the Izod IndyCar Series, but she still refuses to get out of the car. Her toughness and stubbornness were thoroughly established with the way she handled a potentially horrific, fiery crash last season, and de Silvestro wrote herself into Indianapolis 500 lore this week, returning to qualify with second-degree burns on the backs of her hands and fingers just two days after being involved in a spectacular practice crash. De Silvestro's race car had hammered the wall after a part failure, then tumbled and tore into the catch fence before igniting.
After being released from a local hospital, she was soon tweeting photographs of what she called the "Mickey Mouse" gloves of gauze she was forced to wear. Her bandages eventually became smaller and less cumbersome after a constant series of rewraps, and she was cleared to make qualifying attempts Saturday.
Already a burgeoning fan favorite, her odyssey mesmerized fans, all types of them, on what had become one of the most noteworthy Pole Days in years. As de Silvestro's green race car howled down the front stretch to begin the four-lap qualifying bid, a sunburned man wearing a Helio Castroneves hat laced his fingers through the catch fence and whispered, "Come on, girl."
De Silvestro placed the car 24th and earned a day of rest on Bump Day. But she was at the track again anyway, using her injured hand to sign scores of autographs.
"Ninety-five percent of the grid couldn't do what Simona did," said 2005 Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon.
She admittedly questioned herself this time.
"[Friday] in the morning I didn't want to get back in the car," she said. "I was like, 'I don't think I need this.'"
But she did it anyway.
De Silvestro's inexorable drive began manifesting itself in the IndyCar Series season opener in St. Petersburg, Fla., where she used ultra-aggressive tactics in the restrictive confines of the street course to improve from her 17th starting position to fourth in the final laps, then harried veteran road racer and 2004 series champion Tony Kanaan for a spot on the podium. Kanaan eventually held on for third place, but de Silvestro had made her point -- again -- with her peers and the scores of fans who flocked around her after the race. She was no novelty. She was harder-edged than her "Swiss Miss" nickname suggested. She was going to reach the accelerator pedal and stomp it.
"I used every bit of strength and experience I had to hold her off," Kanaan said. "I said [over the team radio], 'Who is this yellow car right beside me?' And then they said that was Simona, and I remembered because she blew my doors off in the restart before. And I knew she was strong. I used everything I could to be able to hold her off."
De Silvestro subsequently finished ninth at Barber Motorsports Park (Ala.) despite being impeded by an E.J. Viso mishap, but was spun by Paul Tracy at Long Beach (Calif.) and turned around on pit road in Sao Paulo, finishing 20th each time. She is 11th in driver points entering her second Indianapolis 500 and facing the challenge of the first oval of the season, tracks on which she has a career average finish of 22nd. She started 22nd and finished 14th in the Indianapolis 500 last season and was named race rookie of the year.
As a rookie driving for HVM Racing, one of the smallest teams in IndyCar and without the benefit of a teammate, de Silvestro produced top-10 finishes at Toronto and Mid-Ohio last season. HVM announced before the season that it had secured a sponsor to keep de Silvestro with the team for the next three seasons.
Race engineer Brent Harvey, who left a job with Panther to take over her program less than a week before the season opener this past March, was immediately impressed with his new charge.
"She could be a champion, for sure," he said. "She has that heart, that desire. You can see it in her eyes and hear it in her voice. That's how good she can be."
De Silvestro's desire to become a race car driver had to be infinitely more ardent than even her 4-year-old tantrum. Racing was banned in Switzerland after a crash at the 1955 LeMans sports car event killed more than 80 spectators and injured 77 others. So, de Silvestro -- with her father, Pierluigi, and mother, Emanuela, supporting her -- raced throughout the rest of Europe as she began her career in open-wheel developmental series.
By 2006, she had progressed to the Formula BMW USA championship, where she became the first woman to finish on the podium at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Two years later, she earned her first Atlantic Championship win at Long Beach, and in 2009 she became the first female driver in series history to lead the series in wins (four), poles (four) and laps led in a season as she finished third in points.
Perversely, Swiss fans began to notice de Silvestro more, she said, after she was involved in the crash at Texas Motor Speedway last summer. De Silvestro was trapped in her wrecked, igniting car as emergency responders grappled with a nonfunctional hose before finally ripping her from the cockpit. Her startlingly calm demeanor afterward, especially after suffering minor burns, earned her respect with domestic IndyCar fans and notoriety at home.
"It definitely made the headlines [in Switzerland]," she said. "Nobody covered IndyCar in Switzerland, and they had the crash on the news there, pretty much everywhere.
"I think, while they saw it and it was pretty horrific, it showed that the cars are safe. After the crash, they started really following it, and I ran pretty well at Mid-Ohio and other races, and people just started to catch on to it."
They'd better. Because she's not getting out of the car until she gets her way.