This wasn't supposed to have been another story about crashes or fire or burns. Nor was it supposed to have been a story about concussions. Or fear, for that matter. No, this was supposed to have been a story about a young racer destined for success, perfecting skills, gaining assurance and speed and advancing ever closer to victory. It was, by all accounts, supposed to have been a positive story about the power of potential and the anticipation of the future.
But one can't tell the story of Simona de Silvestro without all of the above. That's because her story is now in recovery mode, as is her career and her confidence. Crashes and fire and burns and concussions have that effect; thus, we find ourselves, just as she is, questioning whether the confidence will return quickly. We watch and wait. We wonder with her if this will ever be the story it was supposed to have been.
It started splendidly enough, this 2011 sophomore season, with her taking HVM Racing's brand-new chassis to a rousing fourth-place finish in the IZOD IndyCar Series opener in March at St. Petersburg. This was mere days after losing her former race engineer Michael Cannon to KV Racing and adapting to his replacement Brent Harvey. It continued with a ninth place at Barber Motorsports Park. The murmur heading into the 100th anniversary Indianapolis 500, then, was Simona. Was she capable of winning? Was she the best female driver in IndyCar racing? Could she one day be a championship contender? How far would she go? Penske? Ganassi? Formula 1, even?
Then came the crash and burn, her second escape from flames in less than a year, that turned her story from one of potential to one of courage and recovering confidence. During practice at Indy, her car flipped, skidded on its roll hoop, slammed into the Turn 4 wall and – worst of all – caught fire. She unbuckled and pulled herself out, but in doing so placed her hands on fuel-soaked, burning asphalt and sustained second-degree burns on both hands.
The story didn't end there. She returned, hands wrapped in gauze and gloves, and qualified her (to put it politely) well-seasoned back-up car 23rd, but was classified 31st in the race after yet another brush with the wall. Still just being in the event was a triumphant recovery, or so we thought. Three weeks later, after staring down Texas, where she'd crashed and caught fire the previous year, she crashed while qualifying at Milwaukee. She raced, but brought the car back to the pits after just 11 laps with a handling problem. Her nerves were shot, but there was more to the story. She had a concussion. She had a cut on a knee. Her hands were still tender. She had a persistent cough. She was not well. Worst of all, her confidence was bruised. She sat out the following race at Iowa, and the team, along with Simona, wondered if she would recover her mojo.
“I definitely think right now I'm in a crossroads,” she says with typical candor. “I've never been in a situation like this. It's the toughest thing I've ever been through. It's a lot to deal with. I'm just trying to work on everything I can and learn from this. I'm stronger than I was before, and that has a lot to do with the people around me. It's been a tough situation for everybody. The way we started the season, we never thought we'd be in this situation. The biggest thing is to process it and come out of it was quickly as we can.”
The processing began in Toronto as de Silvestro returned to her comfort zone of street/road course racing with a 10th that could have been fourth if not for two extra pit stops due to a fuel-feed problem. The ovals that shook her remain a challenge (she finished 16th at New Hampshire in August, after qualifying 26th and last), but she's on the mend and getting better each day. Her recovery has surprised those who work closest with her at HVM Racing.
“Plenty of drivers go through bad crashes and have to recover from them, but not many of them deal with fire in this day and age,” says Keith Wiggins, HVM Racing's team owner. “The fire was very unfortunate. She did go through some areas of ‘I don't know' about ovals after that, but she understands they're part of the deal. At Toronto she was just about there. You could see her confidence returning. She's still got it, shall we say. We saw the same person we usually see at the track. She was 95 percent in terms of her buoyancy and positive attitude.
“I don't think we have a problem on road courses, but we're still going to come back needing experience on ovals. The main thing she needs is a string of good performances on road courses then some good, sensible runs on ovals. I definitely see that she's been through a difficult time, but she's back to where she was. There's a good, positive vibe.”
The vibe comes in large part from driver coach Bob Perona, who has worked closely with de Silvestro on her racing skills, training and – perhaps most important – her confidence.
“I think we can put her back where she was in the first four races of the season, driving-wise. That's kind of our baseline,” Perona said. “There were some things at Toronto that we didn't do well, and still a little bit more trust has to come back, but by the time she gets to New Hampshire, I think she'll be confident about returning to ovals. It's quite a challenge when you think about it. It's very hard to imagine what it's like to go into the fence at that speed. She was in a big one at Texas Motor Speedway last year, too, and what hurt her more than the actual crash was the fire. As a driver you go through a period where you just want to block it out, but it's still there in your head.”
That fact was evident in de Silvestro's comments after the crash. She admitted to fear and trepidation at the thought of returning to a car, a frank admission not usually heard among racers.
“Lots of people told me they appreciated that,” she says. “When somebody gets in a crash like that and says it didn't hurt or they weren't scared, they're lying. At Indy, I thought that was it. That's hard to deal with and you have to be honest with yourself. If you lie to yourself, then you're not going to get any better.”
De Silvestro's honesty is part of her charm, Wiggins says. It also endears her to the team, which at times takes a paternal approach toward her, and that's helping in her recovery.
“First and foremost, you treat her as a driver,” states Wiggins. “We're training a true racing driver. In circumstances like this, her gender allows her to be more honest. She's just telling it the way it is. Nobody can knock her for that. I've been in this business for 35 years, and I feel like a father figure to Simona. I can't help it. You see her having these issues and want to help her. I'm sure there are still questions about ovals, but she was honest about those feelings.”
In fact, being honest about the fear is the best approach to overcoming it. Ignore it and it remains. Admit it, and it fades.
“Everybody at some point in their racing career feels fear,” Perona says. “It's impossible not to. A big crash scares you, especially if it involves injury. Most of these guys haven't been upside down on fire. She's always pretty honest, so I wasn't concerned about her saying those things. A lot of things about Simona are refreshing. Part of it is a good amount of introspection. One thing we're concerned about now is that she's asked about the Indy crash at every race. She's constantly reliving it. She's constantly saying, ‘This is what happened and this is how I felt.' It's difficult to get past something when you're always talking about it.”
De Silvestro admits that bothers her, too, even if her travails have turned her into the sentimental favorite of the racetrack. “For sure, I don't like that I'm known as the one who's going through tough times,” she says. “Let's not forget how we started the season. I think it's normal that people are catching on to what's happened to me because it's so abnormal, and the fans have been wonderful, so supportive. It's been tough but now we're over it, I just want to move on. The worst is behind us, and I'm ready to put it away and start from the beginning again. I feel a new season is starting.”
And that, without question, should be a story worth telling.
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the September 2011 issue of RACER magazine. CLICK HERE to subscribe.