“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.