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Simona de Silvestro carving her own path in IndyCar

May 15, 2013, 4:00 PM EDT

Simona De Silvestro AP

Danica Patrick’s rise to prominence in motorsports has been both a blessing and a curse for fellow female drivers. Those wanting to carve a path as “racers who happen to be female,” rather than simply “female racers” who use their sex appeal to their advantage, have found the road tougher to advance up the ladder.

This is where Simona de Silvestro enters the equation. She’s one of a handful of non-Danica women who’s been in IndyCar since Patrick’s memorable 2005 arrival (others include Ana Beatriz, Pippa Mann, Sarah Fisher, Katherine Legge and Milka Duno). But along with Fisher, who has since retired as a driver and now is a team owner, de Silvestro has been the only other woman driver with staying power. The others have struggled to put full-season budgets together, or been in the wrong environment at the wrong time.

Her resolve has been tested. At any point in the last three years, de Silvestro, who’s still only 24, could have quit. She’s been on fire twice (Texas, 2010 and a practice accident at Indianapolis in 2011) and with woefully down on power Lotus engines a year ago, never stood a chance at being competitive. Her and former Formula One race winner Jean Alesi’s best laps were anywhere from 12-16mph off the leaders, and both were parked less than a dozen laps into the 500-mile race.

Rather than bitch about the situation, de Silvestro said the year out of the spotlight gave her peace and resiliency. She could ease back into racing on ovals and regain confidence.

“Last year helped me a lot on the ovals to be honest,” she said Wednesday. “I was skeptical about oval stuff. I think maybe last year really helped me. I had absolutely no pressure, and I got comfortable. Now I go out and feel confident with what I learned last year. It’s been rewarding to myself. When you have a big hit like that, it takes a while to get it back.”

Her switch to KV Racing Technology afforded her the chance at a Chevrolet engine, the mentoring and pushing from teammate Tony Kanaan – her first in IndyCar (and first since “Malcolm in the Middle” star Frankie Muniz in Formula Atlantic in 2009) – and the renewed confidence that her talent plus her equipment could finally pay dividends. She already has three top-10 finishes in four races, after entering the year with only five in three prior seasons.

On-track, she has these benefits. Off, she’s still got the same, carefully managed persona and image that only sees her align with partners dedicated to growing Simona, the racer. Because that’s what she is.

Her management team includes Imran Safiulla and Shane Senaviratne, who have been at almost every stage of her development since her time in Formula Atlantic. They’ve made a conscientious decision to see her through all the difficult stages and the support of partners such as Nuclear Clean Air and Entergy has made it possible for her to keep racing in IndyCar. An excellent report on how the image has been crafted is here, in this ESPNW article authored by Brant James.

When de Silvestro arrived, by default, she was viewed as the “anti-Danica.” Still, that does both an injustice. If Patrick hadn’t had the success she did in IndyCar – and a race win (Motegi, 2008) and fifth in the points standings (2009) is no small feat – there’s no guarantee de Silvestro would have made the leap to begin with. She was at a crossroads at the end of 2009 anyway, when a competitor took her out in the final Atlantic race of the year and cost her the title.

With the learning and challenging years ideally behind her, and Danica out of the way to steal the spotlight and attention, this month de Silvestro could truly enter the broader landscape beyond the core group of race fans and observers that already know her name and her ability with a good run at Indy.

She’s not obsessing over winning, instead methodically going about the process similar to what she did in 2010, when she won Indianapolis 500 Rookie-of-the-Year honors (finished 14th).

“I think anybody that qualifies has a chance to win it,” she said. “It’s always been hard to put a result as a goal. But if we do all the work we can, we’ll take it. When you’re not expecting too many things, things can go well. They did my rookie year going through the motions. And now with a better team, engine and everything, things can work out. I’m working hard toward that goal.”

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