“The Danica question happens pretty often,” IZOD IndyCar Series rookie Simona De Silvestro admitted. “I always get the same question asking me to compare myself and Danica, or how I think she’s doing. It think it happens at least once in every interview.”
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It’s hard enough for a rookie IndyCar driver to earn the respect of their fellow drivers, and sometimes it’s even harder to earn that respect from the media. And when it seems like the first question asked always revolves around one of your competitors, the struggle to carve out your own headlines becomes an even greater task.
In the case of Switzerland’s De Silvestro, who is running in the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, she’s merely the latest female driver to receive “The Danica Question.” IndyCar team owner/driver Sarah Fisher – a driver whose IndyCar career started six years prior to Patrick’s arrival – has always answered questions regarding the GoDaddy Girl with respect and class.
Venezuela’s Milka Duno has taken a different approach since her IndyCar arrival in 2007 with the SAMAX Motorsports team. From the well publicized dust up with Patrick at Mid-Ohio in 2008, to her deeply rooted dislike for the most popular female driver on the tour, Duno usually refuses to mention her rival’s name when asked to comment.
But with Duno’s 15 Minutes coming to a close, now it’s De Silvestro’s turn in the crosshairs. While the dedicated IndyCar media tends to treat her as an individual, that hasn’t always the case from reporters on temporary assignment.
I listened in during the Long Beach Grand Prix weekend as one local reporter phoned his editor to ask about what interviews would be needed for the following day, and the conversation that followed was all too predictable.
“I didn’t see where Danica ended up today, but one of the guys here said this rookie girl De Silvestro is supposed to be fast. I’ll see if I can get Danica tomorrow and then I’ll do another story on the rookie. I don’t know if she’s hot like Danica, but I’ll see if she and Danica are friends and what she thinks about her.”
De Silvestro has taken a page from the Sarah Fisher School of handling “The Danica Question,” graciously answering the repetitive inquiry with no hint of frustration. That’s not to say she doesn’t get frustrated, but learning to keep those feeling private has been an ongoing aspect of her rookie education.
Even if being asked about Danica has grown tiresome after just five rounds of the 2010 championship, De Silvestro understands why so many feel the need to compare and contrast the two.
“I think it’s normal because Danica, for us female drivers, is the benchmark, she is the one who has been the most noticed and who has been doing pretty well in the last few years. So on one side, for sure, it’s been annoying because there are 25 other drivers out there that I’m trying to beat, but at the end of the day, I think that it’s normal and it’s understandable that people are going to ask that question.”
De Silvestro knows that there is only one way to slow the comparisons to Danica, if not reverse their roles altogether.
“I think if I keep working really hard and if I get the results I know I am capable of, I think that I’m going to be more considered as just a race car driver and, maybe a little less for being a female. It will be different if I start winning a lot of races, that’s for sure. I don’t know if it’s going to change, but I hope it’s going to change. I’m a race car driver first and then all of the other stuff comes after it. I think it’s going to take a while but I’m going to keep working on it and try to be up at the front and then maybe it’ll change. Maybe the other drivers will be asked to comment about me, instead.”
If you look beyond gender and their disparate levels of notoriety, De Silvestro has been differentiating herself from Patrick since the opening IndyCar round in Brazil, where she briefly led and has since gone on to impress almost everyone with her pace on the road courses. After a cautious start at her first oval race at Kansas, she executed her game plan and finished all 200 laps without incident, gaining valuable experience heading into the Indy 500.
It would be unrealistic to expect De Silvestro and her small HVM Racing team to challenge a heavily sponsored and fully equipped team like Patrick’s at the Speedway, but that doesn’t mean she’s given up on any chance of doing well. Fans have been drawn to De Silvestro’s no nonsense approach to the sport, as well as her penchant for out running more established drivers.
For those who value speed over celebrity, De Silvestro has become an instant favorite, and it has shown in the length of her autograph lines this year. Adjusting to all of the attention that has come her way since Brazil has taken some getting used to, but once the Indy 500 gets into full swing, she’ll be met by bigger crowds than she’s ever faced.
De Silvestro says she’s ready to accommodate whatever small following she’s amassed and to answer “The Danica Question” by the dozens. She knows it will take time for her on-track performances to slow the frequency of comparisons that are made between she and Danica, but there is one area De Silvestro hopes to counter immediately: Merchandising.
“I look forward to it. We are here to entertain the fans, so if any of them are kind enough to want to follow my career, I am very fortunate. I think there was a pretty good response at Long Beach. I’ve never had such a big crowd waiting in front of my tent, so that was pretty nice. I’m told the IndyCar fans at Indy are ten times more, so that will be kind of crazy. As for the merchandise, we’re starting on that right now so I think that’s why a lot of people are wearing Danica shirts still! But we’ll try to change that! I hope a lot of people are going to notice what I’m doing on the track and like what I do and then, maybe they will buy my shirts instead.”
I love it — De Silvestro wants to beat Patrick on and off the track and isn’t afraid to say so. I think achieving the latter might prove to be more difficult than she expects, but how about the former? It might take a few years, but if De Silvestro keeps progressing at her present rate, it won’t be long before Danica gets tired of answering "The Simona Question."
Marshall Pruett is SPEED.com’s Auto Racing Editor, and also covers IndyCar and sportscar racing for the site. Pruett grew up at ‘Pruett’s Olde English Garage,’ his father’s shelter for abused foreign cars, and spent his childhood being dragged across the West Coast to help with his dad’s amateur racing exploits.
Pruett spent 20 years working in the IRL, CART, IMSA, and most of the known open-wheel feeder series before retiring from active duty in 2001. And in case you were wondering, he isn’t related to Scott Pruett.