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Simona de Silvestro was leaning out over the handlebars of her motor scooter, grinning like a rascal. Her passenger, by the looks of the way she clung to the seat behind her, was not as much exhilarated as terrified by their spirited slalom through pedestrians and hospitality tents.
De Silvestro looped around a fan in the paddock of the season-opening Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and made what seemed startlingly close to a high-speed 90-degree turn. And she was gone.
"We love you Simonaaaa," a female fan yelled, left in de Silvestro's slipstream.
It's a seemingly common sentiment around IndyCar events as the 24-year-old Swiss driver begins her fourth season in open wheel racing's top North American circuit. De Silvestro is increasingly popular with fans and her peers. She's considered aggressive but not reckless on the track, is preternaturally pleasant, funny when properly goaded and considered tough to proportions afforded few in racing.
She has inadvertently become the anti-Danica Patrick for fans and some drivers, although it has in the past made her uncomfortable, especially since she credits her IndyCar predecessor for inspiring her career path. And she has become the centerpiece of a grand and high-minded plan by her manager/benefactor to reshape how females are viewed, treated and marketed to in modern society.
It's a lot. A whole lot. But de Silvestro's part in all of these machinations is simple: Go fast and be herself. Both come easily to her.
Imran Safiulla met Pierluigi and Emanuela de Silvestro in 2006, after their daughter produced two podium finishes in a weekend of Formula BMW USA racing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The de Silvestros had reached the extent to which they could finance their daughter's burgeoning career, and the next steps would require exponentially more financing. Safiulla had it.
You look at the reality of strength of let's call her the everyday woman -- your wife, your sister, your mother, my mother, the everyday women, the not-size-zero, starving-themselves, wanting-to-be-somebody-else's-attachment, that is not the everyday woman. That is not the everyday woman's image in this country or anywhere in the world, so Simona potentially tickled this aspect of my passion because I thought it would be fantastic if there were a possibility to develop a sports athlete who could truly be a role model for young women.” -- Imran Safiulla
"He made all parts come together, final for me and for him, and then he took care of her and helped make her what she is now," Pierluigi de Silvestro said. "You need someone who is willing to make it all happen with all the problems that can happen with women. There are not so many people believing in the women."
The son of wealthy industrialists from Bangalore, India, Safiulla had been an investor in motorsports at various times since 2003, and was in search of the right driver, the right female driver, specifically, around which to build a concept that was part commerce and part social activism. The goal: Build a "gender neutral" socially progressive brand "without it being a feministic approach or the stereotypical take-your-shirt-off approach, which is basically appealing to the male demographic that all sports have done.
Safiulla said he realized from his youth the disparity between the opportunities afforded the "very strong women" in his family as opposed to others in Indian society.
"So this social consciousness definitely came from that," he said.
Though females make an ever-growing amount of consumer decisions, he said, marketing continues to skew toward males. Therein lies an unexploited niche. That de Silvestro's naturally projected image -- athletic, a grown version of the self-described "tomboy" who skied and fenced as a child -- was what Safiulla considered more of an "everyday woman" made her potentially the perfect bridge, he said, to women.
"You look at the reality of strength of let's call her the 'everyday woman' -- your wife, your sister, your mother, my mother, the everyday women, the not-size-zero, starving-themselves, wanting-to-be-somebody-else's-attachment, that is not the everyday woman," he said. "That is not the everyday woman's image in this country or anywhere in the world, so Simona potentially tickled this aspect of my passion because I thought it would be fantastic if there were a possibility to develop a sports athlete who could truly be a role model for young women."
Comparisons to Patrick have been natural because their personal marketing approaches have been so different. Patrick posed in a bikini in a men's magazine early in her career and has appeared in the annual Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Though she uses allure to benefit her sponsors and herself, she stresses she only takes on projects she is comfortable with. She has asserted consistently that her racing goals are not simply to be the most accomplished of her gender.
"[De Silvestro] wants to be the best driver she can be. And you know, I think Danica is the same way," said Jimmy Vasser, co-owner of the KV Racing Technology team for which de Silvestro drives. "She was the same way, except maybe she went down a different road playing the 'hot girl' kind of card. Hey, that's part of the game."
De Silvestro said she is cognizant of "outside pressure" regarding appearance, both as a female and as a female athlete. Her obvious comfort in her own skin has insulated her, however.
"For me, there's always been this thing & I feel like when a female athlete, a lot of them do things like posing in a bikini, and things like that. I would never do that," she said. "I know that, because that's not what I want to portray. I am in this sport to win races, to be accepted like a race car driver, so those are really important values to me.
"The image I am portraying today is what I wanted to do, and [Safiulla] saw that and for him that was the right career goal, too. If he had a different mentality, I don't think he would be helping me out. I think it was just a really good fit we found each other."
De Silvestro and Safiulla have twice spurned potential sponsors because they asked her to pierce her ears. Most of her primary funding has come from the alternative energy sector.
"The philosophy to me is not flexible. It is sacred," Safiulla said. "It is sacred to me, what she represents. When you stand up in a classroom full of 13-year-old girls and say, 'Be proud of the body you have been given and focus on the betterment of yourselves and focus on education and your skills and your passion,' she embodies that. She can stand up and say that because she has lived that life. Myself and my commercial partners' belief system has afforded her that opportunity."
Such selectivity in sponsor decisions are unusual for someone at such a nascent point in their career, said Dr. Stephen McDaniel, who studies sport and entertainment marketing at the University of Maryland. But they could benefit from changing culture, he said.
"I do think that while we are a sexist culture in terms of the way women are portrayed in advertising, some of our sensibilities have changed over the years for the better, and there are companies that are going to try and resonate with young women with certain brands," he said.
"I think you have to give the woman a tremendous amount of credit for doing what she's doing. She's in a traditionally men's sport, and she has decided that she is going to sort of control her image in the way she sees fit as opposed to arguably going down the traditional route."
An obstacle, McDaniel said, is that sex appeal is typically used to market consumer goods, which means de Silvestro must be developed as a personality.
"Who is the audience that knows you and you resonate with?" McDaniel said. "I think Danica has been so hugely successful partly because she's been able to use her sex appeal primarily to target male consumers. Simona is an attractive woman. She doesn't try to be provocative. She has the girl-next-door persona."
To maintain control over decisions that might alter her image, Safiulla has purchased ownership interest in every IndyCar team for which she has raced.
"I have had the ability to say 'no' to a lot of money that comes wanting to have placement with her because it is contradictory to what we are trying to achieve," he said. "She cannot leverage her sensuality or sexuality. She is supposed to protect her sensuality and sexuality. It is supposed to be personal and intimate to her, as it should be to every woman in this world. And it should not be dragged outside on the commercial street. I think we are getting there."
De Silvestro's credibility within the paddock is easily defined, Vasser said.
At St. Petersburg, she qualified a career-best third and was defending a top-three position in the final laps before being passed by Marco Andretti. She finished sixth.
"First of all, she's good at what she does, and her peers know it, so there's the respect," Vasser said. "They can see the segment times when they sit in here, and they see her on the track. She is aware of her surroundings, so she gains her respect from her on-track performance.
"From a fan's perspective, just from a human being perspective, if you spend time with her, she's fun and she's funny and she's witty and she's courteous."
She's herself. And that's more than enough.