Simona De Silvestro might have been out of sight from the NTT INDYCAR SERIES since her most recent series race in 2015, but she wasn’t out of view of influential people.
Beginning with a pair of one-off rides in the prestigious Bathurst 1000 in Australia, de Silvestro spent more than four years fighting for her share in the Virgin Australia Supercars Championship. She became the sport’s first full-time female driver in 2017, scoring three top-10 finishes and finishing as high as 19th in the standings for one of the lesser-competitive teams.
At least one U.S.-based team owner kept an eye on her progress. Roger Penske has owned a Supercars team since De Silvestro joined the series, and he was impressed.
De Silvestro moved back to Europe for the 2020 season, continuing to make a name for herself in global motorsports as a Porsche driver. That she has been selected by Paretta Autosport to join the new Penske-supported program for this year’s Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge shouldn’t be a surprise.
And the support she received on social media following Tuesday’s confirmation also wasn’t a surprise.
Among the first to congratulate her was three-time Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin, who won those titles with Penske’s team and will be with it in INDYCAR full time during the upcoming season. McLaughlin called it “a cool opportunity” for De Silvestro and said he was looking forward to racing with her again. This time, they will be connected within the same organization as Paretta Autosport will receive technical support from the winner of 18 Indianapolis 500s.
“It’s something I’ve worked for my entire life, to get a proper shot at this race,” said the Swiss driver who won Indy’s Rookie of the Year award in 2010 and will aim for her sixth starting position in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” “I think it’s super exciting that it’s finally happening.”
In 2015, longtime motorsports executive Beth Paretta announced plans to field an all-women’s team in the “500,” but she felt obligated to scrap Grace Autosport when terms of the deal she had with another team changed. This time, the energy from the Penske-led “Race for Equality & Change” initiative gave her the confidence to move forward.
De Silvestro was Paretta’s choice to drive the No. 16 Chevrolet-powered entry, and Team Penske leadership wholly supported the selection. De Silvestro remains in “pinch me” mode.
“When Beth called me a few months ago and told me about this opportunity, I think literally an hour later I was on a Zoom call with Roger Penske and (Penske Corporation president) Bud Denker. It was quite surreal that it happened so quickly.”
Denker said the first conversation about the new program was held in September, and the deal was finalized last weekend.
“That’s remarkable to put a deal together that quickly,” he said.
Denker said the next steps are to finalize a sponsorship package and to assemble a crew. He said Team Penske president Tim Cindric is charged with the latter, and the goal is to have women service the car on Race Day, Sunday, May 30.
“It’s never been done before,” Denker said. “Now that the word’s out, Tim can see who might be available.”
Given De Silvestro’s time away from INDYCAR, it’s important to remember how much experience she has in the series. She spent three seasons with HVM Racing driving both for Honda and Lotus. She is best known for the way she bounced back from burns suffered in a crash at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2011. The next day she qualified 23rd.
In 2013, De Silvestro drove a Chevrolet for KV Racing Technology, finishing second to Scott Dixon in a street race in Houston, with Justin Wilson, Simon Pagenaud and Josef Newgarden rounding out the top five. That made her only the third woman in history to stand on an INDYCAR podium.
In 2015, De Silvestro drove a Honda in three races as part of Andretti Autosport’s five-car contingent. Her 68 INDYCAR career starts ranks third among women behind Danica Patrick (116) and Sarah Fisher (83).
Newgarden called De Silvestro “a big talent.”
De Silvestro, 32, said the experience of the past five years has made her a more well-rounded driver.
“I think I’m a bit older, (and) I see the picture a little bit differently and I know, as well, really what I need in the car to be quick,” she said. “I’ve been so lucky to be racing in so many different cars at the end of the day, and I think that can help a lot.”
In addition to being connected to Penske drivers Newgarden, McLaughlin, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud, De Silvestro shares a unique connection to Pagenaud. He helped cement his place in the sport by substituting for De Silvestro in the 2011 race at Sonoma when she was detained on re-entry to the U.S. following a trip home.
“Filling in for Simona gave me one of my first chances racing in (INDYCAR),” Pagenaud wrote on Twitter. “I’m happy she’s back.”