Simona De Silvestro, Tatiana Calderon hope Road America can be a spark for young female drivers

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Simona De Silvestro stepped out of her KV Racing Chevy after the 2013 IndyCar finale at Fontana proud of what she’d done. She finished 8th, her fifth consecutive top-10 finish, keeping her car clean in a crash-fest where just over a third of the starting field of 25 was running at the end.

She’d finished 13th in the championship, sandwiched by 4-time Champ Car champion Sebastien Bourdais (12th) and future two-time IndyCar champ Josef Newgarden (14th). Her lone teammate for the season, Tony Kanaan, had won the 500 earlier that year yet finished just 35 points ahead in 11th. The Swiss-Italian driver finally felt as if she belonged, like her career as a woman in North America’s premier open-wheel racing series was finally starting to take shape.

Paretta Autosport driver Simona De Silvestro (16) greets fans Sunday, May 30, 2021, after the 105th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Paretta Autosport driver Simona De Silvestro (16) greets fans Sunday, May 30, 2021, after the 105th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Little did she know she’d make just four more IndyCar starts over the next eight seasons – only two outside of the 500. And perhaps even more surprising? That race in southern California in 2013 would be the last IndyCar race, outside the 500, run with two women in the cockpit for more than eight years.

Sunday, the 33-year-old returns to break the sport’s drought, as she takes another step in what she hopes will be a long journey all the way back to a series she always felt suited her best. This weekend at Road America, she and team owner Beth Paretta make their first of at least three starts while partnering with Ed Carpenter Racing on a partial-season program using many of the personnel, parts and equipment ECR has and will continue to use for Carpenter’s oval-only program in 2022.

More: Paretta, Simona De Silvestro land three-race alliance with Carpenter

De Silvestro joins A.J. Foyt Racing rookie Tatiana Calderon on the grid, a 29-year-old who vividly remembers racing as 17-year-old in the Star Mazda Championship on the Road to Indy ladder system in 2010 when five women graced the IndyCar grid at some points in the season. All at various stages of their careers, Danica Patrick, De Silvestro, Sarah Fisher and others had over the previous decade or so made it seem less abnormal to see an IndyCar race with several women in the field.

History, droughts and longevity weren’t part of the conversation. At that point 12 years ago, De Silvestro says she didn’t dream she’d be part of what for many is a hopeful resurgence to deliver female fans young and old more representation in the cockpit, as they’ve picked up in engineering, mechanic and crew roles in recent years in IndyCar.

A. J. Foyt Enterprises driver Tatiana Calderon (11) stands in pit lane Friday, May 13, 2022, during practice for the GMR Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
A. J. Foyt Enterprises driver Tatiana Calderon (11) stands in pit lane Friday, May 13, 2022, during practice for the GMR Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“It’s a shame we’ve had this long period the last couple years where we haven’t had (a woman who is a driver) in the top-level of single-seaters (in more than the 500),” Calderon said Tuesday in a media call. “I think sometimes, you have to see it to believe it for the younger generation, because there are females that can compete against men in this very competitive championship.

“It’s been more about having those opportunities. We get judged in a different way that maybe, if some guy makes a mistake, it was a mistake, but if it’s a female driver, then it’s because she’s a female sometimes.”

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It’s an important lesson she and De Silvestro hope fans, potential sponsors and decision-makers will keep in mind watching this weekend as the pair tackle the 4-mile natural-terrain road course in Elkhart Lake, Wisc., where both have raced in various series before. For De Silvestro, this weekend will be the first time in an Indy car on a track other than the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval since early in the 2015 season, when she was running a three-race program with Andretti Autosport and took 4th at NOLA Motorsports Park. Though the chassis itself is the same, the car’s gone through various bodywork configuration changes – including the addition of the aeroscreen – since that race.

Looking on the bright side, De Silvestro said Tuesday she thinks that having not raced so recently will make Friday’s initial practice a completely new experience and an easier one to adapt to and learn from, rather than having to break down old habits from, say, 2018 or 2019. Having done only a bit of sim work and no on-track testing, this weekend will all feel very new.

“I think we have to be realistic. It’s the middle of the season, and all these guys and girls have been running half the season already,” De Silvestro said. “We need to see where we kind of stack up. I’ll push quite hard to get up to speed as quickly as I can, and I think if we do our job correctly, we can be on the competitive side for sure.

“I’ve been really looking forward to getting on a road course because I think that’s really where I’ve, in the past, had my strength. It just gives me a bit of confidence, that when I look back at the races, I was kind of all right, so I think I can get there again.”

A. J. Foyt Enterprises driver Tatiana Calderon (11) talks with her crew Friday, May 13, 2022, during practice for the GMR Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
A. J. Foyt Enterprises driver Tatiana Calderon (11) talks with her crew Friday, May 13, 2022, during practice for the GMR Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

For Calderon, she still feels as if she’s getting a grip on things. It’s easy to forget her first time making more than, say, a 20-lap run in the Indy car came just over three months ago. Being in a road and street course-only program as a rookie this year, she’s made five starts on weekends where there’s typically just 90 minutes of practice before qualifying and the green flag. Three of those starts have come on street courses, where the concrete barriers are often super tight and there’s very little room for error if you’re running on the ragged edge.

Getting onto a very wide-open road course, she said, should provide for a better opportunity to continue her growth. Luckily for her, she seems to have a backer in ROKiT and a team in A.J. Foyt Racing who understand her development in this sport will have to be a multi-year process, if she’s to produce any sort of consistent, competitive results beyond the 16th (Long Beach) and 15th (GMR Grand Prix) she’s already landed.

And it’s been that combination of willingness to take a chance on a driver not already in the series and patience to let them grow that’s been missing and led to a lack of progress for drivers who are women in IndyCar, Calderon said. Since 2018, she’s run in IndyCar, WEC, Super Formula, European Le Mans, IMSA, Porsche Supercup, Formula 2 and Formula 3 with more than a half-dozen different organizations. On her journey, she’s shown an adaptability that’s allowed her to get shot after shot, though her results haven’t ever been ultra-competitive. If she’s ever to be expected to reach the potential many think she’s capable of, she’s simply going to need more time.

“I’ve been enjoying the suffering a little bit, but it’s tough,” Calderon said. “Hopefully once we get to places where I’ve been before, like the Indy GP again, or Mid-Ohio (where she tested last year), I think our performance can continue to improve.

“For me, it’s just been about having those opportunities, and maybe you have to knock on the door, and with little changes, you can maybe change the perception of somebody or get them interested. I have felt that more in America than in any other place, so hopefully we start to change some stereotypes and some beliefs, and we can get more young girls involved (in racing) very early-on. I think you need that in this sport, to start early.”

Paretta Autosport driver Simona De Silvestro (16) hugs team owner Beth Paretta on Saturday, May 22, 2021, after qualifying for the 105th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Paretta Autosport driver Simona De Silvestro (16) hugs team owner Beth Paretta on Saturday, May 22, 2021, after qualifying for the 105th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

De Silvestro said she feels like there’s more hope for longevity this time around in IndyCar. In Paretta, she has a team owner who sees revitalizing her career as important a task as creating her own IndyCar team. They can’t do this without each other, and so if they can cultivate enough positive attention, trust and belief, they hope to succeed together. De Silvestro, like so many drivers who are women, said she’s always seen herself as a driver who just happens to be a woman, but because it’s because she is a woman that Paretta tapped her for this role.

It’s an interesting dichotomy – female driver versus a driver who happens to be female – one which she said she hopes won’t be necessary in the sport for long. Because if she and Paretta can get off the ground and run a larger program in 2023 that can quickly turn full-season, the idea of women racing in IndyCar may again become commonplace as it was when she made her debut here more than a decade ago.

To this day, she still thinks back to that end of the 2013 season and the fact she was leading Newgarden by 14 points, that they were both in their early 20s and wonders what could’ve been if someone believed in her.

“He ended up going to Team Penske and then won the championship twice,” she said with a chuckle. “In the end, you need to get the right shot. You need to get people behind you who really want to support you. I think as female drivers, we do get the opportunities, but I think also sometimes it’s really quick, we have a bit of a bad season, the support then isn’t the same.

“I think with some guys, they get more chances at it, and that’s sometimes something we have to fight for a little bit more. It’s a bit trickier to navigate.”

Email IndyStar motor sports reporter Nathan Brown at nlbrown@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter: @By_NathanBrown.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: IndyCar: Simona De Silvestro, Tatiana Calderon hope Road America sparks change