On the same April weekend in 2008 that driver Danica Patrick gained her first and only IndyCar victory, a largely unknown Swiss teen also took the checkered flag in a minor league IndyCar race on the streets of Long Beach.
That driver, Simona De Silvestro, is now a 21-year-old rookie in the top-tier Izod IndyCar Series trying to beat Patrick and every other driver on the circuit for Sunday's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on the city's seaside streets.
By most accounts De Silvestro has the raw driving skills that point to a promising career, and that has prompted comparisons between De Silvestro and Patrick.
But De Silvestro is no Danica, nor wishes to be. Although she admires Patrick, De Silvestro is mostly focused on besting Patrick, Helio Castroneves, Dario Franchitti and the other stars of IndyCar racing on the track while eschewing the sex-appeal marketing that Patrick so aggressively cultivates.
While Patrick, 28, is known for her bikini photos in Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issues and her racy advertising appearances for her sponsors, De Silvestro is frequently described as low-key and doesn't even have her ears pierced.
"Danica has done a lot of good things for the sport, especially for women," De Silvestro said. "But we're really different personalities. For me, it's really important to be fast. I want to do the talking on the track."
On the track, comparisons with Patrick are few because De Silvestro to this point has been strictly a road racer — driving on street courses and other curvy road circuits — and has yet to race on oval tracks, most notably the sweeping Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where she'll make her first appearance next month in the historic Indianapolis 500.
It was at Indy, of course, where Patrick gained immediate fame and launched "Danicamania" when she nearly became the first woman to win the 500 in her rookie year in 2005. Patrick also drives for one of the series' multi-car teams, Andretti Autosport, while De Silvestro drives for a one-car team — Team Stargate Worlds/HVM Racing — that's struggling to secure long-term sponsorship.
De Silvestro "has a lot of deficiencies to overcome," acknowledged Imran Safiulla, one of her team's principals. "But we're not making excuses."
Regardless, De Silvestro caught IndyCar's attention in the series' first three races in Brazil, Florida and Alabama this season. All were on road courses, where Patrick by her own admission is not at her best, and De Silvestro qualified ahead of Patrick in each race.
De Silvestro didn't finish any of the races above 16th, however, owing partly to minor scrapes with other race cars and partly to rookie errors, such as when she caused her car to spin by incorrectly downshifting gears last Sunday in Alabama. Overall, she's 20th in the championship standings while Patrick is 15th.
Even so, "she will surprise some people before this season is over," said Tim Cindric, president of Penske Racing, the powerhouse IndyCar team whose drivers have won all three races so far this year. "After Brazil, I heard a few drivers comment that they were surprised by the level of talent she had," Cindric said. "She's all business. She's not here as a sideshow."
Those drivers include Franchitti, the reigning IndyCar champion, who said, "she's got a lot of potential, definitely. I've been very impressed."
De Silvestro grew up in Switzerland, where her father was an auto dealer executive and racing fan. He held a go-kart demonstration at the dealership when she was 4 and De Silvestro remembered being enthralled. Dad finally got her one when she was 6. "I was hooked," she said.
As she grew up, De Silvestro climbed the ladder in developmental racing series in Europe and the United States, including the Atlantic Series, in which De Silvestro earned her Long Beach win in 2008. Then last year, she won four Atlantic races and led the most laps for the season.
Now, De Silvestro is battling the sport's best drivers and, although she lists being a quick learner among her attributes, she acknowledged that, "I'm racing against people who have been racing these cars for years and have a lot of experience. … It's just an honor to be part of this group."
She and the other drivers race in qualifying Saturday to set the Grand Prix's 25-car field.