De Silvestro hopes her luck is turning after solid qualifying run

Simona De Silvestro stepped out of her hauler Saturday afternoon after an intense meeting with her race team, only to be greeted by a pleasant surprise.

A green and white birthday cake covered with candles.

De Silvestro, who was born in Switzerland, actually turned 23 on Sept. 1, but her week leading up to the Baltimore Grand Prix had been such a mad rush there had been little time for celebration. Even this moment wasn't exactly ideal. She had just wrapped up qualifying — finishing a respectable 12th, one of her best of the year — and was trying to squeeze in a quick interview before she ran to an autograph session. But De Silvestro paused long enough to blow out the candles on her cake and let fans and her pit crew serenade her with a round of Happy Birthday.

"Be sure to make a wish!" someone yelled as she leaned toward the candles.

De Silvestro smiled, but didn't say whether or not she believed in such things. No one would blame her, though, if she made a silent plea for some good luck the rest of the season. After the year she's had, she deserves some good fortune.

"This year has really been the toughest year for me and for the team," De Silvestro said, wolfing down a piece of cake while she talked. "We've just had a lot of bad things happen to us. You can't do anything about it, you jut try to learn from the things you did and hopefully find the positive. It's been pretty tough, but I think everybody has to go through something like that. I think we're starting to rebound now."

The racing world certainly expected big things from De Silvestro when the year began. Some publications were predicting she was about to emerge as the sport's next big star. There was even talk in racing circles that De Silvestro — not Danica Patrick — might be the most talented female driver on the IndyCar circuit, and that only intensified when she finished fourth at the season's opening race in St. Petersburg, Fla.

De Silvestro entered qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 amid speculation she might even be a contender for racing's crown jewel. But during a practice session, a mechanical failure sent her crashing into the wall. The car flipped upside down, slid several hundred feet, and then burst into flames. De Silvestro was able to unbuckle her harness and climb to safety, but the fire caused second- and third-degree burns on her hands.

"I definitely thought it would be worse than it is," De Silvestro said. "Everyone at Methodist Hospital [in Indianapolis] did an awesome job. It's something that happened to me, and you can't change anything about it. It just makes you realize that racing is actually pretty dangerous, stuff you don't really think about. But it's just going to make me better, I think."

What happened next, though, was definitive proof to the racing world that De Silvestro is the real deal. Typically drivers need several days of practice, even without an injury, to be able to handle to the g-forces created by running on the oval track at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Two days after her crash, as soon as she was medically cleared, De Silvestro climbed into her back-up car, and with heavily bandaged hands, she qualified in 23rd place. Patrick, by comparison, qualified 25th.

"What she did on qualifying day is one of the greatest things I've ever seen in a race car," said Bob Perona, De Silvestro's driving coach. "It just showed her ability to block out everything and get the job done. To do that for four laps — putting aside the fact that you've just been upside down, in the fence and on fire — was just incredible."

It would have been nice if that gutsy effort marked the end of De Silvestro's run of bad luck, but unfortunately it continued. She crashed again during qualifying in Milwaukee three weeks later, and suffered a concussion and a deep laceration on her knee. When she showed up for the Sonoma Grand Prix last week, customs officials denied her entry into the United States and made her turn around and fly back to Switzerland. De Silvestro says she still doesn't know why she was turned away, but it meant she couldn't race in Sonoma.

"I feel like I must have done something really bad in another life because this year has been really painful," De Silvestro said with a laugh. "I had all the right papers and my passport, but I think they were just being a little annoying. It's just something that happens, I guess. I'm here now, so that's what's important."

De Silvestro felt pretty good about her qualifying session on Saturday. Maybe, just maybe, her luck is finally changing.

"Usually we have to come from the back, and now we're going to be a little more in the middle," she said. "I think it's going to be great. I really enjoy the track and I think it's going to be a lot of fun. I think there are going to be a lot of opportunities for mistakes, so I think we're going to take advantage of that."