IndyCar driver Simona De Silvestro, left, who is seeing her… (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore…)
Simona de Silvestro walked through the lobby of an Inner Harbor hotel Thursday looking comfortable in her white shirt and black jeans.
"I feel like I'm back home," the IndyCar driver said. "It was one of the best races we had last year, and I'm really looking forward to getting back on the race track here."
De Silvestro was one of the first drivers to come here to promote last year's inaugural Baltimore Grand Prix. Thursday, one day after officials confirmed the race will return Labor Day weekend, she was back with her newly designed HVM Nuclear Clean Entergy race car with a new Lotus engine that has proven powerful in practice.
Randy Bernard, IndyCar CEO, was also here, relieved to have promoters in place for the Sept. 2 race and to be looking past Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon's death in the 2011 season finale in Las Vegas.
"You have to rise above the trauma and the tragedy and put your best foot forward," Bernard said. "We owe it to the people of Baltimore to run a successful event. ... We have to commemorate Dan by making sure our safety improves and our sport continues to grow."
While Bernard describes the two months following Wheldon death as the "worst time of my life" and a time in which he "questioned everything", he also recognizes that 2011 was overall a good year for the sport. He said IndyCar's television viewership was up 28 percent and its attendance rose 9.8 percent. Baltimore was part of that growth initiative.
"We have to focus on how we can continue to deliver more people and more viewership," Bernard said. "It is a tough thing, but you have to move forward. When we open the season at St. Petersburg [March 25], we expect a field of over 29 cars. Last year they told us we'd be lucky to have 18. I think we're making significant progress."
The 23-year-old de Silvestro hopes to see her progress improve as well. Last year was filled with ups and downs for the Swiss driver.
She finished 12th in Baltimore and said she spent much of the off-season hoping the race would return.
"The stands were full every day, the fans were great," she said. "And it was so cool, with the race course in the middle of the city, to leave your hotel at night to go to dinner and be actually walking on the race course. The whole experience here was a fun thing. I'm so glad we're back."
Her experience at the Indianapolis 500 wasn't as pleasant, as she finished 31st after burning both her hands and nose during a fiery crash in practice.
"That Indy crash took a lot out of me," de Silvestro said. "This year, I've been really focused on the team. The events of last year made me tougher. I found out a lot about myself. I proved to myself that I really want to do this."
De Silvestro said she also had to spend the off-season recovering emotionally from Wheldon's death.
"It was really a tough moment," she said. "Losing someone so great as Dan, it was really hard to deal with. I think all the drivers wanted to get away from racing a little bit because it was such a tough loss. ... But it's what we were born to do. After a little while, you miss it and you just want to get back in to it. I'm the happiest when I'm in my race car. ... Being in the race car, that's where my happy place is."