The toughest driver at Indy is a woman, and she's not Danica Patrick

The most popular racer in this year Indianapolis 500 is a 22-year-old Swiss woman who managed to qualify despite second-degree burns on her hands. Here's how Simona De Silvestro is earning her new nickname: "The Swiss Missile."

De Silvestro has been a rising star in IndyCar racing for the past year, following a quick rise through open-wheel racing ever since moving to the United States at age 17 from her native Switzerland — where auto racing is banned. She's ranked 11th overall, and has two top-10 finishes in four races, ahead of better-known competitor Danica Patrick.

She was expected to do well at the Indy 500, where she won the Rookie of the Year award in last year's race and finished 14th. But during a practice lap Thursday, her Dallara-Honda broke at 220 mph, sending her airborne before flipping over, landing upside down and catching fire. "I usually close my eyes when I crash," she told the Associated Press. "I thought it was over and all of a sudden I open my eyes and I'm flying off again. You just hope it's over as soon as possible and then you just try to get out of it. I was lucky that I didn't pass out or anything."

The wreck left her with second- and third-degree burns on her hands, where the flames burned through her protective gloves. It also destroyed her team's best car; the backup car was a 2003 model that's 30 pounds heavier than the more modern vehicles on the track.

Driving with oversized gloves, in pain and needing fresh bandages for oozing blisters on her hands after each run, De Silvestro was the final driver to qualify Saturday, and survived Sunday's bump day to start 24th.

The toughest driver at Indy is a woman, and she's not Danica Patrick

Yesterday, De Silvestro took in the relaxation of a media tour — holding up her bandaged hands over the lobster lunch in Boston, trying to pass time on iRacing, and tweeting to her fans. After the race Sunday, she's expected to find out whether she'll need skin grafts for her injuries. Further down the line is the real goal for any European-born racer — a shot at Formula 1.

But her performance so far is already winning fans, especially on the track. "She's my hero," said fellow Indy racer Tony Kanaan. "What she did gives me goosebumps."