Even at 205 mph, people are noticing Milka Duno


The Kickoff


KANSAS CITY, MO. --OK, so I was sitting in my office Friday morning looking at some pictures on Milka Duno's Web site, you know, for research, work research, important work research ... and my 5-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, walked in.

"Who's that?" she asked.

"That's Milka Duno," I told her.

"She's pretty. What does she do?"

"She's a racecar driver."

"Really?" Elizabeth asked. And her eyes opened wide. And she said, "I want to be a racecar driver, too."

And that's how fast it happens. It always amuses and infuriates me when I hear some puffed-up player talking about how athletes are not role models. That isn't their choice to make. That's the choice of the kids, who are always looking for someone to emulate - someone bigger, faster, stronger, cooler, funnier, louder and more glamorous.

A 5-year-old girl, an 8-year-old boy, a 12-year-old girl, a 15-year-old boy - they aren't reviewing resumes and seeking references to determine their role models. No, they are watching the world, and they are drawn to whatever it is that inspires them. On some days, Elizabeth is inspired by a parent or a teacher or a high school girl who baby-sits; on other days it's Daphne from Scooby Doo, and Friday she was inspired by a racecar driver named Milka Duno.

"That is so wonderful," Duno said Friday at Kansas Speedway. "That is so important to me, yes. I want to be someone that the children can look up to. I want to help them feel like they can do anything in their lives."

Nine years ago, Milka Duno was well on her way to becoming a naval engineer. She had studied in Spain and had earned four master's degrees - including degrees in marine biology and naval architecture. She returned to her home in Venezuela to start her life and her career, when some friends, for kicks, took her to one of those racecar driving experiences where you drive a street car on a racetrack. By the end of the day, she was winning all the races. And she was hooked.

"How can I explain?" she said. "It was like a feeling I cannot describe. I said, `I want to do more of this.' I never thought about becoming a racecar driver, of course. But I loved this feeling so much."

She came to America to enroll in driving school, and she showed some promise. She moved up quickly. How could she not? She showed driving talent, and she looked like a supermodel, and she was bursting with charisma. Kids loved her. Sponsors loved her. Everybody loved her. She was a success driving sports cars, and earlier this year was part of the team that finished second at the 24 Hours of Daytona.

All of that led to her joining the Indy Racing League. She will race for the first time at Kansas Speedway on April 29 (there will probably be three women in the race - Duno, Danica Patrick, Sarah Fisher). Duno tested for the first time at Kansas Speedway on Thursday - it was her first time driving all out in a true IndyCar Series car.

"It was so different," she said with wonder in her voice. "You just have to go flat all the time. There's no slowing down ever; it's very difficult." For the record, "going flat" means pressing the gas flat to the floor - you have to go around the track at full speed in IndyCar racing. By the end of her testing, she was going 205 mph and feeling good.

"It's definitely an adjustment for her," says team owner Peter Baron. "She's a good driver, and she was really comfortable by the end. ... But when she got out of the car, she was definitely wobbling to her left for a while. I had to keep steering her back to the right."

He was laughing as he said this, but it's Duno's inexperience that has some questioning whether she's really ready for Indy racing. She turns 35 exactly one week before the Kansas Speedway race. And everyone knows this is a different kind of racing, a very dangerous kind of racing, and there aren't too many drivers who try to make the jump from sports cars to open wheel. Duno has never had so much car. There have been a few sniping comments from IndyRacing unnamed drivers and crew chiefs about Duno - but only unnamed sources.

"I always tell children they have to get an education," Duno says. "Because an education gives you confidence. I have great confidence. So I do not care what other people say. What do they know? ... I love to learn. I am learning more every day. I am learning from the best drivers. I am very excited about being a driver in the IRL, and I know we will be successful."

Baron (and the sponsor, Citgo) is going all-out to make sure that happens. There is a lot riding on Duno - for the whole IndyCar Series, in fact. Baron has hired a driving tutor named Pancho Carter, who raced in 20 Indy 500s (finished third in 1982) and helped teach other drivers the ropes, including Sam Hornish. Baron hired a top-notch engineer, Steve Challis. He helped develop a plan that will give Duno a chance to learn without putting much pressure on her. "We're really setting up for 2008," he says.

Only time will tell if Duno has the stuff to be a successful driver in IndyCar. What we do know is that a lot of people will be watching. She's already a star. She has done photo spreads; she speaks in schools; there's a Milka Duno cartoon in the works. She's a hero in Latin America. And if she can have some success on the track, then she will be gigantic here. She will be on every talk show. She will be on the cover of every magazine. She will inspire millions of kids. Some people just have that quality.

"There is something about her," Baron says. He has two children - Max is 5 and Samantha is 7 (he has named his team SAMAX). One day he came home, and he saw that his kids had taken a big box and colored it to look like a racecar. Max was pushing his sister around in the racecar box.

"Look, Dad," Samantha said. "I'm Milka Duno!"

Joe Posnanski writes for The Kansas City Star.

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