Friday, April 28, 2017

Milka Duno: #4 and The First Hispanic Woman

Venezuelan Milka Duno, the fourth woman to take the green flag in the Indy 500, is almost a throwback to Janet Guthrie and Lyn St. James, in that she came to racing later in life—at 24. Before that, she was in school, racking up an undergraduate degree and four (FOUR!) master's degrees, in Organizational Development, Naval Architecture, Maritime Business, and Marine Biology. She also worked as a naval engineer for a time.

In addition, she's a former model, and her voluptuous looks earned her a lot of attention in the paddock. So did not always being the fastest driver, especially in IndyCar racing. But she was always well sponsored—by CITGO, a Venezuelan-owned American oil refiner—so she got a lot of opportunities that equally (or more) talented drivers didn't get.

That sounds harsh, so let me be clear: the woman is smart and she can drive. Duno won races and placed well in Venezuelan series championships (GT and Porsche Supercup) before coming to America, and once here, she won a Ferrari Challenge race and the Panoz GT Series championship. She went on to win races in the American Le Mans Series and the Grand Am Series—the first woman to do so—in which she shared the cars with another driver. From 2007 to 2010, she ran partial IndyCar seasons, competing in 43 races overall and qualifying for the Indy 500 three times.

"I started the season, as I always do, with the goal doing my absolute best—not as a female driver—but as a driver. The point is to always try and do the best that you can do. By doing that, many other things happen along the way that are very special and rewarding."

Between 2010 and 2014, Duno drove some races in lower-level NASCAR series, and since then, she's focused her efforts on her Milka Way program, whose mission is to encourage children to "reach for the stars" and achieve academic excellence. In 2014, she was elected to the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) Women & Motor Sport Commission (WMC).

A lot of people have slammed Duno for being slow and blocking other drivers (including Danica, after one memorable practice session at Mid Ohio). Some have made her the punchline to jokes (myself included). But I think we've got to give her some credit. She found sponsorship that would let her chase her dreams. Who can blame her for that? The way the racing business works these days is that money is often more important than talent—you've got to have some talent, but then you've got to come with money, whether it's your own or a sponsor's. And there are plenty of really excellent drivers languishing at home because they can't find sponsorship money, like Duno did. Is that her fault? Nope.

So I say kudos to Milka Duno for discovering her passion and taking it as far as she could. For trying everything and trying her best. It's a good reminder that the point is often the journey, not just the destination.

(Photo from

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