News Column

Hispanic NASCAR Driver Ready to Make History

August 21, 2014

Staff Reports --

Race car driver Milka Duno
Race car driver Milka Duno

Race car drivers love life in the fast lane. None more than Milka Duno, the first Hispanic female driver to compete in a NASCAR national series.

Ms. Duno is scheduled to make her first NASCAR appearance Friday night (ESPN, 7:30 p.m. EDT) in the Food City 300 at Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee. But the 42-year-old brunette from Caracas, Venezuela, has always prided herself in taking the road less traveled.

"As a woman in motorsports of course it's difficult, but I have a strong personality," Ms. Duno told "And since I started racing, I was with the determination that this is what I wanted to do."

While the comparisons to NASCAR driver Danica Patrick are natural, Ms. Duno could expand the sport's fan base with Hispanics. She has good looks and charisma, and a distinct pronunciation that is reminiscent of actress Sofia Vergara's signature accent. But don't mistake her appearance for a lack of capability either.

Ms. Duno's start in racing came later in life than for most professional drivers. Before Ms. Duno put on a helmet for the first time, she was busy earning master's degrees—four of them—all before the age of 26. Three of her four degrees in organizational development, naval architecture, marine biology and maritime business were earned while she studied in Spain on scholarship.

It wasn't until a friend encouraged her to take the wheel at a driving clinic in Caracas in her recently purchased Porsche that her career in naval engineering shifted gears. That's when Ms. Duno discovered she had the skills to compete against the professionals.

Her ascent to the winner's circle came fast. After trying out club racing in 1997 in Venezuela, she turned professional the next year and established herself as Venezuelan Auto Racing Driver of the Year with little experience compared to her opponents.

The next phase in her career came in the American Le Mans Series (ALMS), the most competitive GT and Prototype race circuit in North America at the time. Her four wins in the series earned her the 2001 ALMS vice champion title and catapulted her to open-wheel racing in Europe.

Before her switch to stock car racing last year, Ms. Duno compiled a series of firsts, including being the first woman to win a major international auto race in the U.S. when she took home the Rolex Series Grand Prix of Miami in 2004. She was also the first Hispanic woman to race in the Indianapolis 500, the Super Bowl of open wheel racing.

Ms. Duno realizes her next challenge will not be easy, but she is ready to take it on.

"I've worked really hard to be in the place I am now," Ms. Duno said. "I am ready to take (the challenge). Nothing is easy and everything is different, but not impossible to do."

Ms. Duno's team, RAB Racing in Concord, N.C., has high expectations of her. She is expected to drive in seven races on the association's Nationwide Series, the second-highest tier in NASCAR behind the Sprint Cup Series. If she competes in all seven races, Ms. Duno will be eligible for Rookie of the Year honors.

Life Off the Track

Racing isn't all that takes up Ms. Duno's time. She is also a commentator for Univision Deportes Network, a Spanish-language U.S. sports channel, where she is a part of the Formula One broadcast team. The job allows her to share her expertise directly with fans.

"The driver understands everything and can (explain to) the people that are watching the race what you see in the car, what is the viewpoint of the driver," Ms. Duno said. "I enjoy so much that I can share my knowledge with the people on TV."

Ms. Duno isn't an athlete who shies away from being a role model. Through her educational program Milka Way, she advocates academic excellence among youth in the U.S. and Latin America, including her native Venezuela.

What started as club racing in Venezuela has blossomed into a full-time career for Ms. Duno, yet she is quick to put things into perspective when thinking about her past and future.

"I didn't know how many firsts are coming, but I am looking for more," she said. "I'm looking to have more success in my career as a race car driver."

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