Saturday, 31 July 2010

Milka Duno

Perhaps the last person on Earth you'd expect to be one of the world's foremost lady racers would be a Venezuelan intellectual. However, with her five master's degrees and impressive sportscar pedigree, Milka Duno is probably just that. She became the first woman to race an LM900 sports protoype in 2002, while she was plying her trade in the American Le Mans Series with Dick Barbour Racing. She and her team-mates struggled somewhat with their new Panoz-Mugen, but the results started to appear, their best being a fifth place. Towards the end of the season the team disbanded, and Milka secured a seat in the British Chamberlain squad next to Christian Vann.

In 2001, she fared better in the smaller, more familiar LMP675 Reynard-Judd in which she and John Graham scored several class wins and outright top ten and five places against LMP900 machinery. They finished the season as vice-champions. Unfortunately, Le Mans itself has not proved fruitful for Milka. She retired in 2001 and 2002 with engine trouble, after relatively promising starts.

She began her career in Venezuela in 1996, racing in the Ferrari Challenge and Porsche Cup. She was second in her domestic GT championship in 1997. The ALMS Womens' Global GT series followed for three years. Although Milka never won a race, she finished in the top five each year and scored several podium places. She was hired by Dick Barbour Racing in 2001.

As well as sports car racing, she spent a couple of years developing a career in single-seaters. A few outings in Barber Dodge and other junior formulas in the States helped the Venezuelan to claim a seat with Vergani Racing for the Nissan World Series Light Division, in 2001. Milka improved steadily, and came twelfth in the 2003 standings. Her best finishes were fifth and sixth, at Vallelunga and Eurospeedway Lausitz respectively. She also raced in the last few rounds of the Formula Nissan World Series in 2002, where cornering speeds are almost as fast as Formula One. Although she was a steady finisher, she was not really challenging for the top spots. She called a temporary halt to her single-seater activities after 2003.

Latina women are not normally associated with motor racing and Milka Duno is proud to be breaking the mould. She contested the Grand-Am sportscar series in the US in 2004, driving a Pontiac-engined Crawford prototype, in which she scored a fantastic win with Andy Wallace in the second race of the season at Miami. When the championship returned to Homestead later in the year, she won again. Added to this impressive tally was a second place at mid-Ohio and a third in Virginia.

She also raced in the ALMS again, having put together a deal with the Taurus-Lola team to race alongside Brit Justin Wilson. They were placed in the top ten of the 2004 Sebring 12 Hours before mechanical woes put them down to 22nd. At the season-ending Petit Le Mans race, they were sixth overall and first LMP2 car.

The Grand-Am series and CITGO Racing became Milka's home in 2004. The Crawford-Pontiac is the most successful car of her career, carrying her to three outright wins. The third outright victory came at the Mont Tremblant 6 Hours in Canada in 2005. On her return to the Virginia circuit she also finished in the runner-up spot again in 2005.

After a couple of indifferent Daytona 24 Hour races, Milka finally made her mark in 2006. Assisted by Scotsmen Marino and Dario Franchitti and Irishman Kevin McGarrity, she drove the Crawford to eighth overall, her best finish at the Daytona classic and a record for a woman driver.

The rest of 2006 was not a vintage year for the Venezuelan driver and her team. The first couple of races of the year led to indifferent results, and an error by an official dropped Milka and Marino Franchitti from top-ten to 17th, at Long Beach. Their luck improved at Virginia, their first time out in their new car, a Riley-Pontiac prototype. Even with a small accident, the duo were eleventh. Milka's best results were a pair of sevenths at Monterey and Sonoma. Her co-drivers were Olivier Beretta and Patrick Carpentier respectively. The Riley was quick and its drivers were able to hold good places, but a series of accidents and technical failures did not allow them to capitalise on their form and cost them wins.

During the off-season, Milka was linked to a drive in Champ Car. She tested for Cahill Racing but did not join the series. Later, an announcement was made that she would be taking part in a limited programme of IRL races for Samax Racing. This came as a surprise to many.

2007 started very brightly indeed for Milka. She beat her own best finish for a woman at the Daytona 24 Hours, coming a brilliant second in the CITGO Pontiac-Riley. Her team-mates were Patrick Carpentier, Ryan Dalziel and Darren Manning. The winners were Scott Pruett, Salvador Duran and former F1 driver Juan Pablo Montoya. She and Patrick Carpentier were less successful in Mexico, and were eleventh, but they were back on the pace in fourth at Homestead. Sadly, she decided to abandon the season here, and was replaced by various other drivers.

Her first season in the IRL was more of a baptism of fire. She entered seven races, including the Indy 500, and finished three, with a best finish of eleventh at Fort Worth. Concerns were raised by various people about Milka’s lack of speed, and she was even considered a safety hazard by some. However, officials gave her the benefit of the doubt in her rookie year, and allowed her to carry on.

In 2008, she drove for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, for eleven events this time. Her finishing record improved, but her overall results did not. Her best one was a single fourteenth place at Joliet. She managed her first Indy 500 finish in 19th, ahead of Bruno Junqueira. Her final position on the leaderboard was 25th and the knives were now really out for her, from a number of surprising sources. An unseemly ongoing row with Danica Patrick only made things worse for her. Away from the IRL, she was listed as a driver for Samax for the Daytona 24 Hours, but did not drive.

Her services were retained by Dreyer & Reinbold for another part-season in 2009, sharing the car with Darren Manning and Tomas Scheckter. She finished again at Indy, in 20th this time, and got to the end of most of her races. The allegations of substandard driving skills continued, although she was not punished.

Despite disappointing results and a worsening media profile, Dreyer & Reinbold took on Milka for her first full season in the IRL in 2010. She did not manage a single top-twenty finish until the Joliet Chicagoland race, when she was nineteenth, and did not qualify for the Indy 500. A series of accidents and incidents led to Milka being placed "on probation" with the IRL until the end of the season. Unless her lap times and track etiquette improved significantly, she faced being thrown out of the championship. The allegations made related to her slow pace, unorthodox racing lines and unwillingness to move over for faster cars.

Milka and her comrades were a force to be reckoned with in the Rolex Grand-Am series, with three wins, six podiums, nine top fives and seventeen top ten finishes. It is hard to understand why she was so keen to give up sportscar success for the dubious honour of being a pay-driver in the IRL. It is a shame that her continued, and mostly justified, negative press from the ovals has now eclipsed her closed-wheel achievements, which were considerable.

2010 was her last season of single-seater racing. Taking her CITGO sponsorship, she made a move towards stock cars. She had one run in an ARCA event at Daytona, driving a Toyota for Stringer Motorsports. A large, multi-car accident put her out on the sixth lap.

For 2011, she put together a deal with Sheltra Motorsports to run a Dodge in ARCA. Pre-season testing went very well, with Milka among the top ten entrants in speed tests. In the early part of the season, she showed good pace in qualifying, and started in second place at Toledo. However, she had a tendency to get involved in accidents, not always of her own creation, and had a best finish of fifteenth at Toledo, despite crashing during practice and having to use her spare car.

She had to sit out seven races mid-season after the Sheltra team pulled out, although they regrouped for the the eleventh round at Iowa. This led to a DNF. She did not better her fifteenth place for the rest of the season, although she managed to stay on the track to the end for all of them. She was eighteenth overall in the championship.

2012 began as more of the same. This season, the Sheltra car was a Chevrolet. Milka was among the fastest drivers during tests, but for the first five, this did not translate to race results. There was a marked improvement after the team took a break from ARCA, and in July, Milka earned her first top-ten finish, at New Jersey. For the next seven races in which she took part, she stayed inside the top twenty, with only one DNF at Kansas. She was 18th overall in the championship.

She continued in ARCA in 2013, this time for the Venturini team, in a Toyota. This year, she actually started to show some speed in a stock car, particularly in qualifying. Her first ARCA event, at Daytona, had her second on the grid. However, she finished 28th. At Talladega, she achieved a pole position, but did not finish. In between, she had an eighth-place finish at Salem, a new personal best. She managed another top-ten finish at Winchester, a tenth place, and a series of other top-twenty places. After 21 races, she was seventh overall, thanks to a new consistency in her driving, and a reduction in her DNF ratio.

In 2014, she moved from ARCA to NASCAR competition. Her first race was in the Eastern division of the K&N Pro Series. She was 20th at Dover, in a Toyota. Later, in a Toyota again, she made two starts in the Nationwide Series, finishing one of them in 34th. The track was Homestead, a circuit she had raced well on in sportscars. She was driving for RAB Racing and the NEMCO-Jay Robinson team. Her last race of the season was a debut outing in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, for MAKE Motorsports. She was 25th at Talladega.

She does not appear to have raced since 2014, in common with many other Venezuelan drivers who lost their state-backed funding due to political issues.

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