She's fast, she's smart, and she's headed for Indy

At lap 24, Duno tried to take another car at a sharp turn and just barely nicked it — there was no damage to the car — but the team decided to use the delay to switch drivers. The red Pontiac pulled into the pit, spewing gravel and the smell of burning rubber. Duno was yanked out by her armpits and replaced with partner Carpentier. Within a minute the car was back on the track. Duno had pulled up to ninth place; Carpentier would move the car up another five places to finish a close fourth.

Watching the rest of the race from the pit, Duno, clad in a red-and-white jumpsuit and small, red leather racing shoes, looked more at ease than she had during the previous day's hours of photo shoots. The awkward turns for the camera and the demure smiles had turned to quick, supple movements. Now Duno sauntered amid her teammates, smiled with her teeth, and laughed from the throat.

Still, the photographers came; the media cooed. But Duno kept a polite distance, her eyes flitting between the track and her mother, who had come from Venezuela to watch. For all the celeb photos, for all the Milka mania, in person she was reserved, unfailingly gracious, and not even remotely flirtatious. When she smiled, she merely closed her lips, turned the corners of her mouth upward, and waited while photographers had their way.

The CITGO/SAMAX team pushes #11 out of the pit after placing fourth
The CITGO/SAMAX team pushes #11 out of the pit after placing fourth

To even the most outlandish questions — would she consider acting, for example — Milka, who speaks English haltingly, gave measured replies about racing. All day only one question drew her out of her shell: Asked whether she missed Venezuela, she replied, "I miss everything from my country — my family, my people, my food."

Duno may have won over an easily wowed media, but winning the respect of racing fans will be harder. "Let's put it this way — what happens in racing is there's always a trend toward putting someone in the car who would bring attention to the team, because they're a woman or a certain race or religion" admits Mark DeCotis, who covers racing for Florida Today. But Duno, he says, is as qualified as anybody, and ultimately the score will be settled on the track. "She's a very, very smart woman and a quick runner ... Give her a chance!"

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