Milkamania

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

The Homestead-Miami Speedway sits on 600 acres of land, rising like a medieval fortress from the expanse of muck and concrete that surrounds it for miles. Helicopters bound for the track's private heliport drone overhead like monstrous dragonflies. Rickety white Ford pickups, with shoddy assemblages of aluminum that function as trailers, appear occasionally to dump off and pick up new fans. At night it takes 2.4 million watts per hour to light up the place, enough to power 17,143 residential street blocks.

On a recent Saturday a thin, sunburned, wispy-lipped racing fan named Orlando, who introduced himself as the "best Porsche mechanic in Miami," peered through the chainlink fence separating him from the track. Just a few feet away 120-mile-per-hour sports cars blasted by and then the race finished. Turning away from the asphalt, Orlando waved his Coors Light wildly in its koozie. "You want to know the truth?" he shouted. "She's a millionaire, her husband's an oil tycoon, and she's not a very good driver." Possibly worked up from having just watched the hood fly off one car and nearly smash into another, he continued in a mounting pitch. "But you know what she does have? TITTIES!"

The driver to whose mammaries Orlando referred is Milka Duno, a shockingly beautiful, extremely ambitious racer, and the only woman in today's event, the Rolex Series Grand-am. The day before, Duno, who lives on Brickell Key, had announced that she would leave sports car racing to work toward the Indy 500. The Venezuelan racer is the first Latina and the third woman — after Sarah Fischer and Danica Patrick — to compete in Indy racing.

The move comes in the wake of finishing second place with her team in the Rolex Daytona 24-Hour last January, making her the highest placing woman in the race's history.

Before becoming a racecar driver, she earned four master's degrees — in organizational development, naval architecture, maritime business, and marine biology — from a military academy in Madrid. She acquired the last three concurrently. "I don't like to do simple things," she said in an April 2003 interview with Latin Stylemagazine."Only difficult things. And it has become my way of life."

She was working as a naval engineer in Venezuela when a friend convinced her to attend a Porsche driving clinic. She found the combination of sophisticated engineering with pure physical thrill addictive. She won two podium finishes in the Venezuelan Porsche Supercup Championship before coming to the United States to compete. Since then she's raced in the Barber Dodge 2000 series, the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France, Europe's Nissan World Series, and the 2004 Grand Prix of Miami, right here at home, which she won.

She's smart, she's hot, and she's winning races: It's a million-dollar combination — for anyone who can get their hands on her, Milka Duno is a marketing dynabomb.

The night before the Homestead race, Citgo unveiled a new ad at the Mandarin Oriental hotel, just a few blocks from Duno's home. It featured a scene of youngish Latino model types grinding on each other — and filling up — in a Citgo gas station, all to the tune of Daddy Yankee's reggaeton megahit "Gasolina" — get it? Shots of Duno pouting and playing with her sunglasses were sprinkled throughout. "We had Citgo, Daddy Yankee, 'Gasolina,' and Milka ... and we thought, there's a perfect fit!" bubbled Ileana Aleman that night over cocktails. She helped create the ad for the Miami ad firm BVK-Meka, which Citgo Petroleum Corporation has hired for its Hispanic marketing campaign.

"Milka represents Latinos," said Citgo CEO Felix Rodriguez. "And this is very important for us."

But not everyone is so jubilant to see Indy racing in bed with Citgo. An Internet message board user named "Quadsquad," who posted last week on the Indianapolis Star'sracing board, wrote: "She is being backed by the country of Venezuela through Citgo, which is owned by the Venezuelan government. I suspect there's enough money there to see her through a season in the IRL. If not, [Venezuelan president Hugo] Chavez will simply nationalize something else to pay the bills."

"Frankly, I look at this as a way [for] Milka [to get] about $5 million back from the enemy!" cracked "Openwheeler" in response. "I totally agree this (friend of the Liberals) Chavez is out to harm us as Americans."

Still, the voice of reason and tolerance has sounded now and then. "I don't care if she's from downtown Tehran," wrote "AJ's Ace." "Will someone please post pics of Milka........she's hot.......!!!!!!"

The Rolex race began at 2:00 p.m. on March 24, with Duno starting in sixteenth position. Grand-am racing uses Daytona prototypes, racing cars put together with standardized chassis and commercial engines. It's not as fast as Indy racing and features fewer accidents than NASCAR. But it's still treacherous. In 2002 Grand-am racer Jeff Clinton died after flipping over on the Homestead speedway during practice.

"It makes no difference whether it's practice or a race," says Duno teammate Ian Jones, a mechanic for the SAMAX team who says Duno's engineering knowledge is invaluable in working with her. "There's no bullshitting around — she's a focused lady and she understands the mechanics of the car. She's able to give me feedback on how it's handling, on small things."

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.

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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