Milka Duno will mark a milestone in this Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 race as the latest in a growing number of female drivers—and the first Hispanic woman—ever to compete in the 96-year-old event. The Venezuelan native will start from the penultimate row of the 33-car field and is considered a prohibitive long shot to take the checkered flag. But for someone who took up racing only eight years ago, the striking 35-year-old brunette has attained an important career milestone just by having qualified for the premier event of U.S. motor sports. A naval engineer by training who holds four master’s degrees and now lives in Miami, Duno spoke to NEWSWEEK’s Joseph Contreras by phone from Indianapolis. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: How did you become interested in auto racing?
Milka Duno: I never thought I would be a race car driver. After I got four master’s degrees, my goal at the time was to prepare for my career as a naval engineer. When I returned from [my studies in] Spain to Venezuela, some friends invited me to a driving clinic. I was curious, I participated in an amateur club, just with street cars, and after that I started racing because I’m very competitive. I was interested at that time to go to racing school [in the United States] to prepare myself in a professional way.
When you began racing in 1999, did you ever imagine that one day you would qualify for an Indianapolis 500 race?
When I start to do some activity, I try to reach the highest level I can. When I started in 1999, I was watching the practice for that year’s 500 race in Indianapolis. I was so impressed by how fast the cars were and how important the race was, and at that moment I said to myself, “One day I want to do that.” And now I am in an Indy 500 race.
What is your favorite type of auto racing?
I was racing street cars, but now I’ve moved to oval tracks. This is the highest level where I always wanted to be, I am so happy to be part of this. Everything is difficult now because I am new to oval racing. But I’m a fast learner and I’m working very hard and my team has a lot of experience.
You have raced in both the United States and Europe. Any preference?
They’re different. I think I have a good opportunity in the United States. I developed my career here. I have so many fans; my sponsors are here.
What was it like when you won the 2004 Grand Prix of Miami and became the first woman to win a major international sports-car race in North America?
It was the first race that year after I had come back from Europe, and we won. It was fantastic for me to be the first woman who won at the highest level in a sports car.
Realistically, how well do you hope to do in this year’s Indy 500 race?
It’s a very tough race, it’s very hard but I have all the determination and my attitude is try to do my best. There are very good and very experienced drivers, I’m the rookie here, everything is new, and I’m still learning. But many things can happen during a race, the guy who drives fast and doesn’t make a mistake can finish in front.
Did you follow auto racing as a girl growing up in Caracas? Were there certain drivers you admired or idolized?
I only started to follow racing in 1999. Before then I was just studying all the time, reading books, I was concentrating on my career as an engineer. My case is different from other drivers, when they were children their dream was to become a race car driver, when I was a child my dream was to become an engineer.
How did your engineering background help you in auto racing?
Being an engineer made it easy for me to understand some technical things. As an engineer, I understood from the beginning what was happening with the car, I gave my [mechanics] the right feedback to make the right adjustments to the car.
How does your family feel about your auto-racing career?
At the beginning, they didn’t like it. After studying so much they asked why did I want to drive race cars? But they let me because they know that when I decide on something, I’m going to do what I want. Now they are my big fans.
Do you like living in Miami, or do you miss Venezuela?
I love living in Miami but I miss my country so much. I miss my people, my food, everything.
How many more years do you imagine yourself competing in auto racing?
I’m just starting now in Indy, I have many years left to race.
Are you friends with either Danica Patrick or Sarah Fisher, the other female drivers competing in this Sunday’s race?
I knew Sarah, she’s very friendly. But we’re so busy and we have so much work here, and I still don’t know all of the drivers.
When you finish with auto racing, will you resume your engineering career?
Yes, why not? An education is the most important thing a person can have. I visit schools because we have to give an important message about education. An education is forever, whereas sports you do only while you are in the right physical condition.
What’s your opinion of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez?
I think he’s doing very nice things for the country in education and in sports and in many areas. We have to be objective and talk about the good things and the positive things. My sponsor CITGO [which belongs to Venezuela’s state-owned oil company] is working very hard in the United States in charity activities, helping low-income people to buy heating oil, and people don’t know that. If we try to help the people who need it most, we’ll have a better world.