Milka Duno wasn’t looking for a hobby, let alone a career change when some friends took her to a Porsche driving clinic in her native Venezuela in 1998. By then, she already had realized a lifelong ambition of becoming a naval engineer — and her only experience with fast cars was the joyride she took in her parents’ Chevrolet when she was 12.
But roaring around a street course put her life on a much different track. In retrospect, though, Duno’s transition from ship designer to auto racing trailblazer doesn’t seem so strange.
“I didn’t know anything about racing,” said Duno, who will make her Minnesota racing debut Saturday in ARCA’s Akona 250 at Elko Speedway. “But I love to learn, I love to study, I love to know new things. This was my destiny.”
It’s far from her parents’ sedan, but Duno, 41, is behind the wheel of a Chevy again. After making history in sports-car and open-wheel racing — including becoming the first Hispanic woman to race in the Indianapolis 500 — she is in her first full season on the ARCA Racing Series circuit. Through five events, Duno is eighth in the points standings; earlier this month, she won the pole position at Talladega, becoming only the second woman in the past 25 years to win an ARCA pole at that 2⅔-mile Alabama track.
Duno had earned four master’s degrees before that driving clinic shifted her ambitions. Both of her careers, though, sprung from a deep-seated curiosity and thirst for learning — as well as a drive she hopes will propel her into the NASCAR ranks in the near future.
“When I was [at the clinic], I was winning the race,” said Duno, who now lives in Miami. “At that moment, I said, ‘I want somebody to teach me. I want to know more about racing.’
“Driving a race car is very difficult. Many variables have to come together to win a race. But I like difficult things.”
Always a bookish person, Duno grew up a baseball fan in Venezuela. With her engineering background, she possessed an aptitude for mechanics, as well as an interest in the science of how to make a car run fast.
She began her racing career in Venezuela before traveling to Florida in 1999 to enter the Skip Barber Driving School. Duno soon began making history as the first woman to achieve many milestones in racing, including winning the Petit Le Mans endurance race and racing the LMP 900, the fastest car in the American Le Mans series. In 2007, she finished second in the 24 Hours of Daytona, the highest finish ever for a woman in that race.
Her training in engineering, Duno said, allowed her to learn quickly and move up the racing ranks. She joined the Indy Racing League in 2007 and that year became the first Hispanic woman to compete in the Indy 500. She finished 31st in her debut, returning twice more to that storied race to finish 19th in 2008 and 20th in 2009.
The following year, she tried yet another type of racing, driving a stock car for the first time in the ARCA Racing Series. It immediately appealed to her.
“In Indy, if you don’t have a good car, it’s too difficult to win the race,” Duno said. “Stock cars are so similar, the driver has more capacity to win the race. You are able to compete to win, because almost every driver has the same tools.”
Driving for Venturini Motorsports this season, Duno has a fast car, a highly regarded team and a big goal: to drive on the NASCAR circuit. She has eight victories in the Rolex sports car and American Le Mans series, but she still is seeking her first ARCA Racing Series win. In the Lucas Oil 200 at Daytona earlier this year, Duno qualified second and led the first 11 laps before finishing 28th; in April, she finished eighth in a race in Salem, Ind., the best ARCA finish of her career.
“Every race, I’m learning something new,” Duno said. “And I love to learn. I know it’s difficult to win, but you have to have your expectations very high.’’