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IRL's Duno ups degree of difficulty for everyone

Patrick Carpentier was compelled to have the conversation with Milka Duno. Secrets don't stay secret in a racing paddock, and his Samax Motorsport teammate wasn't denying it, anyway.

By BRANT JAMES
Published April 27, 2007


Patrick Carpentier was compelled to have the conversation with Milka Duno. Secrets don't stay secret in a racing paddock, and his Samax Motorsport teammate wasn't denying it, anyway.

Duno, 35, a successful Grand Am sports car racer, was going to attempt the treacherous leap to the more dangerous and demanding Indy Racing League.

Carpentier wondered aloud if the step was too much, particularly for someone whose experience has been road courses, not the G-force generating ovals that comprise most of the IRL schedule.

"I told her, 'I think it's a huge step,' " he said. "I think it's almost too big of a step. Those cars are fast. It's no playtime anymore. It's very serious and a small mistake can become catastrophic very, very quickly."

Driver concerns over her readiness to debut Sunday at Kansas Speedway and drive in nine ensuing races including the Indianapolis 500 have nothing to do with her gender, Carpentier said. Duno passed her IRL rookie test Thursday.

But 15 months after rookie Paul Dana died in a prerace warmup at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the debate remains whether open-wheel racing's two circuits (IRL and Champ Car) allow drivers with too little experience into the big leagues if they bring sponsor money. Dana, a Northwestern-educated journalist who had won at the IRL's development level, brought the ethanol industry.

Duno had just some ladder series time in open-wheel cars before this week. A Venezuelan with four master's degrees, she brings Citgo and potentially the marketing appeal of Danica Patrick.

"The owners have to pay for the cars most of the time and no one has money, and that's when you have a lot of guys coming in with money that never really raced or shouldn't be there," Carpentier said, though not referring to Duno.

Duno drove at Grand Am's highest level, Daytona Prototype, but few skills translate to the faster Indy cars, said Carpentier, who drove Champ Car and IRL. Speeds regularly exceed 200 mph on sweeping ovals. Samax has hired the successful John Cummiskey to run the program, but it's still a startup team in the IRL.

"In the IRL you need more guts than anything," Carpentier said. "I remember when I went there everyone said, 'Oh, it's going to be easy. Just stay wide open all the time,' When you test by yourself and you're wide open all the time, it's actually very easy. My grandma could do it.

"The trick is when you get in a pack of 20 cars and then you lose half the downforce you normally have and you still have to stay flat out all the time, otherwise you're going to lose a lot of places or lose the pack. That's when it gets tricky and really, really hard."

IRL officials are under pressure to assure Duno is sound. The series' marketers, on the other hand, know she could be a boon.

Duno's second-place finish in the 24-hour Daytona sports car race this year was the highest ever for a female, and though she held the wheel far less than Carpentier, Darren Manning or Ryan Dalziel, she showed she has improved, Dalziel said.

"I think Milka has changed a lot as a driver over the past few years," said Dalziel, whose Pacific Coast Motorsports team converted from Grand Am to Champ Car this season.

Manning said Duno, in 2004 the first woman to win a major North American sports car race, seemed focused and astute at Daytona. Deemed ready or not, Duno will be feared by her peers, Carpentier said.

"I would be afraid, too, but not because it's her," he said. "When Danica Patrick came in, everyone was afraid to drive beside her the first few races. She was moving left and right all the time and it making sudden moves all the time and that was really dangerous. Anybody that tells you wouldn't be afraid is lying, but it's not necessarily because she's a bad driver."

Duno was confident after her test and said she has the experience to alleviate those fears quickly.

"Everyone that is driving in this series, they once had their first race, too," she said. "This is no big deal. I proved in the test I can do it. It's a process, and it's not impossible to learn."