By Craig Pearson
TERRE HAUTE — Danica Patrick hopped from fifth to No. 2 in Harris Interactive’s annual poll of most popular female sports star — the IRL’s Patrick is sandwiched between the two Williams sisters (Serena at No. 1, Venus falling from last year’s top spot to third this year).
Patrick has helped keep the IRL in the national spotlight outside of Memorial Day weekend and was up to seventh in the point standings before her crash in Sunday’s Iowa Corn 250 dropped her to eighth.
Indy Racing League rookie Milka Duno is still learning the IRL ropes and hasn’t had near the impact Patrick has on her sport. At least not yet.
Patrick led the Indy 500 in her rookie year of 2005. Duno has yet to lead a lap this year — Patrick has led all of three — and the Venezuelan failed to finish the inaugural Iowa race, which was only her fourth race in the IRL to no fault of her own (wheel bearing failure).
Duno, who was drawn to the IRL because of the prestige and challenge that comes with racing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, admittedly has much to learn.
“I like a difficult challenge,” Duno said in Wednesday’s IRL teleconference. “Everything in my life is difficult because I like every difficult challenge. I like when I have to stay and work so hard to get what I’m looking for.”
But unlike Danica — who ventured to England at age 16 to race in the top junior series in the world — Duno never expected to be a race-car driver. Duno began racing in Venezuela in 1996 and by 2001 was the only female driver running a regular schedule in the American Le Mans Series.
Patrick gets more than her share of criticism for not finding her way to victory lane yet, but taking 12th in the points standings in her rookie year of 2005 was impressive. Duno has nine races to climb from her current place of 19th, but it looks like an uphill battle with veteran drivers in front of her in the standings.
But by the time next year’s Indy 500 rolls around, Duno, a naval engineer with four master’s degrees, will have learned the intricacies of racing an Indy car.
“I was racing in road cars all the time since I started in 1999 in racing. I’ve now transitioned. I’m adapting. This is a year for learning. It’s a process, I’m learning in every single race. All the time I’m asking the instructor or the super drivers like Al Unser and Rick Mears and Johnny Rutherford and all the people that surround me, I try to take full advantage of the spirit they have for learning in a fast way.”
She said this season is a learning experience for her whole team and the Iowa race was her first experience on a short oval. She’ll get to see how much she’s learned on another short oval Saturday night at Richmond International Speedway.
“I have only raced at Kansas, Indy, which are fast ovals. The short oval is different, everything is different. And it’s very, very tough, very hard for me. It was very hard, because it was my first time, my first short oval, and I only had a few practices, I had to adjust so fast and so quick. Every time I’m on the track, I’m learning about everything, looking for the balance of the car and learning to understand the draft and know how it races in an oval. But I think this experience I have this weekend is going to help me for Richmond in the ovals again.”
Patrick and Duno were in jeopardy of being in the shadow of the IRL’s veteran woman driver after Friday night’s qualifying, but qualifying was rained out and today’s lineup was decided by points. Sarah Fisher, coming off a seventh-place finish at Iowa, had started in second twice in three starts at Richmond. Patrick’s 10th-place finish is the best among the ladies at the 3/4-mile track, however.
It will be interesting to see what the engineer Duno learned from last week and how she continues to progress.
By this time next year, it’s conceivable Patrick might have some company in the Harris poll by an athlete in her own sport.
Craig Pearson can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at (812) 231-4357.