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Venezuelan president has rooting interest in Indy 500

AP file photoMilka Duno smiles after she recently qualified for the Indy 500
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INDIANAPOLIS ” Milka Duno and Hugo Chavez bantered back and forth like a couple of flirty schoolchildren.

When the two hooked up on the phone this week, Chavez invited Duno to “go for a ride” in his red Volkswagen Bug. Duno countered with an offer to attend a race, drawing a big laugh from the Venezuelan president.

“Give me a ride!” he exclaimed. “With you, I’ll go anywhere.”

For many Americans, Chavez is a pompous blowhard, the world leader who called President Bush “the devil” and positioned himself as a righteous warrior against U.S. imperialism.

Come Sunday, though, Chavez will have a rooting interest in that most red, white and blue of events: the Indianapolis 500.

Duno is the first Venezuelan to make the race, not to mention being part of the first three-woman field in Indy history. With her looks and a willingness to sign more autographs than everyone else combined, she has quickly become a fan favorite in Gasoline Alley. Never mind that she has little chance of winning the 200-lap event.

“I am Milka,” she said, breaking into a charming smile. “This is my personality.”

But Duno’s entry into the Indy Racing League also has sparked Internet chatter from those who view her as Chavez’s personal driver, someone who willingly pockets his oil dollars ” Venezuelan-owned Citgo is the team’s primary sponsor ” in exchange for helping spread his socialist message.

Duno expresses no political views of her own and shrugs off the chilly relations between her homeland and the country where she races.

“I like to talk about the positive things, the good things,” she said. “In my country, there have been many good things that people don’t know. My sponsor, Citgo, is doing many good things that people don’t know.”

Indy Racing League founder Tony George, who has struggled to lure sponsors to the open-wheel series, wasn’t about to turn away Citgo’s dollars.

“Citgo is a United States company. It happens to have foreign ownership,” George said. “There are a lot of companies that have foreign ownership.”

Duno makes no attempt to distance herself from Chavez. Most notably, she spoke at one of his massive campaign rallies last October, talking about the importance of education and praising presidential programs that have largely wiped out illiteracy in the South American nation. At the end of her speech, the two embraced on the stage.

“In my country, you see the government trying to help people that have low income, that have no resources,” Duno said this week during an interview in her garage. “They help people to get an education. We have free education. Everyone in Venezuela has access to go to school, to go to the university, for free. They don’t have to pay anything. This is good.”

On Tuesday, Duno and Chavez had a brief telephone conversation while he was participating in a government event in Venezuela.

“We congratulate Milka Duno, this extraordinary woman who will bring the Venezuelan flag to the Indianapolis 500. What a dedicated girl. What dedication!” Chavez said proudly, holding the cell phone next to a microphone inside a packed auditorium.

“You are the one of those people who believed in me from the beginning,” Duno replied.

Chavez’s campaign to spark a socialist revolution throughout Latin America has led to worries of an economic backlash against Citgo, the American-based subsidiary of Venezuela’s national oil company. Already, 7-Eleven dropped Citgo as its gas supplier, a decision that was attributed partly to politics.

But Duno dismissed the critics, pointing out Citgo has provided low-cost heating oil to needy Americans.

In Indianapolis, Duno’s more worried about helping build the dwindling Indy fan base, fully aware that she brings special appeal as a woman and a Hispanic.

On Wednesday, she stood under a hot sun for more than three hours, autographing anything that was put in front of her. Her handlers literally pulled her away from the fans, reminding her of other commitments.

“I’m going to call the Indy Racing League and tell them that she’s the best ambassador this sport has,” said one of those fans, Terry Crowder, who first met Duno when she was launching her career in sports cars.

Duno has plenty of fans back home, too. Pedro Tovar, a newspaper vendor in downtown Caracas, said his customers frequently comment on her success.

“She’s a lady, and she’s done well,” Tovar said. “That’s not something you see every day in car racing. She’s the pride of Venezuela.”

The 35-year-old Duno has four college degrees and got a relatively late start on her racing career, which began less than a decade ago. She had some success in sports cars, including a second-place finish at this year’s 24-hour Daytona race ” the best showing ever for a woman.

With Citgo along for the ride, Duno moved into Indy cars last month, making her debut at Kansas. She accomplished her main goal ” making it to the end without any major problems ” but finished six laps behind winner Dan Wheldon in 14th place.

“Honestly, I was a little concerned when I was lapping her on like lap 12,” Wheldon conceded.

At Indy, Duno crashed in practice and slipped into the field with the second-slowest speed (219.228 mph). She will start from the next-to-last row Sunday.

“Do I think she will be a contender? Absolutely not,” Wheldon said. “At the same time, I think she’s good for the series.”

Duno faces a steep learning curve, which isn’t helped by the language barrier.

“She’s trying to ask the right questions,” said Sarah Fisher, another of Indy’s female drivers. “But she doesn’t speak English very well, so it’s hard to communicate (with the engineers) when she sees things out there.”

Plus, Fisher added, “it’s really hard when your second race in one of these cars is the Indy 500.”

No matter where she finishes Sunday, Duno might be able to ease some of the tension between Venezuela and her adopted home.

“My country,” she said, “doesn’t want to have a problem with any country.”


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