Though she's stirred a ripple of interest in several markets, most Indy Racing League fans don't know Milka Duno-yet.
Many sports business experts think the first Hispanic woman to race in the openwheel series will turn heads, as much for her ability to drive and her unusual professional and academic background as anything else.
Duno also becomes part of a fascinating story involving established IRL drivers Danica Patrick and Sarah Fisher.
"The Indy Racing League is becoming the one place where women can compete alongside men at the top level of the sport," said Mel Poole, president of Sponsorlogic, a Charlotte, N.C.-based motorsports marketing consultancy. "That carries some strong marketing possibilities."
This new marketing angle comes as IRL officials fight to improve television ratings and increase attendance at venues across the country. The series is competing for fans against Champ Car, its open-wheel rival that has a new TV package this year, and early on, surprisingly high viewer ratings.
Already, Duno, who hasn't yet started an IRL race, is drawing interest wherever she appears. She didn't race at the series opener in Miami last month, but sent the media into a frenzy with her announcement there that she would join the series in April.
When Duno tested an IRL car for the first time at Kansas Speedway in mid-April, track officials said fans were climbing the walls to get a glimpse of the Venezuelan driver.
"We've never had that kind of response from our fans over an IRL driver testing before," said Stann Tate, Kansas Speedway public relations director. "All the press in this market have been all over Milka's story since she made her announcement in Miami, and that has sparked a lot of interest."
To market, or not to market
IRL officials have no special plans to market the simultaneous entry of three women in the series for the first time, but they said interest is growing.
"This is the kind of story that takes care of itself," said IRL and Indianapolis Motor Speedway spokesman Fred Nation. "We're confident this will be a story that will be reported, and we think interest will signifi- cantly intensify when we get to May."
Motorsports marketers think the interest created by Fisher's re-emergence after a detour racing stock cars, the growing buzz surrounding Duno, and the ever-popular Patrick might cause IRL officials to change course to capitalize on this unique marketing opportunity.
Two issues make the story especially compelling. All three have solid racing resumes, and all have solid sponsors putting them in fast cars.
Fisher, 26, is a three-time national karting champion who became the youngest driver ever to race in the IRL, at 19 in 1999. She registered the highest finish by a woman with a second place at Miami in 2001, and became the only woman to qualify for an IRL pole position in Kentucky in 2002.
Patrick, 25, became the first woman to lead laps at the Indianapolis 500 in 2005 and finished fourth, the best showing by a woman at the Brickyard. She was named IRL Rookie of the Year later that year. Early this year, Patrick has been at the top of the IRL speed charts.
Both have been voted by fans on multiple occasions as the series' most popular driver.
In 2004, Duno became the first woman to win a major international sports car race when she was victorious at the Grand American Rolex Sports Car Series Grand Prix at Miami. Earlier this year, Duno placed second at the 24 Hours of Daytona.
Add to that, Duno, 35, is a multilingual brainiac who has five master's degrees and considerable experience as a naval engineer and marine biologist.
Is rivalry enough?
Though the three have downplayed any rivalry, the possibility is enticing to IRL marketers.
"Most people assume there's competition among the three, and we love a rivalry among any drivers," Nation said.
There's certainly a race to become the first woman to win an IRL race, especially if it's at Indianapolis. That feat, sports marketers said, would mean a high-seven-figure sponsorship windfall.
But minus serious competition from the trio, this story could quickly become blasÃ©.
"Their presence in the series alone isn't enough to sustain the story," Poole said.
Patrick, who is backed by the powerful Andretti Green Racing team, is under the most pressure, Poole said.
"To gain the credibility she seeks and to keep sponsors interested, she has to win," Poole said.
Sponsors on board
Unlike the pioneering women of openwheel racing, this year's trio has strong sponsorship, which should translate into top-notch equipment. Pioneers Janet Guthrie and Lyn St. James were forced to compete in second-rate cars.
Patrick is backed by Argent Mortgage, GoDaddy.com, Motorola and XM Radio, among other deep-pocketed corporations.
Fisher, who took an unsuccessful foray into a stock-car racing feeder series the last two years, is proving to be successful with open-wheel sponsors. This year, she has inked deals with EurUp High Energy Drink, Roll Coster, AAMCO Transmission, TAG Heuer and AAA Hoosier Motor Club.
Fisher, sources said, is still gaining sponsorship steam after her open-wheel absence, with three deals signed in the last month, including one reported to be a low-sevenfigure deal with AAMCO, a car care service company.
Fisher appeared in a handful of races late last year, but is set to run a full season with locally-based Dreyer & Reinbold Racing this year.
Duno has one major sponsor, but it's a big fish. Citgo Petroleum Corp., a chain of gas stations and convenience stores owned by the Venezuelan government, is reportedly putting a high-seven-figure sponsorship behind the Caracas native. Citgo is also poised to launch Duno promotions through its numerous stores nationwide.
Citgo's ties to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a boisterous critic of the United States, could hurt Duno here, sports marketers said. But Poole thinks Citgo's business executives might want to put even more marketing muscle behind Duno's campaign to blunt North American negativity toward the company.
Duno races for relatively unknown Florida-based Samax Motorsport. Duno is set to debut at the IRL's April 29 race in Kansas City, then she will try to qualify for Indianapolis in May. Next year, Duno plans to run the full IRL season.
"Milka has proven her ability to drive, and we think in time she's going to be very competitive," said Samax President Peter Baron. "She's a very intelligent driver. Milka is a methodical, conservative driver, and she won't try to do anything heroic instantly."
Already a star in Central and South America, Baron said, Duno is quickly becoming popular across the United States.
"We get piles and piles of fan mail, and the stacks are only getting higher since she announced her entry into the [IRL]," Baron said. "She is the nicest person in the world to work with, very friendly and very approachable. She's especially popular with young people and women."
David Moroknek, president of Indianapolis-based MainGate, which makes licensed products for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and has an exclusive deal with Patrick, thinks there is a golden opportunity to market the three women together.
He thinks merchandise with the trio's images on them would be popular. Moroknek said May is the time to move on the opportunity.
"If you look at it globally," Moroknek said, "to have three women in the largest sporting event in the world speaks to the progressive nature of the Indy Racing League.
"This will bring a whole new audience to the series, and that's invaluable."