People used to show up at race tracks and ask Alba Colon where the engineer was.
“Hello! It’s me!” the tiny Latina told them.
The top female engineer in NASCAR racing and the NASCAR Sprint Cup program manager for 22 years, Colon spoke about her journey into engineering and racing at Arizona State University on Thursday.
She has worked with the teams behind Dale Earnhardt, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon.
As a schoolgirl in Puerto Rico, Colon’s hero was Sally Ride. Colon wanted to be the first Puerto Rican astronaut.
“I grew up in a household where there was no other option than to go to university,” she said.
In college she was the team captain of the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez Formula SAE chapter. Formula SAE engineering students build and race Formula-style cars at an annual competition. Colon started the chapter with four male students. When they traveled to the mainland for competition, “I pretty much learned we had no idea how to build a car,” she said.
General Motors hired her in 1994 as a data acquisition engineer.
“After you’re in motorsports you get hooked,” she said. Twenty-three years later, “I love my job.”
One of her first tests was at Talladega, testing a brand-new engine. She met Dale Earnhardt, who promptly told her she wouldn’t be in the sport more than a year.
“He didn’t even know me, what I could be capable of,” she said. “Many years later I learned that that was one of the ways Dale would push you to make things happen, but I didn’t know that when I met him. I got pretty mad at him and told him, ‘I’m going to show you what I can do.’ ... He helped me to get where I am today. If you push me and tell me I can’t do something, I’ll do it.”
She cited a rising number of woman and Hispanics getting into motorsports today. Forty percent of the NASCAR fan base is women, she said.
“I don’t regret anything I had to go through to get where I am today,” Colon said. Times have changed, she said. “Believe me, these things don’t happen anymore.”
Racing is becoming more and more technical, she told a roomful of mostly engineering students. Races are won in tenths of seconds. Every team has four or five engineers analyzing data. Simulation is a big new trend. Some engineers work only on tires.
“It is getting more and more technologically sophisticated,” Colon said. “Now you have so much data you don’t have time to study it.”
NASCAR is hiring mathematicians. “We need more people to interpret all that data,” Colon said. “Believe me, the technology is amazing.”
She gave job-interview advice about what she looks for.
First of all, “someone who is genuine.”
The word “we” is a red flag to her. “I know it was a team project, but I want to know what you contributed to the project,” she said.
“Did all you do was take classes?” She wants to see community involvement, volunteering, church, that type of thing.
Good grades still count. “GPA is very important,” she said.
“The fact that you were an Eagle Scout says a lot about you.”
And, finally, when an offer does come through, “don’t ever think a job is beneath you,” she said. Jimmie Johnson’s second engineer began in NASCAR by mopping floors. So did a well-known TV analyst she didn’t name.
What does she consider her greatest accomplishment? “Traveling and meeting people, and exposing myself to ideas I’d never thought about — that has been amazing.”
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