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Feature: Speedway Pioneer

Alba Colon PortraitAn auto-racing engineer wins respect in a male preserve.

An article from the December 2008 issue of ASEE’s Prism magazine by David Zax, updated in April 2010.

DOVER, Del.–A NASCAR engineer grapples with great forces. The rush of the wind dictates the most aerodynamic shape; the dreaded high-speed crash prescribes the structure of the safety roll cage. And wherever engineers talk shop, count on hearing about their struggle to achieve just the right amount of “downforce,” or downward air pressure, to grip the track at high speed.

As if such challenges weren’t enough, Alba Colon has had to take on tradition. A woman and a Latina, she is a leader of a new generation of engineers in a sport long dominated by white men. So identified is NASCAR with a conservative southern heritage that even as far north as the Dover International Speedway in Delaware, nearby vendors sell jackets stamped with Confederate flags.

Colon makes no attempt to appear as one of the boys while seated in a trailer during qualifying rounds, looking stylish in a white collared shirt with Chevrolet pin and bright red lipstick. Against the deep roar of vehicles hurtling around the Monster Mile, she reminisces about her first day at the track:

General Motors had hired her in 1994 right after she obtained a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez. When she introduced herself to Chevrolet racing legend Dale Earnhardt Sr., the Intimidator, as he was known, sized her up thus: “I don’t give you more than a year here.”

But Colon had long ignored conventional expectations. The daughter of a doctor and a teacher, she aspired to be an astronaut before catching the racing bug while working on a solar-powered racecar at college. And she knew her own value. If a Hispanic woman was a rarity in NASCAR, so were professional engineers. For decades, cars had been refined with seat-of-the-pants calculations, or, as driver Sterling Marlin once told Sports Illustrated, “nothing but a stopwatch.”

Now integral to racing, NASCAR engineers refine engine parts, figure out the best way to put a chassis together, and collect data from wind tunnel trials — all to shave precious fractions of a second off a lap around the speedway. Some innovations end up in production vehicles.

Alba Colon in ActionAfter a few years in data acquisition, Colon entered racing management, becoming GM Racing’s Chevrolet program manager in 2001 — the only top-ranking female engineer in NASCAR and a key point of contact between drivers, owners, and crew chiefs. She also helped design accelerometers and tire-pressure sensors. Her crowning achievement — 10 years in development — was a totally revamped engine, replacing a design little changed since 1955. “When they called to say it was approved, I cried,” says the ordinarily steely Colon. Released in 2007, it became the envy of competitors, performing flawlessly during a stellar year for Chevy racing.

“I don’t give you more than a year here,” NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt Sr. told Alba Colon in 1994.

By then, GM’s male racers had long since come to treat her like family. In 2000, the year before his fatal crash at the Daytona 500, Earnhardt himself congratulated her on a promotion, saying she had done “a hell of a job.” Revising the history of their first meeting, he said he’d always known she’d go far.

A 2009 education chair of the Society of Automotive Engineers, Colon aimed to help more women succeed in engineering. It takes parental encouragement, caring mentors, and a good education, she says. NASCAR requires more: “You have to be tough in this sport, female or male.”

During the Big Three automakers struggle to survive, GM significantly reduced its investment in NASCAR. And the public’s clamor for cheaper, cleaner fuel is likely to bring further change, Colon recognizes. “We’ve been experimenting with different engines using alternative fuels, she says. “NASCAR’s getting ready, and when they are, we’ll be there with them.” But when asked what she wants right now, Colon’s response has nothing to do with miles per gallon — or women in NASCAR. It’s all about the race: “I want more downforce in a new car.”

Alba Colon at Work

Alba Colon is a GM Racing NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Program Manager and an engineer for Chevrolet’s racing teams. In 2008, ESPN made a video detailing her struggles and successes in the racing word. View it online.

David Zax is a freelance writer.

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