With an interest in science and motorsports, Cara Adams has worked her way up the ranks at Firestone Racing, now in the midst of her first season as their Chief Engineer.
During the Honda Indy Toronto weekend, Popular Speed’s Ashley McCubbin caught up with her to talk tech, as well as how she got involved in racing.
POPULAR SPEED: What’s the process that you go through in choosing what compounds to bring to the track each weekend?
CARA ADAMS: So it depends on the race track. One of the things that we’re doing while we’re here during the race weekend is getting feedback that will help us develop the tires for next year. So we were here last year and were talking to a lot of drivers, and one of the things they said for the Toronto circuit was they needed more grip out of the alternates. So our chemist and compounders went back to Ohio where we do all the design and development for IndyCar Series, and worked to come up with some compounds that are going to still have good longevity, but more grip. So a lot of it is the feedback that we get from the drivers.
We also get good sets of data from the teams. So we have a great working relationship with our teams and if there’s something that we want to see from the car, they’ll send us a full data set and that will tell us loads, speeds, and all kinds of information about the operating range of the tire.
PS: What’s a typical race day like for you?
CA: It depends on whether it’s a day race or a night race, but we’ll take Toronto for example. We get in here probably five hours before the cars are racing. It’s a long day so we’ll be here early. If we’re doing our job, we’ve done a lot of our preparation before we actually get to that race day. So everything is set; all the teams have their tires mounted. So for us, we come in and make sure they don’t have any last minute questions, we work to make sure that the tires are on the right side of the car, and we’re just here working in the pits.
I have a pit lane staff of about 10 to 12 – depending on the weekend – of engineers, chemists, compounders and technicians, so they’re within every couple of cars. So before the race, they’re checking to make sure that they get the bar codes from each of the tires, as each set is tracked by bar code. Everything that went into the process of building that tire, and then seeing what it does on track, that bar code will help us follow it.
So we track all those, make sure everything is in place, and then we’re just there to answer any questions and support the teams. All of our work is done by that point. So we’re just there to make sure they don’t have any questions, and if somebody cuts a tire, we’re there to look at it and let them know whether it’s okay to run or not.
PS: So what got you interested in wanting to be involved in racing behind the scenes?
CA: Long story short, I loved science as a kid. So my mom was a science teacher and always instilled that passion for science in me when I was younger. All I knew about cars when I was younger was that they had carburetors that had to be rebuilt a lot – that was the extent of my knowledge of my cars. My dad had a Volkswagen and that’s all he did. He’d grumble off and go into the garage, and rebuild the carburetor on his Volkswagen Bug.
It wasn’t until I got into college that I walked into a machine shop, and they happened to be working on a Formula SAE car. So SAE is the Society of Automotive Engineers. So they built a miniature open-wheel car. The students will work with the engine – it’s usually a motorcycle engine. So I learned how to rebuild an engine there, learned how to use all the machine tools, and then the very first time I got to get into the car and drive it, it was amazing.
I also went to Cleveland Grand Prix as I’m from that area. That was the first race that I went to watching open-wheel cars, and I was just in love with the technology of the cars. Seeing at that point the Champ Car on Bridgestones, seeing them squat through the chicane and the deflection of the tires, seeing everything about that was very exciting for me. I didn’t really want to get into it from the driver aspect, but seeing the technology of the cars was really cool for me.
Flash forward to 2003, looking for a job after graduating, I wanted a company with a strong racing heritage and a company that I respected. I interviewed at a couple of places and found Bridgestone, which then moved on to Firestone Racing brand. Firestone has been in racing since the beginning – 1909. 1911 was the first Indy 500 and they drove to victory on Firestone tires. So if I wanted a company with a strong racing heritage, I chose the right one.
PS: What is it like for you working in a world that a lot of people would say is male-oriented?
CA: It’s becoming less and less, though, which is great for me. It’s great to see more young woman getting involved in science, in general, but especially in racing in motorsports. You have to work a little harder initially, or at least you think you do, to establish yourself as an engineer and professional in racing. But one thing that I learned over the years is people respect results. So it doesn’t matter what you look like. If you can make their car faster, they want to have you working with them.
PS: So to other young females, what advice would you give them?
CA: I’m very fortunate being in this position that I get to talk to a lot of people that are looking at engineering as a career, and racing specifically. The advice that I give the young ladies that I mentor is to just follow your passions. Find out what you’re passionate about. If it’s motorsports, find some people that work in motorsports and ask questions. Just do whatever you need to do to get the job.
When I was looking at trying to move into racing, I talked into the manager at that time. I asked him what kind of skills and traits his ideal engineer would have. I learned those and went out and bought textbooks, and studied on my own. So my advice to young woman is totally understand that you can do it. If I can do it, they can do it too. Understand that you can do it and then do what you need to do to make yourself the best possible candidate for the job.
Cara Adams will be once again busy her staff this weekend as the Verizon IndyCar Series is in action at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.
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