DARLINGTON, S.C. -- The irony was palpable for Alba Colon, there in Victory Lane at the Brickyard 400 in 1995, amid the revelry after Dale Earnhardt's win in the second NASCAR race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. There were congratulations with fellow General Motors officials, crewmen and the driver who a year earlier had told Colon she would never last in the extremely male environment that was then the NASCAR garage.
But here she was, a female engineer whose contributions had helped enhance the legacy of the seven-time series champion and the success of the sport's top engine provider. She had proved her value, and Earnhardt wanted to make sure she basked in the moment. That value would eventually make her one of the most powerful figures in NASCAR.
"I went to the winner's circle, but I didn't know what to even do, what was going on," Colon admitted. "He was so welcoming. He was like, 'No, you're coming here. You're taking a picture with us and the trophy.' He gave me that first taste of how good it felt to win."
Colon, 44, is quite familiar with the sensation now. And she has had a lot to do with it. General Motors has won 11 manufacturer championships since Colon became Chevrolet Racing's program manager for NASCAR Cup racing in 2001, making her the top on-track representative of the manufacturer every weekend.
It's an astronomical task. But it is not where she thought she would end up. As a little girl in Puerto Rico with Sally Ride posters on her wall, she dreamed of space walks, not racetracks, and was compelled to explore science as a child by her father, a doctor, and her mother, a teacher. Colon attended the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez, where she studied engineering. Still, her eyes were on the skies and on emulating Ride, the first American woman to enter low Earth orbit.
"I said, 'OK, I am going to become a mechanical engineer and then go to NASA," Colon recalled.
But in 1991, she was introduced to Formula SAE, an engineering competition in which teams design prototype race cars adhering to a predetermined set of rules. Colon was promoted to team captain by her junior year and unwittingly found her "new passion" in the pursuit of building race cars from theory to practice.
"It was the science that brought me in," she said. "In Puerto Rico, motorsports is not really big.
"My professor said this is something that can help me. I didn't understand the value of the whole thing, and when I started to get into the deal and tried the competition, it became a challenge. It became an amazing challenge, and I enjoyed it so much that I got hooked."
Making a quick impression
Hired by General Motors in 1994 as a data acquisition engineer, she took executive positions in the company's NHRA programs in 1998 before being named to the top NASCAR position in 2001.
Sprint Cup team owner Richard Childress, who owned Earnhardt's No. 3 Chevrolet, said Colon was an immediate asset.
"When she was strictly an engineer, we needed support, and it didn't take us long to understand she was a very bright lady," said the six-time Sprint Cup-champion owner. "She did that extra effort, Saturday, Sunday, whatever it took to make sure you had all the support you needed, her and General Motors.''
Childress said gender and race were never an issue for his team. RCR, he said, simply saw an asset as the sport was becoming more data-driven.
"She's just a first-class lady. And we never looked at her as being a lady or Hispanic," he said. "We looked at her as an engineer, and she was a sweet lady. If you know her, she is very talented, very passionate about what she does, and she wants anyone she's working with to do good. She contributed to a lot of success back in the day. She was the reason we won races."
In 2001, Colon attained what she had deemed "the crown jewel" at GM, the head NASCAR position.
Colon's daily on-track responsibility is to manage the technical resources General Motors provides its teams. That is no simple process. Engine manufacturers provide certain standardized parts for their affiliates, such as blocks, heads and manifolds, but also technical resources such as computer software and wind-tunnel access, precious commodities as the confederation of Chevy teams attempts to better use the common parts for on-track advantage. She advocates for the use of new parts or procedures that interest her teams and provides them with support to better compete.
There is the overarching General Motors agenda: win. And there is the intertwined and competitive agenda of the various GM teams: win. They are the same, but they are disparate.
"She knows what's good for the entire sport. She knows what's good for certain groups, and she knows what's good for her team," said NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton. "And a lot of times they don't always line up, but she has the experience that she can work around all that when the timing is right. She's very good with that."
The same sense of diplomacy was required in working with fellow NASCAR engine manufacturers Ford and Toyota to develop the new Gen-6 Sprint Cup car. It debuted this season as a more nimble, ostensibly safer car with more of a resemblance to its consumer namesakes. The new Chevrolet has won four of 11 races so far this Sprint Cup season.
"We started that more than two-and-a-half years ago, and it involved a lot of meetings between all the [engine manufacturers]," Colon said. "We needed to make a car that is fast, of course, but the other [engine manufacturers] want the same. It was a lot of compromising, a lot of give-and-take about how we make the car still known to be safe and fast and what teams need. Also, work with the looks and with NASCAR on the rules of the whole vehicle.
"Maybe people don't see all of that, but it requires a lot of engineering time and political time and a lot of work with different parties to make that happen."
Working past the obstacles
Colon, who lives in Royal Oak, Mich., with her husband, Jeff Ruedisueli, is amused now at the reception she received when she became a regular at the racetrack. There was a mix of consternation and perceived resistance, but there also was validation from some influential members of the Chevrolet camp, including Childress and Randy Dorton, who was the head engine-builder at Hendrick Motorsports. Colon said that Dorton "spent hours with me teaching the ropes about how the garage works and NASCAR works and the system works."
"There was some wondering," she conceded. "I think that happens when something is new. It was not only new to be a female but to be an Hispanic. There were no Hispanics working in this sport, and an engineer, too. Now, engineers are so common.
"But it was so many different things, and people were at first, like, sadly, it was like, 'Are you really the engineer? Are you really coming to work on our car?' There were different barriers going on at the same time."
Childress said Earnhardt's predictions of a short tenure for Colon in NASCAR were the product of his habit of needling those he liked -- and those he needed to continue competing at a high level.
"That's a vintage Dale Earnhardt, trying to get the best out of people," Childress said. "He enjoyed kidding her, but when it came down to serious work, she was as good as anyone I've seen on the engineering side."
Colon's advancement through various jobs within the sport has served the interests of her teams as well as her career, Pemberton said.
"She's really good and she's been through a lot and she's come up through the ranks … " he said. "She's worked very, very hard and she's got great results, due to her work ethic and everything. You can't put a price tag on anything of somebody of Alba's quality and how she can interact and deal with us in the trailer, but in her teams, also. That's a big job."
But the work and the commitment have helped make the pathway to Victory Lane very familiar these days.
"It took some time," she said. "What you do is you just keep working. And at the end, they will say, 'Oh no, I knew you were going to do it.'"