Cara Adams is a boss in the pits. As the senior project engineer for Firestone Racing, she's responsible for the development of the brand's Superspeedway tires, including those used at Indianapolis for the Indy 500, the sport's biggest race of the year, which will be run for the 100th time on Sunday.
Adams, from Akron, Ohio, talked with espnW about the love of motorsports that set her on her path and what her life is like in the pits.
The woman behind the tires
I work with the mechanical design and testing of the tires. I set up and run tire tests, create tire specifications, run computer simulations and follow production of all the Superspeedway tires. I am also responsible for our "Force and Moment" testing program, which submits our tires to high laps, speeds and angles similar to what the tires see on the racetrack.
I use the data we get from this testing to build a mathematical model of the tire that race teams can use in off-track racing simulations. This helps them set up their cars before they even show up to the racetrack.
Designing for the Indy 500
I lead the team that designs the Indy 500 tires. From the technical side, we start the design process for the Indy 500 tire well over a year in advance of the race. I use data I get from tire testing, the previous year's Indy 500, along with driver feedback to build the best possible tire specifications.
Any given Sunday, I'll be at the track
Most race days, I work with our engineers and technicians in the race pits to gather information about the performance and operating conditions of the tires. Up until the race, I am on the "hot" side of the pit wall, inspecting race tires. If someone has a question about a tire, I'll help the driver or race engineer.
In general, many engineers don't see their full product lifecycle. With Firestone Racing tires, I have the unique ability to come up with an original idea, even a sketch on paper, create and test a virtual model of the idea, work with manufacturing to get it made, test the product, then take it to the racetrack. Immediately after a new tire design is run, I get instant feedback from the end user of our product (a.k.a. the racecar driver) after he or she gets out of the car.
I attend almost every race. I typically don't mind all the trips. I have gotten to do some incredible things in my travels. I've been to Surfers' Paradise, Australia, and held a koala. I've been to baseball games in stadiums all over the country. I've been to downtown Tokyo, São Paulo and lots of other amazing places. I do triathlons, so I've gotten to run and bike in so many cool cities.
How I got here
I went into engineering because I was good at math and loved the physics of motion. It didn't hurt that my mom was a science teacher and my grandfather was an engineer on the launch team at NASA. I loved taking things apart when I was a kid, and sometimes I even put them back together!
A classmate at the University of Akron invited me to the College of Engineering machine shop to check out their Formula SAE racecar. I loved it and jumped right in and tried to learn and do everything from sweeping floors to how to use the mill. That's when I decided that I wanted to work in racing.
After graduation, once I was hired as an engineer in the Tire-Vehicle Dynamics group at Bridgestone, I found the manager of our Race Tire Development group. I was kind of a pest and told him my goal was to work for his group. I asked him what skills or traits his ideal engineer would have. He told me, and I went out and bought textbooks, read and studied on my own time and tried to find things in my Vehicle Dynamics job that might parallel to the Race Tire group. When an opening became available, my goal was for them to have no choice but to hire me.
There was indeed a position for an engineer three years after I started with the company, and I got the job. I had to learn a lot and ask an incredible number of questions, but slowly enough, I started contributing to the group.
I'm not with PR
Although many came before me, when I first started, I was the only female engineer in the IndyCar pits. At that time, most of the women outside Firestone in racing uniforms were public relations or marketing. Before the drivers got to know me, I would ask them about the performance of the tires, and many assumed I was PR and would give me a very generic answers.
I quickly learned to ask something very specific, so they knew that I needed a technical answer. I would ask things such as, "How does the mid to exit understeer of this tire compare to last year's tire?" and that would do the trick.
Passing the torch
One of the best things about my job is the ability to inspire young kids to get involved in STEM. I love to talk to groups of kids about engineering, how I got started and what they can do. I speak at local high schools, colleges and groups of elementary school kids whenever I can. I mentor several young ladies who are in high school, studying engineering in college or professional engineers. One of the greatest compliments I can get is to hear someone I've talked to choose engineering.