Women working in responsible positions in Winston Cup racing is a common sight these days, with a large percentage of the marketing/public relations/communications work force being made up of women. And, of course, there are women competing directly against men on the race track. This is nothing new in motorsports, but for NASCAR it is a relatively modern concept.
While women have been regular fixtures worldwide from the beginning of the automobile era in other forms of motorsports, such as sports-car racing, rallying and Formula 1, NASCAR did not allow women on its tracks, in its garages or pits until NASCARšs modern era began in 1972. At first, only accredited female journalists were permitted. Several years passed before other professional women were allowed to join them.
One of today's powerful women in the sport is Alba Colon, named GM Racing's Chevrolet Program Manager for Winston Cup racing in 2001.
Colon, born Alba Lynnette Colon Rodriguez in 1968 in Salamanca, Spain, began her career with General Motors in 1994 after graduating from the University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez Campus, as a mechanical engineer. Prior to moving to the United States, Colon was a project engineer for Sterling Pharmaceuticals in Puerto Rico.
She was hired by GM after four years of competing in the Formula SAE program, where she, as team captain, built race cars from the ground up and exhibited them at events held at the Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan (more details below). Her first assignment for GM was as data acquisition engineer for the Oval Track Group (NASCAR Winston Cup, Craftsman Truck, ASA and Busch Grand National). In 1998 she was named NHRA Pro Stock Truck program manager and in 2000 Colon was placed in charge of all of GM Racing's NHRA drag-racing programs, including Funny Car, Top Fuel Dragster, Pro Stock, Pro Stock Truck and Sportsman series.
Colon will miss the Pocono 500 this weekend, as she will be attending her wedding to Michigan-based accountant Jeff Ruedisueli. The couple will live in Royal Oak, Mich. A honeymoon following the end of the 2002 Winston Cup season is planned. Following is a Q&A with Alba Colon:
WHEN DID YOU JOIN THE WINSTON CUP GM RACING TEAM AS CHEVROLET PROGRAM MANAGER? "In 2001 I became program manager of the Chevrolet side of the NASCAR Winston Cup program. GM Racing also has a manager for the Pontiac side, and that is Ray Smith."
WHAT ARE YOUR RESPONSIBILITIES AS PROGRAM MANAGER? "I manage at-track Chevrolet-related engineering programs, which include the races and testing. I also handle the parts budget for the Winston Cup program. One of my functions is to improve communications between the GM Racing engineers in Detroit and the Monte Carlo brand team. I'm the liaison between the brand team and GM Racing and at the same time I am a liaison between GM Racing and NASCAR at the track. Other GM Racing engineers, such as Group Manager Doug Duchardt, also participate in negotiations with NASCAR.
"One of my responsibilities is to identify the budget issues for the next year, when the team lineups (possibly) change. I have to resolve those problems between the brand team and the GM Racing department, to see how we're going to help the teams improve. I also develop the contracts between GM Racing and the teams. I do this at the end of the year, or every couple of years depending on the type of contracts that we have with those teams.
"When I go to the track I talk to the crew chiefs and specifically the owners. I maintain a close relationship with the owners trying to keep up with what's going on and to help the owners resolve issues with the NASCAR officials.
"As the person who goes to the track almost every weekend, I provide feedback to the rest of the engineers regarding any problems that have to be resolved. For example, if there are engine issues, I keep in touch with Jim Covey, the engine manager at GM Racing who does not go to every race and we try to resolve any issues. We are a group. Covey has people working for him -- somebody in charge of the blocks, somebody in charge of development of heads and intake manifolds. Also, on the chassis side of the business, we work with GM Racing aerodynamics specialist Terry Laise. We work with Terry to develop the aerodynamics on the new car that is coming along. We also have our parts department - that and the parts budget are the areas I manage more directly, I oversee that we meet the budget, that we don't go over, that the teams are getting what they really need. At the same time I have to meet the objectives of the brand team. They want to win the manufacturer's championship at the end of the year. The way to meet this objective is to help the teams technologically and provide them all the help we can for them to accomplish their (and our) main goal at the end -- to win races."
WHAT WAS YOUR ROUTE TO GM RACING? "When I was a college student I built a race car and I was hired after that by GM. When I was in college I was in the Formula SAE program. I was the first team captain for the team from University of Puerto Rico. We built a race car in an engineering competition. We had to design and build the race car and we came to Detroit for the competition and after doing this for four years GM hired me. I believe strongly in that competition and I volunteer my time to it now, to help those kids to get hired someday at GM or in other companies. When I'm not working in my GM Racing office, that's what I do, I volunteer my time."
WHEN DID YOU FIRST COMPETE IN FORMULA SAE? "In 1991."
WHAT KIND OF CAR DID YOU BUILD? "It's like a mini-Indy car. It's a small, open-wheel race car, with a motorcycle engine. You have to build it from the ground up and you have to come to the competition in Michigan, exhibit the car, race the car, and talk about the cost of the car. It's a great deal; we have a lot of people who have been in these projects who are right now working not only in GM, but on race teams. I know of at least two who now work for RCR and one at DEI."
TELL US MORE ABOUT THIS PROGRAM: "In the first team we were six people. We built the race car, designed it, raised the money to build it, everything. The competition is held every year at the Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan, where the Lions football team used to play. They have a big parking lot. We build a small race track. We do acceleration, skid pad tests, autocross, endurance competition. I used to be a student doing that and now I represent GM in the competition. I am one of the organizers. We make the rules and we prepare this competition every year. Every year, about 1200 students go to this competition, and all of them get hired. There are people in F1, CART, IRL, NASCAR Winston Cup; there are so many of them. Here in the GM Racing department we have five people who were in that competition when they were students and now work here.
WHEN DID THAT PROGRAM START? "Twenty years ago, in 1981."
WAS IT DIFFICULT FOR YOU TO GET ESTABLISHED IN WINSTON CUP? "It's different. It's a completely, completely different series. But I already knew some of the people because I had been doing data acquisition with the Winston Cup teams in my first job at GM Racing. I started in the Winston Cup side of the business, and also handled the NASCAR trucks. From there I went to drag racing, where I became program manager of drag racing. I kept the communication ties with the teams in Winston Cup because I was continuing to do the data acquisition and if they needed any help I was the point of contact in GM Racing. Yes, it is different. It's a completely different series and, on the technical side, it is more demanding because of the number of races. And I think it is more structured than drag racing."
DO YOU FEEL ESTABLISHED NOW? "Oh, yes, but it will take time to get there totally. It took me time in drag racing. I feel more comfortable now in Winston Cup. There's always a period of adjustment covering any new series."
DO YOU FEEL THE ODD "MAN" OUT AS A WOMAN IN YOUR POSITION? "I would say when I came here in 1994 it was a little bit different. I feel I'm respected more now than before. I feel welcome. You have to develop some respect from the teams, and they have to value and understand why you are there and what you are trying to do for them and I feel really welcome. I have a great relationship with the team owners and there's a lot of camaraderie and a lot of respect. I really love my job; it's really great."
ON THIS YEAR'S ROOKIE TALENT, AND CHEVY'S JIMMIE JOHNSON: "He's awesome; I'm glad he's on our side. The rookies are doing great this year and they're showing some talent. They are showing some potential. I really admire them. Also, the rookies are being established with some really good teams. For example, Jimmie Johnson has behind him a great operation -- the Hendrick operation plus (his team owner) Jeff Gordon. He also has a greet team, a great crew chief. We are glad that he's doing so well."
DO CHEVY OR GM RACING RECOMMEND NEW DRIVERS TO TEAMS? "We have an informal process. For example, we discovered Jimmie Johnson in the old MTEG stadium racing series. He came with us to the ASA series, also to the Busch series. We have been in some way nurturing him and he's been under the GM, specifically the Chevrolet, umbrella for some time. He's one of the drivers who have been having a relationship with GM for a long time, like, for example, Larry Dixon in NHRA drag racing. GM has been nurturing this relationship for many, many years."
WHAT HAS BEEN THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE FOR CHEVROLET IN THE WINSTON CUP SERIES? "I would say getting adapted to the new rules and the new inspection process. Things are getting measured in a different way. There are some different templates. There's a different philosophy of how to measure those templates and that's the biggest challenge we have been having. The way the nose was getting measured from a specific point last year and this year it's getting measured from another point has been giving us some disadvantage. The teams have been having some issues to meet that new inspection system. It's a different way of seeing things. But we are working on that. We are really working on that hard. They (NASCAR) are getting very strict with the measuring process. Things that used to pass before don't pass now."
THERE'S BEEN A LOT OF TALK ABOUT CHEVROLET REWORKING THE MONTE CARLO FOR 2003. WHAT IS THE STATUS OF THAT? "After working with NASCAR through the Pontiac (approval) process, we have gained a lot of experience, and seeing the strength of the new Pontiac package and NASCAR's openness in working with us on the brand character of the car, we are currently evaluating the Chevrolet Monte Carlo for 2003. And by NASCAR rules we will have to make a decision on that by July 1."
GOING INTO POCONO, CHEVROLET IS NOW SECOND IN THE MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP POINTS. DO YOU FEEL THAT NASCAR HAS ESTABLISHED PARITY? "It's a work in progress, race by race. It seems that the car that gets to the front, the other teams are not catching that car, it just runs away. That didn't happen before. I think that the teams are using a lot of pit strategy, something I didn't see before. There's always some issue; and there will always be some issues. I don't think aerodynamically we are at the level of the other manufacturers. But the reason we are second in points is because of the hard work of our teams and especially the pit strategy we have been noticing lately. It's in the pits where the teams are winning the races. And you have, for example, last weekend with Chad Knaus' call of Jimmie Johnson in the pits, that was a good one. Also, at Charlotte, we had a very dominant team, but we lost the race. Jimmie Johnson lost the race in the pit box, when he had a bad pit stop. It's a combination of everything, but, if you ask me, I would like to see more of an aerodynamic advantage in our car."
WHAT DO YOU SEE FOR THE REST OF THIS SEASON? "I hope that the teams continue their improvement. We have a lot of teams that are new this year, such as Jimmie Johnson's team. Another example is the 29 and 31 teams switching crews. It will take some time for relationships to gel over there. I expect those specific two teams to improve and I expect to see Jeff Gordon and the No. 8 team (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) improving. Right now we have two teams second and third in points and that is great. We expect those teams to improve and the other teams that I mentioned to get better. And to act in the way that they've been acting in the past, with great performance."
IS POCONO A CHALLENGE FOR CHEVROLET? "It's a flat track. Other teams have been performing really well here. The Penske team has always done very, very well at this track in the past. And also Ricky Rudd's team has done well. It's been pretty good for the Ford teams. Let's see what happens this weekend. The Fords and Dodges have been performing better at the flat tracks, because of the aerodynamics."