Who would have known that behind the scenes at NASCAR there is a race going on in the garage — and it involves a Latina?
That’s where Alba Colon is the program manager of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Chevrolet Racing. She oversees the engineers who test engines and designs that can shave milliseconds off a driver’s time. In her current position, Colon supports all of Chevrolet’s race teams with technology, simulations and parts design.
Colon says she can’t reveal how many engineers she oversees, because it would divulge her secret to her competitors.
“There’s a lot of competition among engineers,” she says laughing. “What I love is the challenge. That passion to be the best. I love to work with the teams to be sure we are the best, and that we accomplish the win — we are here to win races.”
It’s the love of that challenge that wakes her up in the morning, and her drive has kept GM in the winner’s circle. For nearly two decades, her expertise on engines and aerodynamics has had a significant impact on the success of Chevrolet, which is now approaching its 700th victory, the most of any manufacturer in the history of the sport.
The latest study shows 38 percent of U.S. Latinos say they are at least “casual” fans of NASCAR, though there is a presence of Latino drivers such as, Victor Gonzalez, Jr., Juan Pablo Montoya and Aric Almirola– all racing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race this Sunday.
“When I came to the sport, there were not too many women engineers, and no Hispanics,” says Colon, who is still the only female brand manager from a manufacturer working in NASCAR. “I came in saying, ‘I am just one of the guys.’ They were just not used to seeing someone like me, but I am one more of them. It doesn’t matter what I look like or come from.”
Colon got her mechanical engineering degree from the University of Puerto Rico in Mayaguez. In 1991, she helped build race cars when she participated in the Formula SAE competition, an automotive design contest for students. General Motors offered her a job in 1994, and she has been with the company ever since.
Born in Spain but raised in Puerto Rico, she says her first dream as a girl was to be an astronaut, and one of her first inspirations was her dad.
“My father is a medical doctor,” she says. “Science was always in the house, and he was fascinated by space and the theory of relativity. I would discuss math and science with him always.”
Education, she says, was the major factor leading to her successful career.
“Education opens doors,” says Colon. “That’s my biggest advice to everyone — once you have that key, you have to work hard.”
Colon’s job requires her to travel nearly every weekend from February until November. She averages approximately 100,000 miles on the road per year.
“It seems like I’m always traveling — my week starts on Thursday afternoon, and Friday, Saturday, and Sunday I am at the racetrack,” says Colon, who works on marketing and reports, and meets with engineers the rest of the week. “We work on strategies to make designs better. What we do takes most of the year. The weeks go so fast.”
But she is not complaining. In fact, Colon sounds as excited as a kid in an amusement park. Although she is married, she never had children, but she calls the drivers and her crew her kids.
“You are blessed when you can wake up and love what you do,” says Colon. “To know I can make it a better sport — I just love it. Racing is my calling. I don’t plan on retiring any time soon.”