Cara Adams looked around for a familiar face.
She stood outside the Firestone trailer at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach in April, having been told a fan wanted to talk to her.
“Usually when someone says they have a fan who wants to talk to you it’s your mom,” she says looking back.
Instead a young girl, about 12-years-old, came up to her.
“Can I have your autograph?” the girl asked Adams.
“I’m not a driver,” Adams replied.
“I know who you are,” Adams’ fan quipped. “You’re the engineer who’s in charge of running all the tires.”
The answer caught Adams by surprise.
“I want to be an engineer on a race team when I grow up,” the young girl continued.
Adams is in her first season as the chief engineer for Bridgestone Americas Motorsports. She’s the only female chief engineer in the Verizon IndyCar Series, but while the 101st Running will be Adams’s first Indy 500 in that position, her path to pit lane is chock full of experience at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and elsewhere.
The Akron, Ohio, native has been with Bridgestone’s racing arm, Firestone Racing, since 2008 and Bridgestone as a company since 2003. She became Bridgestone Americas Motorsports’ chief engineer and Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations manager of race tire development in August 2016 after serving as a senior project engineer for race tire development and in other engineering positions before that.
When she first started with Firestone, drivers answered her questions on tire performance as if she worked with public relations. Before long she started to ask specific, pointed questions like, “Can you tell me if there was any improvement of understeer on the low speed corners while maintaining the car balance?”
She didn’t take it personally, and doesn’t think it was because she’s a woman. She says she doesn’t experience sexism with people associated with IndyCar, its teams, or Firestone. People tend to answer questions in the manner they think the person who asked expects a response. In her experience people care about the results, not who someone is or where they came from.
“If you show up and do your job and you are able to prove that you can bring the best possible tire constructions, compounds to race weekend, that you can give good advice on suspension and handling, and you can understand what the driver is talking about, you develop respect,” Adams says.
She doesn’t feel any pressure being the only chief engineer, but at the same time doesn’t want to mess it up for anyone who comes after her.
Adams attends each race with a staff of about seven chemists and engineers, all of who are also involved in designing the tires, running computer simulations and modeling. They work closely with the teams, and during this month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Adams walks an average of about 10 miles each day.
She works with teams, requests data and talks to drivers in order to analyze tire performance and identify changes to make in the future.
“There’s a lot of innovation you need for a tire that’s going to average 230 miles per hour around the track, hitting speeds of some 240 miles per hour,” Adams said. “There’s a lot that goes into making sure that you have the right tire, whether you have the right materials, the right things that go in to that.”
Each offseason, although time during the season is allotted to this as well, her team tries to figure out what tire would be best to bring to each track. She says she’s on the phone or emailing with IndyCar all the time.
Technological advancements in data processing and computer modeling over the past five to 10 years have allowed Firestone to better understand why certain changes follow adjustments that are made.
Adams’ mom used to do the same thing at neighborhood science camps Adams went to when she was a kid. Adams said her mom, who’s taught science in both middle school and high school, explained why toys worked and exposed kids to the cool aspects of science.
“She did a good job of not overwhelming me but just teaching me an appreciation early on,” Adams says.
They made their own silly putty, and one time went to a butcher and got a cow’s eyeball to learn a bit more about anatomy. At first her grandpa’s affiliation with NASA and the space shuttle launches she was able to watch had her thinking she might want to be a space shuttle engineer, but in college she started working on the University of Akron’s Formula SAE car.
She didn’t know much about cars but spent a year working on it with the team and got to drive the open wheel race car. That, and driving a friend’s Mustang, gave her a love for speed.
A career in the automotive field came next, but she didn’t just focus on her own future. Adams spends time in Akron, where she lives, and areas around the tracks her job takes her to speaking with students about getting involved in engineering and STEM.
“I think you can have a lot of fun in science fields, math, science, and engineering, but if you don’t see that when you’re young and you don’t develop that love and passion for science, then you might not see it when you’re older,” Adams says.
At a race at the Milwaukee Mile in 2009 Adams met Nerissa Cerny, then a freshman at the Milwaukee School of Engineering. Cerny said she was just at the race as a fan, but after talking to a mechanic for one team was told she should really go talk to Adams at the Firestone trailer.
Cerny knocked on the trailer door, and Cara was there. They talked about Adams’ role and career path, and after receiving Adams’ information Cerny and Adams kept the conversation going in the months and years after.
Cerny didn’t know then what she wanted to do with an engineering degree. Adams recommended joining the Society of Automotive Engineers and becoming a part of the school’s Formula SAE team. Through SAE Cerny developed her love for working in engine performance, and after working on engines for Mercury Marine and in a volunteer role with ArmsUp Motorsports she landed a job with Harley Davidson where she now works in engine development and performance.
Adams has answered any of Cerny’s questions along the way, and now Cerny takes advantage of opportunities to mentor people herself.
“Being a female in the engineering world, it’s a bit of a minority still today, and having a mentor is so valuable,” Cerny says.
For Julian Robertson, Chip Ganassi Racing’s lead race engineer, Adams is his team’s number one contact at Firestone. Adams is the main organizer, the facilitator, the fount of knowledge.
“She’s been around a number of years and is fully familiar with the IndyCar product,” Robertson says. “She knows the development on everything, how it’s occurred, why it’s occurred.”
He could tell when she started “she was switched on.”
Ron Ruzewski, Team Penske’s engineering technical director, doesn’t think anyone treats her differently because she’s a woman in a male-dominated sport. He’s seen Adams’ experience and decision-making dictate how Firestone has moved forward as a company.
“Ultimately, I think she’s helped move that program forward,” Ruzewksi says. “She’s always been very logical, systematic and data driven.”
It’s a demanding job, and how she chooses could be seen as a bit demanding too. She loves to run and train for triathlons. When Adams got hurt during one marathon, and her doctor told her to cross train, she decided competing in Iron Man competitions was the right way to go. The latest she completed was the Iron Man 70.3 Augusta in August.
This March she ran in the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg 5K with Lisa Boggs, the director of Bridgestone America Motor Sports.
“It clears your head and really makes you feel grounded,” Boggs says. “This is such a physical job in some ways, Cara and her team in particular, they are up and down pit lane constantly.”
Adams says she walks about 10 miles each day at the track, but it’s all part of the fun. She’s held different roles in the past, and one feeling has held true through them all.
“You’re on the front stretch during the national anthem, the fly over, you’ve got goosebumps all up your arm, chills, it’s just — the Indy 500,” she says. “I would much rather be here than anywhere else.”
Cara Adams looked around for a familiar face.