Each week, I ask a member of the motorsports community to shed some light on their career path and journey to reach their current position. Up this week: Cara Adams, chief engineer for Bridgestone Americas Motorsports. This interview was recorded as a podcast, but is transcribed for those who prefer to read.
What does your job currently entail?
Myself and my team of mechanical engineers, chemical engineers, chemists and technicians, we design and develop all of the tires used in the Verizon IndyCar Series. So there’s a lot of work that goes on back in Akron, Ohio where our home base is, and tire production and tire testing — all of those things we do to develop the tires. We come to all of the IndyCar Series races to make sure everything is going well with the tires, (talk to) anybody who has any questions and make sure the drivers can get the most performance out of their tires.
How did this whole thing get started for you? Did you grow up and have this as your dream?
My grandfather was an engineer on the launch team for NASA. He got to work on the space shuttle missions, the Apollo missions, and I always thought NASA would be really cool. I didn’t know much about racing. My family are not sports people. We’re not into sports-ing. (Laughs) They didn’t really watch much racing, if any.
When I went to school for engineering, I wandered down into the machine shop in the basement of the University of Akron’s engineering building, and they were putting something together. I was asking them about what it was, and it was a Formula SAE car (a student-designed race car competition). They were doing all of the machining, all of the designing and I didn’t know much about cars or tools or anything at all. All I knew was something about rebuilding a carburetor was what you did with cars. My dad had an old Volkswagen Beetle and all he did was rebuild that carburetor.
So I started to learn machine tools. That’s where I learned to use a mill, a lathe, all of that. We built the car, I got to drive in a friend’s fast car and between that and driving in the SAE car and then winning tickets on the radio to go see a Champ Car race, I just fell in love with the mechanics of the car. How the car worked, how the car shifted under load — those are the things I really fell in love with.
What would have happened in your life had you never gone down in the basement and seen that car?
I don’t know. I think I might have gone the route my little sister has. She’s actually an engineer for Boeing and she works on finite element analysis and now she’s doing project management for Boeing. So I might have gone the airplane route had I never gotten interested in the cars.
Once you were interested in cars and got out of college, what was the first step in your career?
When I first graduated, there weren’t too many jobs in the automotive field. It was right after a downturn. I ended up at Bridgestone and I was working in our tire vehicle dynamics group. Now, I knew Bridgestone/Firestone had a phenomenal history in motorsports; I didn’t realize how far back it went. I didn’t realize it went all the way back to the 1911 Indy 500, when Ray Harroun and his Marmon Wasp drove to victory on Firestone tires. But I did know they were in Champ Car at the time and they were in IndyCar, so I did know there was that history there.
When I started with the company, I basically talked to the manager at the time and said, “I really, really want to work in race tire development. How can I get that role? What do I need to be able to do? What are you looking for in your ideal engineer?” So he went back and talked to some of his engineers, and he said, “Well, we really want somebody who understands vehicle dynamics, somebody who can do programming — specifically MATLAB (engineering software) — and somebody who understands tire force moment behavior.
I thought, “OK, well I have a little bit of vehicle dynamics background. I don’t know much about force moment behavior at all. But I’m going to learn.” So I just spent nights and weekends (studying), and any kind of project I could volunteer for at my vehicle dynamics job that might involve me in racing later, I did.
So you were basically taking your free time to learn whatever you could and better yourself in order to further your goal?
Yeah. (It was) “I don’t have that job yet, but until I have it, I’m going to buy the textbooks and take notes.” My husband was always laughing at me (because I was) writing down notes for something I wasn’t actually doing yet.
I also did a lot of rebuilding of cars on my own. So that helped me get to the point where once I got into IndyCar, I could relate to the mechanics, I could relate to the engineers. Because I understood what it meant to rebuild an engine and some of the stuff that goes into making your suspension improved.
So what was your big break between the time this started to become a dream and the time it became a reality for you?
I’m not sure if there was one single big break. But there was one person who moved on from race tire development over to production, and that job became available. When I went in to interview, it was like I had the answer key. I had already talked to the team to know what they needed, so I walked in there and it was like, “Now I know a whole lot about vehicle dynamics, I can program really well in MATLAB and I volunteered for a program to build a force moment tire model of a passenger car and update the steering system of the force moment model.” So because I had all those, it was like I had checked off every box they had in what they were looking for in an engineer.
It sounds like you went out and made yourself the most-qualified candidate and made it impossible to not give you this position when it was open.
That was my goal: Make it impossible for them not to hire me. There was a really, really great candidate who was also highly qualified for this role, but I just had that little extra that I had done it and wasn’t going to let them say no.
How did evolve from once you started until you reached your current position?
When I started out for the Firestone Racing group, I was actually designing the street course tires. So I started out with Long Beach, St. Pete, Toronto — those were all my constructions. They were already well-developed constructions that I was tuning and making small tweaks on. So it was talking to the drivers after they get out of their cars and saying, “Alright, at this street course, was there anything you wanted more? Is there anything the tire didn’t give you that you were looking for?”
Then I started working on road course tires. And about five or six years ago, I started working on all of the oval tires — anything from a superspeedway to a short oval to Indy, which are all very different animals. There’s a lot more changes you make on oval tires than you do on a street course tire. A street course tire is pretty good for every street course, but oval tires are very specific to the track; if you tried to run a Milwaukee tire at Texas, it wouldn’t work so well — and vice versa. You wouldn’t have any grip at Milwaukee if you tried a Texas tire or even an Indy tire.
So I worked with that a lot and learned a lot about that. I took charge of the force moment testing program for racing, and then last year I even worked a lot with track rentals. I got to know people from Iowa Speedway and Texas and Indy, because I’m working with the tracks to try and get tire testing to happen. The person who came before me in this role, Dale Harrigle, really prepared me for this chief engineer role.
How long does it take you to build respect in the garage and get to know people? How long did it take you to get comfortable enough to really start to shine?
I’m going to go back to the management we had before. Before Dale, we had Page (Mader). And Page was really good about introducing me to teams and basically giving a little of my backstory and saying, “She’s excellent, she’s really smart, you need to listen to what she says.” So really early, my management helped me by setting the stage for my eventual performance.
And once a team has a question about something and you’re able to present a solution to something they hadn’t thought of before, that builds street cred really quickly. So the fact you can understand what they’re talking about and understand something outside just the area you work on — not just tires — to be able to show something like that, it does wonders.
What’s next for you? Do you see yourself in this role as long as possible?
I really like what I’m doing right now. It’s very technically challenging, yet I get to do a lot of leadership. I have a fantastic team of engineers. To see them develop and get better is really rewarding. Before I became manager, it was all about what I could do and the best tire I could do. Now it’s about the team. It’s about seeing them get better in what they’re doing and seeing them be able to come up with better and better tires. So it’s a really challenging role, but it’s really rewarding as well.
If someone is reading this and they would like to be in your role someday, what is the career path? How should they get started?
First of all, education is really important. An engineering degree. There are a lot of great engineering schools. I have to give it up for University of Akron — they had a phenomenal Formula SAE program where we actually won out of 110 schools or so in one of the early years I was on the team. Getting involved in an extracurricular program like Formula SAE or Baja or one of these programs where you’re actually designing and building something (is important). It’s that hands-on that you’re doing and some of these collegiate projects where you’re learning about team-building and project management and a lot of things you don’t get in a thermodynamics class. All of the classes are important, but that extracurricular stuff is pretty huge.
And then the other thing is talking to people who are in the industry. There was a young lady who came up to me in Milwaukee in about 2007 and she said she said she was interested in science and wanted to do engineering and she liked racing. So I kept in touch with her all the way through when she graduated high school and college, through her first job, and now she’s an engineer at Harley Davidson. So it’s really neat to be able to follow her career. I had a young lady come up to me at the beginning of last year, and she was actually asking for my autograph and I said, “You’ve got the wrong person; I’m not a driver.” She said, “No, I know who you are. I just wanted to talk to you.” So I’ve kept in touch with her through her high school career. It’s been neat.