Big Wheels Keep On Turnin’ With Cara Adams
Cara Adams may not be a household name (yet), but if you talk to many of those who live-and-breathe racing: they all know her—and most importantly, they respect her. Why’s that?
Well, Adams is senior project engineer of Race Tire Development for Firestone Racing, the exclusive tire manufacturer for the Verizon IndyCar® Series—a job she fought tooth-and-nail for since she graduated from the University of Akron, Ohio. “I met with the head of race tire development, and asked him what skills and traits he wanted to see in a race tire engineer. I told him my goal was to work for the Firestone Racing team, asked him for advice and took everything he said to heart,” explained Adams in an interview with Horsepower & Heels Racing.
“I was determined to go into the interview and give them no choice but to hire me as the next race tire engineer.”
Now, she’s the woman “behind the wheel(s)” of every Indy car—a powerhouse in the industry. And not only is she the engineer responsible for the design and development of Firestone’s tires for the oval circuits—including the Indianapolis 500—superspeedway and mile oval tracks, but she’s also a seasoned triathlete. She’s competed in several Sprint and Olympic distance triathlons, including the 2012 IRONMAN Miami.
We interviewed her pal, race driver Katherine Legge, recently, and funny enough, the two will be competing in an IRONMAN in Augusta, Ga. this fall together to help raise money to support injured veterans. Like I said, she’s a powerhouse…
But what was so impressive about interviewing Adams, is her humble nature, and her tenacity. Armed with her mechanical engineering education and a childhood that allowed her curiosity to blossom, Adams now uses these hard and soft skills she’s accumulated over the years to help Firestone create an experimental tire.
“Being able to provide drivers with durable, consistent products is something for which I am very proud,” Adams shared with us during our interview.
That’s what drives her passion: the support and respect of the drivers and teams, in a niche industry where women tend not to be as omnipotent as their male counterparts. “IndyCar doesn’t have firm numbers on how many women, precisely, will be working on cars with teams, but it’s estimated to be fewer than a half-dozen,” reports USA Today.
And Adams is one of them: that says a lot.
But no more sneak peeks, go ahead and dive into the interview with Adams and learn more about how she broke into the field, what advice she has for those who want to break-in, too—plus some tried-and-true tire tips.
Ready, set… Go!
Q & A With Firestone Tire Engineer, Cara Adams
CM: What were you like as a child? Were you cautious or a risk-taker? Is your family surprised that you’ve built a career in the racing world?
CA: As a kid, I was quite shy, but very curious. I would much rather play with my brother’s Legos and Transformers than with my dolls. I liked to see how things worked and probably drove my parents crazy asking, “Why?” and “How does this work?”
My mom taught neighborhood science camps, and both my parents encouraged my passion for science, and helped me understand the science behind why toys were fun and how they worked. They are both proud of me, especially as I try to pass along my love for science, engineering, cars, and motorsports to kids I come in contact with.
CM: When you first started off in racing, what was the turning point for you where you knew you were “in,” as they say?
CA: When I started in Race Tire Development at Firestone, I knew, that even with my vehicle dynamics background, it was going be a steep learning curve, and it would take awhile to be able to contribute to the team.
One of my first responsibilities was to bring expertise of tire “Force and Moment” behavior into the race team, as previously it had been done in a different department. Although this also had a steep learning curve, my analysis of an experimental tire helped the group to understand the effects of a construction change on the driver’s perception of the tire. It was really great for me to know the team could count on me to help further understanding of the tires as I learned more about them.
CM: What was your biggest challenge or milestone in your racing career?
CA: My biggest challenge in racing has been taking on the responsibilities for oval tire design. Leading the design for the Indianapolis 500 tires is a great challenge, as the tires are the only contact point between an Indy car and the famous “Yard of Bricks” at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS), and it’s also a huge responsibility and privilege. Being able to provide drivers with durable, consistent products is something for which I am very proud.
CM: How did you get interested in engineering? Specifically race tire engineer? And was it always your dream to work on a race team in the racing industry?
CA: Looking back, it’s clear to me engineering was always the best choice, but I didn’t realize that until after I started college. I started out at the University of Akron as “Undecided,” and took math and science classes because that was what I was good at. I soon fell into Mechanical Engineering, as those were the classes I wanted to take. But it wasn’t until I stumbled across the Formula SAE team at Akron that I really knew engineering was definitely the right choice for me.
The Formula SAE program is a collegiate design competition where students design, build and race a small, open-wheeled car. Once I joined the team, I learned how to use tools like a mill and a lathe, and where I learned how to rebuild an engine. It’s also where I developed my love of motorsports and competition.
One day, at the shop, I got to ride in a friend’s supercharged Ford Mustang, and I attribute that ride to my need to buy one for myself. I saved up my money to buy a used Mustang, and although I loved the car, I immediately wanted it to be faster. So, I did what any budding gearhead would do: I saved up more money to buy “go-fast” parts and, in the meantime, I learned what I could about engine tuning and how to make a car faster, stop quicker, and get around corners better.
Through working on my own car, and learning more about the Formula SAE car, I realized I really wanted to work in racing in some sort of engineering role.
After graduation, I interviewed with several automotive companies, including original equipment manufacturers and suppliers, until I found the perfect fit at Bridgestone Americas. When I interviewed, I knew they had a strong racing heritage with Firestone Racing in INDYCAR, and that was one of my goals, even starting out in the tire or vehicle dynamics department.
After four years, and some persistence and self-teaching, I finally proved myself and earned a sport on the Race Tire Development Team.
CM: What was your proudest victory? And what did you gain from it?
CA: One of the most proud moments was after I had taken over development of the Firestone Indy 500 race tires, when I heard that Roger Penske, a racing legend in his own right, had described our tires as “the best tire they’ve ever had here at IMS”.
Words like these, and hearing drivers talk about how confident they feel driving on Firestone tires, is a great reminder of why we do what we do, and that the long hours, hard work, and dedication of the entire team really is worth it.
CM: What was your greatest defeat? And what did you learn from it?
CA: In March 2011, Firestone announced we were getting out of INDYCAR. I was crushed, as I worked so hard to get into the Firestone race team, and I really loved racing and my job as a tire engineer.
After the announcement, Firestone and INDYCAR received phone calls and emails from many team owners and drivers pleading for Firestone to stay. Feedback from the teams was that they trusted and felt comfortable on Firestone and didn’t want to drive on anything else.
This made me appreciate the emphasis on quality we have, and it helped us understand just how important what we do is to those that use our products. These drivers are more than customers, they are like an extended family to us, and we have them in mind when we make decisions about our race tires.
CM: If you were talking to your younger self, what advice would you give yourself?
CA: I would love to talk to my younger self and give her a pep talk. I think this is why I am so passionate about speaking to kids about what I do and S.T.E.M. whenever I get the opportunity.
I’d like to tell that girl that life gets better and to tell her that she wouldn’t believe the opportunities she’ll have and can’t even imagine how great her career will be, the places she’ll travel, or the great people she’ll get to work with.
CM: If you were talking to women who wanted to start their careers in the automotive industry, knowing what you now know, what advice would you give them?
CA: I am fortunate enough to have great mentoring relationships with several people, high school, college, and young engineers. One of the things I tell these ladies and guys is that they should be persistent and follow their career aspirations. I encourage them to think about what they really want to do, and to develop a strategy to make that happen.
Nobody is just going to give you a job in racing or any profession for that matter just because you want it. You have to figure out details about the career you want, form a strategy to get there and become an invaluable asset to that job.
I would also recommend networking with people in the field you want to be in; talk to people in similar jobs, and ask questions! Ask what is needed for a position, and ask what skills and traits the ideal candidate would have.
Once you’re armed with all this information, follow-up and learn these skills. Go buy textbooks, research on the internet. Create contacts within the industry. Once you’re more familiar with the subject, research jobs online, talk to your contacts about any openings and be persistent!
CM: Have you been supported by a mentor during your career? Who were/are they? And what value have they brought to your career?
CA: I’ve had a myriad of unofficial mentors throughout my career—engineers in my first position at Bridgestone, friends and colleagues outside the automotive industry, and my current manager. I believe the best mentors are great listeners and they challenge you become the best version of yourself.
I have learned different things from each one, including understanding how I am perceived by others, how to manage difficult conversations, and how to effectively lead. They have provided career advice, and helped me work through some very challenging work situations. I challenge everyone to find a mentor and I challenge you to also be a mentor. I’ve taken something away from every mentoring relationship I’ve ever had.
CM: Being a race tire engineer you have to know cars inside and out. ChicMoto was created with the idea of helping women learn more about the automotive industry to gain better confidence in what they were driving.
In your opinion, what is the most important thing any person should know about their vehicle and why?
CA: I’m a little biased, but I’d say one of the most important things to know about your vehicle is how to check your tires, especially when it comes to proper inflation pressures, tread wear, etc. The only thing holding you to the road are your four tires, and amount of tread contact between you and the road can fit on one 8 ½” x 11” sheet of paper for most cars!
Many cars have Tire Pressure Monitoring Systems (TPMS), but for older cars, you should check your tire pressure every other time you fill up, and especially when the weather changes.
Also, check your tires for wear, if you hold a penny in the grooves of your tread, you shouldn’t be able to see the top of Lincoln’s head. I also teach my girlfriends how to change a tire, so they won’t be stuck on the side of the road.
I hope you enjoyed the interview with Cara Adams as much as we did here at ChicMoto, she’s truly, without sounding cliche, an inspiration to young gearhead-girls everywhere. If you’re hungry for more in-depth interviews with other amazing ladies slowly making waves in the racing world, check out our Influencer Series. ChicMoto’s interviewed Kate Gundlach, Ashley Freiberg and Katherine Legge—and we have many more planned. So, kick back and stay awhile. Get your read on all while you ramp-up your ChicMoto racing knowledge.