KANSAS CITY, Kan. - Alba Colon changed Dale Earnhardt's mind about women in the garage area.
Once considered sacred sanctuary for men, the Nextel Cup Series opened its doors several years ago to women - as long as they cover their knees and don't wear open-toed shoes - and it took some, including Earnhardt, a while to accept it.
Colon changed a lot of minds, particularly Earnhardt's.
"The toughest guy in the garage when I started was Dale," she said. "He looked at me and wanted to know what a woman was doing in his garage area. He was tough, very intimidating, and it took a long time for him to accept me. But eventually he changed, and we got along great."
Colon's official title is Chevrolet Program Manager for GM Racing. She's in charge of engineering and parts distribution for the company in the Nextel Cup, Busch, Craftsman Trucks and NHRA drag racing series. The fact she's a woman was once novel, but not anymore.
"I'm treated like one of the guys," said Lisa Smokstad, a tire specialist for Kyle Busch's Busch Series team. "I never came into this sport thinking, 'I'm a girl, I can't do this.' Growing up, I had an older brother and a dad who was really cool."
She's impressing the folks at Hendrick Motorsports. She started working for her brother-in-law on the local short tracks in Minnesota, moved to the American Speed Association, then to Hendrick, where she was part of the championship crews for Jack Sprague's truck team in 2002, then with Brian Vickers' Busch Series championship team a year ago.
Smokstad used to work as child advocate in Minnesota courtrooms. She got a weekend job on her family's race team working with tires because "I was the only one who could understand fractions." Racing eventually became her only line of work.
"In my world, tires are beautiful," she said. "With these radials, I can tell you how the car is running by the way the tires look, the way they wear. To me, it's always been such a personal goal. It doesn't matter if you're a girl or a boy - you just need to be good at what you do.
"I asked a million questions to learn what I know. I kept building with each series I went to. I had a lot of help. But now, there's a lot more respect to what I know. I've proven myself. I've gained respect for what I know, not the fact I'm a girl."
Smokstad measures each tire to make sure each set matches exactly. She also checks tire pressures and monitors the wear after each change.
"The girl inside me doesn't like getting dirty (because) of the truly physical part," she said. "Sometimes when the race is over, I look at all the dirt under my fingernails and think, 'What am I doing?' The rest of it is a piece of cake."
Colon finally realized she belonged in the garage area when Earnhardt started asking her questions about his Chevrolet.
"It will take me more time to get there totally," Colon said of being accepted on the same level as a man. "It took me time in drag racing. I feel more comfortable now in Nextel Cup."
Colon was born in Spain and graduated from the University of Puerto Rico. After that, she built cars in the Formula SAE program, a think-tank of engineers who develop ideas for the next generation of cars.
Now she works with all the Chevrolet teams in sharing information and developing new ideas. And now that cars on the Busch and Nextel Cup series are so dependent on aerodynamics, her job is critical to General Motors' success.
Colon works the racing circuits 28 weekends a year. The rest of her time is spent talking to girls about a future in engineering.
"I talk to fifth- and sixth-grade girls about fulfilling their dreams, just like me," she said.
Reach Don Coble at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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