At the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, hundreds of thousands of people will pack into the stands as the drivers roar off, racing around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. A few laps in, when cars pull into the pit lanes for tire changes, fast-moving mechanics will toss the discarded tires over a wall.
On the other side of that wall, you'll find Cara Adams, the chief engineer for Bridgestone's Motorsports group, and the only female chief engineer in the Verizon IndyCar Series. She grabs the tires and checks to see if they have any uneven wear that could affect the speed or safety of the race cars. And if the race engineers have a question about a tire, she's there to help.
"It’s fun—I’m very passionate about my job," says Adams, 38, who leads Bridgestone's Race Tire Development team, which is responsible for the design, development, and track-side support of the Firehawk Firestone tires used by every race car driver in IndyCar. Her team also designs the tires used in the Indianapolis 500, the sport's biggest race of the year. This year's race marks the first time Adams will be working as the team's chief engineer.
In a male-dominated sport, Adams stands out: She's the only female chief engineer in one of the fastest racing series in the U.S., and she's also just one of four female engineers in the IndyCar Series overall, she says.
"It's nice to have other female engineers around now—it's like an informal support system," she says. "But it would've been nice to have more of that diversity earlier on in my career."
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When she first started working at Bridgestone in 2003, Adams was the only female engineer in the IndyCar pits. The drivers she worked with initially assumed she was in public relations or marketing, and gave her surface-level answers when she asked them what they thought of the tires' performance. In response, Adams learned to ask the drivers targeted questions so they would understand she was no newbie to the race track.
"I would ask: ' Can you tell me if the new tire construction we introduced this weekend affects your car’s mid-corner to exit understeer?'" she says.
She got the information she needed after that.
She also had to tell the mechanics on the race track to quit calling her names like "hun" or "babydoll"—and she said they usually stopped once she explained that it made her uncomfortable.
Adams knew she wanted to be an engineer from the time she was a child, growing up in Akron, Ohio, where she still lives. She was inspired by her mother, a science teacher, and her grandfather, who worked for NASA. But her obsession with race cars didn't arrive until she attended the University of Akron.
"Akron had a design program where you could design, build, then race an open-wheel style car. I loved getting to cut the tubes, bend tubes, make the frame, design the engine—all of it you’re doing yourself," she says. From there, "I just got into it."
After graduation, she first worked in Bridgestone's Tire-Vehicle Dynamics group. But given her love for race cars and the tires that go on them, she quickly approached the manager of the company's Race Tire Development group to find out what skills she needed to become an engineer on the team. "I did whatever it took," she says.
Now, when she's not working, Adams mentors girls who are considering careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) at local middle and high schools. Women make up half of the total U.S. college-educated workforce, but only 29% of the science and engineering workforce, according to the National Science Foundation.
"My mom instilled that passion for science in me, and I want to be able to instill that passion for science in other people," she says. "I meet so many young girls who might be interested in science, but aren’t sure. So I try to give them a role model that helps sparks that interest in math and science."
In April, Adams was at a race in Long Beach, Calif., when she was told she had a "fan" outside the race trailer. When she walked out, she saw a girl of about 12 standing with her family.
"She told me she wanted to be an engineer and work in racing when she grew up. Then she asked me to sign her hat," Adams says. "It was really neat."