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Challenging the notion of `good ol' boy'

Colon, GM's program manager for 21 Nextel Cup teams, fights to forefront

March 07, 2007|Kevin Baxter | Times Staff Writer

DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. — He had a scowl that could melt the paint off a race car. And that's only one reason they called the late Dale Earnhardt "the Intimidator."

So when engineer Alba Colon stepped up to introduce herself to the reigning NASCAR champion midway through her first day on the job, all in the room held their breath. After all, there was no such thing as a female engineer, not in stock car racing. Especially one who spoke little English.

And Colon was both. Putting her in front of the decidedly old-school Earnhardt was like putting red meat in front of a lion.

"I don't give you more than a year here," Earnhardt snapped.

That's when the red meat decided to fight back. Colon hadn't gone through college, survived a competitive recruitment program and relocated from balmy Puerto Rico to frigid Detroit just to surrender at the first challenge.

"It was like, 'Who is this guy, telling me that I can't do this?' " said Colon, who set out to prove Earnhardt wrong.

"Not only him," she corrects. "Everybody."

A dozen years later Colon appears to have made her point. Not only has she outlasted Earnhardt's prediction by 11 years but, by rising to the position of program manager for General Motors' 21 NASCAR Nextel Cup teams, she has become one of the most powerful women in motor sports. Even if she can't change her own oil.

"I did it once," she boasts.

What she can do, however, is make fast cars go faster. Which may be one reason the last two Nextel Cup champions, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart, both drive for her.

"She's a big help," says Chad Knaus, crew chief for Johnson's team. "She's definitely got the pulse of what's going on -- not only with what we do in the garage area, but what's going on with General Motors as well. She's involved with everything."

Yet this season figures to present Colon, 38, with her biggest test since that first meeting with Earnhardt. Not only has NASCAR served notice that it will be strictly enforcing its rule book this year, but Colon has to deal with two different models as well. For the 16 races in which NASCAR is mandating its safety-conscious Car of Tomorrow, the racing Chevy will be an Impala SS. In the 20 other races, it will be a Monte Carlo SS.

For Colon, that means twice as much work.

"That has been a huge challenge," she says. "Working on all those little details and getting that ready."

You could say the same thing about Colon's tenure as a NASCAR engineer -- which, it should be noted, isn't a popular career choice among girls growing up in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico.

In fact, it wasn't even Colon's first pick.

"I wanted to be an astronaut," she says.

Never mind that only two women had been to space at that time -- and neither of them was a Latina. Pushing the envelope was apparently something Colon enjoyed.

"My mom said I was weird," she explains, more with pride than shame. "I just was different. My parents raised a rebel."

Even rebels have their limits, though. And since Colon's parents -- her father is a doctor, her mother a teacher -- insisted that their daughter stay at home while attending college, she enrolled at the University of Puerto Rico Mayaguez. Convinced that she could still get to space from there, Colon applied to the school of engineering, where she first ran into people who thought like Earnhardt.

"I learned the feeling in college," says Colon, adding that she was one of only seven women in the school's mechanical engineering department. "You have to be mature to say, 'I know what I am doing,' and just keep doing it. It's not easy. But it's part of the deal."

Colon quickly proved herself in the classroom, so it wasn't long before a university professor, holding out the carrot of better grades as incentive, persuaded her to work with a group struggling to design a solar-powered car.

A year later, she was asked to join another university team building a scale-model Indy racer for a competition in the U.S. And that's when she discovered space wasn't the final frontier -- at least not for her.

"I discovered that I liked cars," she says. "I didn't know that."

But breaking down gender stereotypes in Puerto Rico had done little to prepare Colon for what she would face after GM hired her after she graduated in 1994.

Winning over stock car racing's good-ol'-boy drivers and crew chiefs, it turned out, was just part of the deal. Simply getting to work was the bigger challenge, since security guards routinely turned her away at NASCAR tracks, not believing a woman could actually work on cars. At others, Colon said, the first question she got was, " 'Who are you here with?' Meaning, who is your boyfriend or who is your husband?"

Her assimilation was made even more difficult by a language barrier that still persists. Born in Spain but raised in Puerto Rico, Colon speaks a Spanish that is part Castilian, part Caribbean. And neither part is understood in NASCAR garages, where many speak with Southern accents that often make English all but unintelligible.

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