Have you ever heard the expression “Shoot for the moon, because even if you miss, you'll land among the stars”? This could very well be the title of Alba Colon’s biography.
As the current director of competition systems for 12-time NASCAR Cup Series champions Hendrick Motorsports, she works to enhance capabilities that directly support at-track competition through simulation, data acquisition, analytics and communication technologies, and research and development.
It was actually her dream to become an astronaut. Determined to be the first Puerto Rican to go on a round trip to space, she enrolled in the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez Campus, also known as “El Colegio.” The plan? Pursue her degree in mechanical engineering, secure an interview with NASA, and get a job. Simple as that.
During her years at El Colegio, Alba participated in a yearly competition that was an incredible platform for student recognition and for U.S. companies to scout up-and-coming talent. The task? To build a race car. Things got a little more interesting from there.
Motivated more than anything by those who challenged her—“Are you crazy? What makes you think you can build a car?”—Alba excelled in the competition for several years. Not only was she recognized as an incredibly promising talent in the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), but she in turn considered a new and exciting track: motorsports.
She says it’s funny, because growing up in Puerto Rico, she hadn’t been too exposed to the industry. Formula 1 and the Daytona 500 were perhaps as much as she knew about it. There weren’t very many female engineers, or Hispanic engineers for that matter, on campus when she started. But a good challenge is exactly what gets Alba going. It’s no surprise that she thrived from the moment she started to better understand the sport and surpass what was expected of her.
Looking back, she’s proud of how her determination to do something great never wavered despite expectations to fulfill certain stereotypes. Alba’s family raised her to get an education and follow through on everything she set out to do. And although the education and the professional path she chose to pursue might not have been what was expected, it was the right path for her and one that her entire family supported after seeing her dedication, success, and how she held up their family values of hard work, humility, and doing the best you can.
Her career, and current role at Hendrick Motorsports, turned out to be everything Alba ever dreamed of and more. The need for speed is something she learned to master and apply not only to the cars she works on for racers like seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson, but more importantly, to her everyday professional duties. The ability to make smart, quick decisions under pressure is almost addicting, as is her dedication to collaboration and making sure everyone on her team has the opportunity to shine.
Alba’s proudest moments include being open-minded enough to seize the unexpected opportunity of working in racing rather than continuing on the path to NASA, and seeing Johnson cross the finish line in a Gen-6 Chevrolet race car that took her and her team over eight years to build.
Regarded as one of the most influential women is NASCAR, she is intent on continuing to make an impact on the motorsports industry through her role at Hendrick Motorsports, and more importantly, by inspiring young minds with incredible potential. She is an advocate for STEM and dedicates time to speaking to students from elementary school through college to show them the results of hard work and perseverance, no matter where you come from.
Her advice for young engineers? She can tell you better than we can:
“First of all, just because you’re an engineer doesn’t mean you can’t do another job. You need to be very open-minded. Education is key. Things are changing in engineering and engineering data sciences—there’s a lot of computer science and that's something that was not in the path before, but now we need it. You're never too big for a job. You need to be open and be a team member in every possible way—if that means cleaning up and mopping the floors, at the end of the day, you have to do it. At the end of the day, your workplace says a lot about you, and you know that it’s important. So, you have to be very open-minded, and being a part of a team means doing the big jobs and the little jobs.”