IndyCar is one of the most famous racing series in the USA, with the championship having been held for over 100 years. Whilst attention on a race weekend is often on the teams and drivers, there is another group of people working there who are crucial to the race running at all. Firestone supply all the IndyCar teams with their tires for the weekend, and Cara Adams is their Chief Engineer. I spoke to her about her passion for science, tire manufacturing and strategy, as well as encouraging more girls into STEM subjects.
Science has always been an interest for Cara, with her mother being a teacher, specialising in physics and general sciences. She even ran neighbourhood science camps teaching children how fun the subject could be. “We learned biology by dissecting leftover parts she asked a butcher for, physics by making model rockets and chemistry by making slime and silly putty. My favourite always seemed to be the hands-on physics and chemistry experiments,” Adams explained.
When she was older, Cara began studying mechanical engineering at university, and this is where she discovered a love for motorsport. A classmate invited her to a shop where a Formula student team were building a racing car. “I started out by helping wherever I could, whether it was cleaning the shop floor or asking people to teach me how to use the equipment so I could make parts,” she said. It was then when she experienced watching a race in-person that she began considering what opportunities the motorsport industry could offer. “What hooked me was seeing real race cars on track at the Cleveland Grand Prix back in 2001. I sat in the grandstands and just stared at the cars, absolutely fascinated with the dynamic movement of the suspension. I couldn’t have told you any of the names of the drivers that day, although I’d go on to work with many of them, including race winner Dario Franchitti. I was just enamoured with the technology of racing, the handling and vehicle dynamics,” Adams told me.
After graduating, Cara was keen to get a foot on the ladder and so began looking for jobs at companies with a motorsport presence. After applying for several roles, she saw an advertisement for a job at Bridgestone, the parent company of Firestone. Firestone has a long motorsport heritage having supplied the tyres for the winning car in the very first Indy 500 race. “I started out in the Tire/Vehicle Dynamics team, working on passenger cars and tires. I introduced myself to the manager of the Race Tire Engineering team and explained I would love to work for his team someday. I asked him what they were looking for in an engineer and he later gave me three focus areas. I went out and bought a couple of textbooks and studied in my own time. I also volunteered for projects in the job I was working in to help me prepare for a potential role in racing. When an opportunity as a Race Tire Development Engineer first came about, I was completely prepared for the interview. I had spent 3 years making sure when there was an opportunity, I would be the most qualified candidate and I could hit the ground running when I started,” Adams described.
Now working as the Race Tire Engineering Team’s Chief Engineer, Cara is responsible for making sure the tires taken to each race are appropriate for the specific track and conditions. Once her and the team arrive, they are responsible for their performance. “We answer questions from engineers, race officials and drivers throughout the race weekend. We work with the cars in the pits to measure tire temperatures and pressures and relay that, tire wear and other information back to teams. We get feedback from drivers and engineers after the sessions and we correlate the data from all the teams. This information helps us to make improvements and design decisions for future race events,” she explained. Away from the track, Adams manages a team of engineers and chemists who work on developing and designing world-class tires for the Verizon IndyCar® Series. “Our team works on all technical aspects of the tires, taking the feedback and data we receive from teams and drivers to design, test and work with our manufacturing team in the production of our tires,” she said.
With many responsibilities to manage, Cara’s role presents her with a range of challenges, changing almost daily. “I lead a highly skilled, intelligent group of engineers, scientists, and technicians, and keeping workloads balanced, engaging, and tailored to the skills of each team member while trying to grow their abilities and look out for long-term development is a daily challenge. It is also a challenge to provide the best and most consistent race tires we can while continually innovating and adapting to changing tracks, cars and aerokits,” Adams explained. Being in a leadership role, it is important to her not to only focus on the technical job at hand, but also that other employees grow and develop as well. “Keeping a level head and calm demeanour in a plethora of situations has been something I’ve learned to do over the years and is very useful in this role,” she added.
Working behind the scenes, developing and producing the tires, means Adams’s team has a lot of responsibility and pressure to produce a product of an extremely high standard. Tire life and manageability are very important in a race and can even be a deciding factor as to the winner, but most crucially, a poor performing tire can be a safety issue. “I’ve had wives of drivers come up to me in public settings and thank me for keeping their husbands safe. I have heard drivers say that he or she would not trust their lives to any other race tire. When I see the trust in the Firestone race tires that my team is responsible for, it’s overwhelming,” she told me.
Cara Adams has worked her way up at Bridgestone, knowing the area in which she wanted to work in from the very beginning: racing. Tires used in racing must be of the highest standard, allowing teams and drivers to race without the unpredictability of a tire failure being a factor. However, Cara is also passionate about inspiring and encouraging young girls to consider working in the sport. Her parents were fully supportive of her choice of career path and mother was crucial in her discovering a love of science, but she knows this isn’t the case for everyone. “I recognize not everyone has the opportunity to do fun science projects and meet successful people in STEM fields, and I feel I have the privilege and responsibility for paying that forward,” she explained, adding that her advice would be: “ask a lot of questions – especially about things you have an interest and a passion for. Don’t take a simple no for an answer. Don’t just believe you can accomplish your goals, but go out and put yourself in a situation where you can achieve them. Keep asking questions and be persistent.”
photo credits: INDYCAR