By Clay Nichols
When you’re gunning for the checkered flag, it helps to have a steady hand on the wheel. For the Chevrolet NASCAR Sprint Cup, that steady hand has been provided by Program Manager Alba Colon since 2001. And talk about a track record: Under Colon’s leadership, the Chevrolet NASCAR program has enjoyed unprecedented success. After its 11th consecutive NASCAR Manufacturer Championship (a record even the New York Yankees could aspire to), Alba sat down with us to discuss the season, the secrets to her successful career and the road ahead.
First of all, phew. You have got to be exhausted. You’ve just finished a very, very exciting season.
Yes, I am a little exhausted, to be honest. Our great season is due to a lot of hard work by many, many people. And it continues off-season. I spent more than three hours in a wind tunnel yesterday. That’s the beauty of this sport. You finish one year and you have to concentrate right away on the next year and be sure you can repeat these championships. You have to keep working for them all the time.
Looking back on 2013, what are the highlights for you?
Of course, the Manufacturer Championship, and also the Driver Championship. But there were some key points in the season. First of all, there was the introduction of our Chevrolet SS, something we worked on for more than two and a half years. After that, one of the biggest highlights was to win the Daytona 500. That set the stage for the whole season — a dream season.
Every win is a big deal. Trust me. I learned this from one of our drivers a long time ago. You can’t take any win for granted. Every win comes with a lot of work and a lot of sacrifices by many people.
That takes so much discipline, to turn around after a success like that and get your nose back to the grindstone and start thinking about the next year.
It takes a lot of work to be on top. To do that, you have to work, and you have to work harder. We need to make our product better. We are engineers: We want to be number one, and we want to win more races. We want to be the best of the best.
We won on Sunday night, and already on Monday everybody’s asking: What do we need to do to make our car better? Our production people have to work hard to make the vehicles. Our marketing people have to work hard to be able to sell the vehicles, and so on. This doesn’t stop. When you reach a certain level in your professional career, you have to work hard all the time to continue being the best.
Why is NASCAR so valuable to Chevrolet?
We use NASCAR not only to showcase our products, but also to showcase our engineers and provide them with a training ground. NASCAR is a great testing ground for technology, too.
A quick example: If you look at the new Corvette, a lot of the concepts behind that vehicle come from racing.
And it’s just amazing how passionate the NASCAR fans are.
Describe your role with Chevrolet and NASCAR. What are your duties?
Simply put, I manage all the technical resources that Chevrolet provides to the NASCAR Sprint Cup teams. Anything you can name that has to do with engineering, we work on it.
For example, when we talk about the body of the gen six, a group of us worked on developing that vehicle for two and a half years.
Imagine all those little pieces that have to do with engineering. That’s what I’m responsible for. The teams I have behind me to make that happen are the best in the business. I’m very proud of my teams.
You have to work with a number of Chevrolet teams, and they’re often competing with one another. Is that difficult for you?
Let me tell you what makes the beauty of our deal: The teams understand that when we get to the race at 1:00 p.m. on Sunday, we’re all trying to beat each other. That’s the bottom line. But we’ve also learned that we can be better as a whole.
Let’s develop the product, and from there we can go and beat each other. I wish you could be in a meeting, just to see how well they can work together. If we don’t do some of these things, we would never get ahead.
You didn’t start out as the program manager for the NASCAR Winston Cup series. Describe for me some of your stops along the way.
I started as a data acquisition engineer, just learning the basics of the telemetry and systems that you have to put in the vehicle, to understand vehicles and to make them faster and so on.
I worked on what we now call the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and the NASCAR Nationwide Series. I worked in drag racing.
What do you think it is about Alba Colon that’s helped to foster this environment of success with the Chevrolet program?
Many things. I don’t call the team the team that works for me. I call the team the team that works with me. At the end of the day, we all have the same goals. You need to have a team that’s happy and that’s going in the same direction.
I approach things a little bit differently—maybe because I’m a woman and an Hispanic—and I think that has helped me.
Has racing always been a dream of yours?
I wanted to be an astronaut—that’s why I went to engineering school. While I was there, I discovered that I have a passion for racing, I have a passion for cars, I have a passion for competition.
I love what I do. I seriously love what I do. How many people can say that?
The trademarks mentioned in this story are held by their respective owners.
Clay Nichols is co-founder and editor of DadLabs.com.