Cara Adams’ return to Portland International Raceway this weekend brings back a mountain’s worth of memories.
It was here, in 2007, where a one-off volunteering effort served as the starting point of a career that has ultimately led her to become the Chief Engineer, Bridgestone Americas Motorsports.
Adams had family connections that provided a window of opportunity for her to make the voyage to Portland.
She was a Firestone engineer of tire and vehicle dynamics at the time, but hadn’t ventured yet into the world of motorsports. As is often the case in racing, the timing was right for this venue to serve as her debut race on pit road.
“So this was a fun one. I’d already talked to my manager at the time, and told him a couple years before I was interested in racing and wanted to work in it at some stage,” Adams told TrackSide Online.
“I worked on tire and vehicle dynamics, and I really liked what I did there. But let’s be honest – I felt INDYCAR was more my calling!
“I knew the series was coming to Portland, and my sister had just moved out to Seattle. She took a job as a development engineer for Boeing. So, I decided to invite myself to her race.”
And so, the journey began from Ohio to Oregon. Of course the key for Adams was justifying the need to take vacation that oh-so-perfectly-happened to correspond with the Portland Champ Car race, and then figure out a way to pay for it.
Adams pushed ahead with the vacation request and paid her own way to get to Portland. Her engineering mindset immediately kicked in from a preparation standpoint to get acclimated.
“I talked to the manager I was currently working with to see if I could take vacation, and to take off Thursday, Friday and Monday to mimic the travel,” she explained. “So I did; I took vacation and paid my own travel.
“I said, ‘Hey I’ll be at track, I’m in Portland, and if you need anyone on pit lane, I’d be more than happy to help.’”
Adams proved a quick study. Firestone’s two senior leaders of its motorsports program from the 1990s into the early 2000s were Al Speyer and Joe Barbieri. At the time, Bridgestone branding appeared for Champ Car races while Firestone branding appeared at IRL IndyCar Series races.
“The team at Portland said, ‘We’ll put you to work.’ So I did and borrowed someone’s firesuit! I quickly had learned a lot from the Firestone team and yes, both Al and Joe were key in that. I don’t think they were used to someone who invited themselves!”
Adams worked with PKV Racing that weekend. PKV Racing grew out of the former PacWest Racing Group operation, and launched in 2003 as PK Racing before Jimmy Vasser joined the ownership group in 2004. The team was renamed as KV Racing Technology in 2008 once the merger of IndyCar and Champ Car occurred, and the team continued under several other names through the 2016 IndyCar season. The Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan names have returned to the grid in 2018 with Sebastien Bourdais’ Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan entry.
That PKV team that year featured a pair of rookie drivers in Neel Jani and Tristan Gommendy. It featured Tom Brown, now an engineer at Juncos Racing’s IndyCar program, as one of the team’s race engineers.
Adams worked with Craig Ross, a Firestone technician who helps train new people in the program.
“I wasn’t involved in the development of tires at the time but was here to learn and work,” Adams said. “It was very interesting to hear the driver comments, and I worked with Craig to talk to them. I listened to the engineers who designed (the tires). It was a more observational weekend.”
The practice and preparation of race weekend led to an exciting moment on Sunday. Adams’ first race on pit lane would witness Champ Car’s first standing start of that season with its new Panoz DP01 chassis. The anticipation built to ensure everyone got away safely.
“It was neat. I totally remember that! Everyone on pit lane was nervous. People stood on pit boxes to watch,” she recalled.
“From a tire perspective, there’s not much difference in that type of start. We tried it again a few years ago at Toronto. It’s not much different. You just have to make sure you get heat on your tires. There’s a lot of warming up beforehand.”
It was the first race in Champ Car’s ultimate final season. Firestone, was, of course, a constant that carried through the open-wheel merger into 2008. It’s been a stalwart of the championship for more than 25 years, and Adams is in her second year as the Chief Engineer after taking over the position from her predecessor, Dale Harrigle.
But at Portland, 2007? Adams knew she wanted to make her dream of working with race tires a reality. She just had no idea how far it would go.
“I always have a game plan!” she said. “I knew this is where and what I wanted to be. Of course back then I didn’t think, ‘Sure, one day I’ll be leading the program.’
“But I hoped I could be paid for this and do a good job for the company.”