Alba Colon never fulfilled her childhood dream of becoming an astronaut — and probably won’t.
In a career that took a dramatic turn when she was studying engineering at the University of Puerto Rico, Colon spent 23 years at General Motors before signing on as director of competition systems at Hendrick Motorsports this year.
“I wanted to emulate Sally Ride, the first female U.S. astronaut,” Colon acknowledged in an exclusive interview with the NASCAR Wire Service. “I wanted to be the first Puerto Rican astronaut and the first female Puerto Rican astronaut.”
That desire got sidetracked when a professor enlisted her help with a solar car project, and her interest in vehicle engineering was sparked.
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“I went to mechanical engineering school because I wanted to be an astronaut, but I fell in love with cars in the process,” Colon said.
Born in Salamanca, Spain, Colon grew up in Puerto Rico and attended the Mayaguez Campus of the University of Puerto Rico. The solar car project led to Colon’s building and exhibiting Formula SAE cars — and that eventually led to a job at General Motors, where she rose through the ranks to manage Chevrolet’s motorsports program.
Then came the chance to work for team owner Rick Hendrick.
“I had been with General Motors for 23 years, and everything was great,” Colon said, “but this opportunity came to be, and it’s one of those opportunities that’s once-in-a-lifetime, working with a group that I had admired for many, many years — especially with an owner like Mr. Hendrick.
“They’re in a stage where they’re trying to make some changes, and, like I said, the opportunity came to be, and it’s one of those things that may only come once in a lifetime. So you need to jump at great opportunities when you have them in front of you.”
Hendrick felt the same way about his new director of competition systems, and so did the rest of the organization.
“She’s just such a terrific person, a smart engineer,” Hendrick said. “She has her ear to the ground. In life, and especially in engineering, you have some super smart people, but they don’t know how to communicate. They are smart, but they don’t know how to talk to each other.
“Alba can pull that out of anybody. She is so good at communication with the people. She’s got all that experience from GM, but she’s worked with our teams, so she can connect the aero and the engineers, and she can float between all of those people.
“I can’t tell you how happy I am that she’s part of the company, because she is so talented and so smart. Everybody respects her. When we mentioned her name, everybody said, ‘Man, if you can get Alba…'”
Moving from Michigan to North Carolina was more of a culture shock than Colon thought it would be. The corporate culture was different as well.
“It’s a complete cultural change in terms of companies,” she said. “I come from a company that has 200,000 employees to a company that’s way, way smaller than that (500-plus employees).
“So, of course, it’s a cultural shock. It’s a different experience, a different climate, a different everything. I almost felt like I did when I left Puerto Rico and came to Michigan. It’s like I’m leaving everything again 23 years later.”
It’s also a different side of the competitive equation. Once tasked with helping all Chevrolet teams, Colon is now focused on preserving the preeminence of Hendrick Motorsports, which won 12 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championships during her tenure with General Motors.
Colon’s charges now include the teams of seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman and Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender William Byron.
“Honestly, now I’m working with four teams, where in the past, I was working with many, many organizations,” Colon said. “I need to concentrate on four specific teams, drivers, crew chiefs and so on, instead of working with many, like I did in the past. So that has been the biggest change for me.”
Colon came to Hendrick Motorsports during a time of change within the sport, too. NASCAR introduced new vehicle inspection technology this year — the Optical Scanning Station — and Chevrolet introduced a new race car, the Camaro ZL1.
From a performance standpoint, there have been some growing pains with the new entry.
“Like any other car, when you have a new vehicle, you take some time trying to learn about it,” Colon said. “We learn something new every day, and that’s the beauty of what we’re doing, just learning and getting better every day.
“There are many new rules and a brand new car, and sometimes it takes a bit longer than expected. But, trust me, we’re working hard every day to make our cars better and better.”
Colon may have wanted to become the first female astronaut from Puerto Rico, but she’s certainly not the first female engineer to achieve an important role in stock car racing. In fact, Colon works side-by-side with Diane Holl, Hendrick’s vehicle engineering director.
“I truly admire her, and I’ve worked with her for many years,” Colon said. “She’s the director of vehicle engineering, more so on the aero side, and she’s doing a really great job.
“I knew about her, so it’s been a pleasure to work with her here. And we have many other females here in the company that maybe aren’t known to people out there.”
Colon has visited family in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, and she met with students from her alma mater. Her involvement with the students runs deep.
“For any young aspiring engineer, this took a lot of education, and this took a lot of work to get here,” Colon said. “I’m blessed to be where I am, and I want to help others to get where I am today.”
And to get there with no regrets — even if it means giving up the dream of flying into outer space.
Reid Spencer writes for the NASCAR Wire Service.