Lisa Smokstad wasn't trying to prove a point when she decided to change her career path from psychology to NASCAR tire specialist. She just wanted a challenge-and an opportunity to impress her dad.
Ms. Smokstad, who is responsible for everything from ordering tires to putting them on the race cars in the pit for Brian Vickers' No. 25 Nextel Cup Series team, is one of a few professional women working in NASCAR, let alone as a tire specialist.
``It's challenging, which is all about me,'' she told Tire Business. ``I think if the challenge ever went away, I'd definitely find something new to do. But it's still fun.''
Since joining Hendrick Motorsports in 1999, Ms. Smokstad has worked with NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series driver Jack Sprague during his championship victory in 2001. She also has served on the No. 5 2003 Busch Series championship team, also driven by Brian Vickers, before switching over to the Kyle Busch team to help him earn 2004 Rookie of the Year honors and a second-place finish in the Busch Series points standings. For the 2005 season, Ms. Smokstad is back with the Vickers team.
On a typical race day, Ms. Smokstad said she works 12 hours non-stop, bringing the team's tires out to the pit road and purging them of air in order to fill them up with nitrogen.
``I spend a lot of time going over my notes, making sure I didn't miss anything, knowing what set I have going where and what I can move around depending on race conditions and what the driver is saying,'' she explained.
Besides setting the correct tire pressure and installing the lug nuts, Ms. Smokstad changes tires during pit stops and keeps an eye on temperature and wear. At age 35 with a 5-foot-5-inch frame, Ms. Smokstad pushes six sets of tires at the race pits by herself and reports any strange occurrences with the tires to the crew chief. She and her husband Craig, who is car chief for the No. 5 Kyle Busch Cup Series team, traveled 35 weeks out of the year in 2004 to NASCAR races.
How did she become so interested in changing tires for NASCAR teams?
Ms. Smokstad explained that although she is a ``girlie girl'' who paints her nails just like other women, she always wanted to impress her father, and doing so with automotive knowledge became a natural way to do that.
``It was more of like, I thought my dad-and still think my dad-is so cool, and I have an older brother and wanted to do anything to impress them,'' she said. ``I had a basic car knowledge, but I know my dad thought it was really cool, so I thought, well, I could take this one step further and totally impress him.''
In 1990 at age 19, she was working at Raceway Park in Shakopee, Minn., as a weekend job when she came home from taking classes at the University of Minnesota. There, she met her husband, who was a crew chief and owner of his brother's race team.
``We're at the race track one day, and they ended up one person short and it was the tire specialist,'' Ms. Smokstad recalled. ``Craig said, `Well, Lisa's been hanging around, so I'm sure she can do it.' Just because he knew I asked a million questions on chassis setups and was interested in what was going on. Kind of threw me in on the deal and said I could do it, and I started doing it then just on a volunteer basis.''
By 1992, Ms. Smokstad was using her psychology degree to work on legal cases involving children and teenagers in Minnesota's court system. She continued working on tires during the weekends, and one day her brother-in-law's American Speed Association (ASA) team was parked next to Kenny Schrader's team at a race. Ms. Smokstad said she overheard that Mr. Schrader planned to start a new team and needed a tire specialist. Both she and her husband took jobs with the Schrader team in 1996 and moved to Charlotte.
Working on the Schrader ASA team opened the door for Ms. Smokstad to move into NASCAR, and in 1999 she found herself needing to search for a new job because two teams merged, and a tire specialist with more seniority than Ms. Smokstad was already lined up for the job.
As Ms. Smokstad prepared her resume, Mr. Schrader advised her not to send a resume to a large team like Hendrick Motorsports, largely because she was a woman.
``It was really funny because (Hendrick) approached me, and I called (Mr. Schrader) and said, `By the way, I got a new job,''' Ms. Smokstad recalled. ``And he said, `Really, doing what?' I said, `I'm working for Hendrick.' And he said, `No really.' I'm like, `No, I'm serious.'''
``Not that I think he didn't trust what I was doing because he would never have hired me,'' she added, ``but it was more that it was the good old boys' club where he thought, `Oh just don't get your hopes up. I don't want you to get disappointed.'''
Despite Mr. Schrader's admonition, Ms. Smokstad said she hasn't noticed anyone in NASCAR treating her differently because she is a woman, and she has never felt that the guys she works with exclude her or look down on her.
``I guess I've never felt any different,'' she explained. ``I've never had that feeling like `What is she doing here? She's a girl.' I've had fans that have said things. Race fans have said, `Oh honey, look at you working so hard. Oh, look at you just pushing those tires.' But never have I had it from the guys.''
She noted that the fans who have made comments to her were elderly men and that she found it to be ``really cute,'' not a put-down.
``I've had a lot of younger people come up and say, `You go, girl!''' she said.
Though she had no tire training background prior to becoming a tire specialist, Ms. Smokstad said she was able to learn everything on the job, beginning with her days at ASA where many of the Goodyear engineers she now works with also were on hand to offer help.
``With the way I was raised, everything that I've ever done, I've wanted to be the best at what I do,'' Ms. Smokstad said. ``That's always been the goal, so I just asked a million questions and worked with the Goodyear engineers. And to this day, I ask them a million questions.''
And in her experience, Ms. Smokstad said the performance of Goodyear tire technology on race days continues to impress her.
``Every year, I think what's so neat about Goodyear as a company is they come up with something better,'' she said. ``Like three years ago I thought, `Wow this is the best tire. No failures.' Obviously, nothing is perfect, but I think every year they've made it a stronger, more durable, performance-enhancing tire.''