DETROIT — Cara Adams knows the moment — or at least the race weekend — when the lightbulb went on nearly two decades ago.
"When I was in college, my husband won tickets on the radio to see the Indy cars at the Grand Prix of Cleveland," Ms. Adams recalled.
"Watching the cars go through turn 13 at Burke Lakefront Airport, watching the cars go through the chicane, watching the rear end of the cars squat down as they were going through the turns.
"I was watching the mechanical workings of the cars and thinking, 'Wow, that is really cool!' It was a piece of beauty, really."
That afternoon was her game-changer.
"I was never a race fan because of the drivers," Ms. Adams said. "I was a fan of the cars because of the technologies. When I saw those cars in college, I thought if I could work in racing and actually get paid to do that, it would be pretty fantastic."
Ms. Adams is living that dream today as chief engineer for Bridgestone Americas Motorsports. She heads the company's performance tire operation for the Firestone brand in the Verizon IndyCar Series. She's the only female chief engineer in the series.
And, yes, with the job and the job title come the occasional double takes.
"You get things from time to time," she says. "Even at a place like Indianapolis, you have people (who) ask just really silly questions and make assumptions. It happens. I remember that someone was surprised and impressed that I knew what a wicker was. It's just funny. Really, I'm an engineer. I know how a race car works."
Ms. Adams grew up in Akron. Her mom was a science teacher, a grandfather was an engineer at NASA. Ms. Adams looked up to fellow Akron native and astronaut Judith Resnik.
At the University of Akron, she learned how to build open-wheel race cars with Formula SAE Design Team and as a member of the Society of Automotive Engineers. She took her degree in mechanical engineering to Bridgestone, which hired her in 2003 to work in the company's vehicle dynamics group.