While still a young, school-aged girl, the ever-thinking, always-dreaming Alba Colon was completely convinced that she would join one of her heroes, astronaut Sally Ride, exploring space. She assumed that one day, she'd be visiting a faraway planet and conducting the science experiments she so loved while orbiting on a spaceship.
Growing up in Puerto Rico in the 1970s and 80s, Colon, was so talented in science and math that she remembers a time she wasn't permitted to take art classes on her school schedule -- even though art was a subject she loved and excelled in -- because the school faculty had recognized her gift with numbers and theories and wanted to foster that potential.
Decades later and now Chevrolet's program manager for the Sprint Cup Series, Colon, 48, is the first to suggest it hasn't all worked out quite the way she planned.
But her position leading Chevy's top-shelf NASCAR effort has given her unprecedented opportunity to still pursue her dreams -- and it's been every bit as high-tech and artful a ride for one of the sport's true trailblazers.
'You can be whatever you want to be'
"My father always told me, 'You can be whatever you want to be' and that was a big deal," Colon remembered. "But, he said one thing we ask, is all of you (her brother and sister, too) must finish college."
College was no problem; she loved academics. But cars?
"There was no interest in cars at the time for me," she said laughing. "I wanted to be an astronaut and I had a poster of Sally Ride, the first American woman astronaut, in my bedroom. I wanted to be like her; that was the whole deal.
"A funny thing I also remember is from very early on, I wanted to be an altar boy. My brother was an altar boy and I come from a very Catholic family. I remember telling my mom I wanted to be an altar boy and she said, 'No, you can't because you are a girl.' That was the first time I remember being told, 'You can't because you are a girl.' At that time girls couldn't become altar boys. They can now, but at that time you couldn't.
"For me, that was always in the back of my mind: I don't understand why I can't do something because I am a girl."
The philosophy of perseverance has served Colon well and made her an example of can-dream, can-do.
It certainly has never stopped Colon's progress at General Motors, where she was hired immediately out of the University of Puerto Rico in 1994 thanks to what became a life-changing opportunity there. To get there, she first competed in International's Formula SAE college competition that took Colon to many places around the world ... including Michigan, where she has lived and worked ever since accepting a job with GM after graduating.
"I decided to be a mechanical engineer because that's what I wanted to do," said Colon. "And in college, things changed and I got an opportunity to work on a race car, to design and build a race car. My love shifted.
"Through this competition (Formulat SAE) I got a good opportunity to apply what I had learned in the classroom, and I remember in 1991 I came to United States for the first time to Michigan to participate in the competition and see other cars.
"I just fell in love with the whole idea of the competition and building something to make it better. It was the first time I really saw a nice Corvette, a Camaro. It was my first contact with GM and I was like, 'This is awesome.'"
By 2001, GM had selected Colon to lead the top NASCAR Chevrolet technical position.
Blazing the trail
Even with the demands of her position today, Colon speaks to school students around the country, sharing not only her love of math and science, but also telling her life story of realizing anything is possible. It is important to Colon to share her background and encourage today's students to consider all the possibilities -- not just the easiest.
But most of all, Colon's message really is about perseverance and being open to finding your talents.
"My father spent the time with me studying math and science," Colon recalled of her father, Dr. Miguel Angel Colon Fernandez, who passed away last year. "It was not only studying, because when you are a kid it's like, 'Let's just study the test questions and move on.' But not with him. He wanted to look at the beauty of the math or Albert Einstein's theory."
A quick walk around the Sprint Cup garage and Colon's presence is unmistakable. She is one of the most recognized and popular personalities, and her work ethic and knowledge clearly are second to none. Beyond that, she has been embraced for pursuing a career that wasn't the easy option.
Colon is a trailblazer not just for women or Hispanics, but also for her craft in general -- and the combination of the two is what makes her most proud.
"Let's be honest, at first it was hard," Colon said. "But my parents said, 'Never give up.' At first it was just the unknown, but you have to keep going, keep going. You will get there by respect, and respect is not something you can tell someone. You have to earn the respect and I learned that very young.
"It takes time to get respect in this garage and it doesn't matter whether you are a woman or a man. You are part of their team and their well-being, and that takes time.
"That's what I want people to understand: It doesn't matter who you are, you have to earn it here and anywhere."
Earning her reputation
During Colon's career at Chevrolet she has both worked alongside the best and earned respect from them.
She remembers her initial meetings with the late, seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt, who during one test session early on suggested with a smile that NASCAR might not be more than a one-year gig for Colon. Then, with her help in winning the 1995 Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis, he insisted she pose with him and the trophy in Victory Lane.
She first met six-time champion Jimmie Johnson in his earliest days racing in ASA and has been a part of Chevrolet's technical staff for all his championships and 77 wins. Despite all that success, Colon said, "You know what? He's still the same, humble nice guy; still the great kid."
Of another champion she worked with, Tony Stewart , Colon is especially impressed with Stewart's 2011 title run when he won five of the final 10 races.
"I love the spark he had for that championship, the 'and now I'm going to show you who I am' feeling," Colon said. "That season was magic."
And last year, Colon was so glad a last-minute change in plans put her in Martinsville, Virginia, where the retiring Jeff Gordon emotionally collected the final of his 93 victories.
"These are things that will be there forever," she said.
Those memories come from a work-ethic instilled in her by her late father, a doctor, and her mother, a middle-school teacher. But it's self-motivation she used to navigate the dueling forces of challenge and opportunity.
"She's incredible," longtime NASCAR team owner Richard Childress said. "She was one of the first engineers that ever came to RCR. She brought so much to us over the years. She's a wonderful lady but very, very smart. She's done it for so many years and still here, still strong and still has the passion. She really has a huge passion for our sport."
Stewart , now a NASCAR team owner to go along with being a Chevrolet driver, shares that appreciation for Colon and notes what is particularly special is that she is as well-liked as she is brilliant. Stewart won three Cup championships driving Chevrolets with Colon leading the engineering effort.
"You think about the position she's in with Chevrolet and she is one of very few women that has a title like that," Stewart said. "And I don't care who you are in the Cup garage, even if you don't drive a Chevrolet, you know Alba and you respect Alba.
"She's one of the smartest people. And especially me being in the Chevy family for so long, I see that she has that special relationship with everybody -- drivers, owners, crew chiefs or crew members. She knows everybody and everybody respects her.
"But she's always asking, 'What can I do to help?' and that's something from my experience working with her, that sets her apart from everyone else."
That's the ultimate feedback that an engineer like Colon appreciates most: It speaks equally of her determination and ability.
Leaving her mark
"This is my family," Alba said, motioning to the buzz and vibe around her on a recent NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race morning.
"Dreams shift. I tell young students, 'You can prepare yourself for one thing, but in the end, God decides. Don't fight against it. Accept it.' I never imagined I'd be doing this, and this -- racing -- is my family."
"I will be honest," Colon said smiling, "I tend to come here to work and I just keep working. But once in a while you stop and realize people watch what you do and how you behave. One time, a young girl wanted to take a picture of me, and I asked, 'Why?' She said, 'Because when I grow up I want to be like you.'
"I just cried. That day made me realize people admire the pit crew, the drivers, everyone out here, and we ought to be responsible for our actions.
"I will not be here forever; none of us will be. So while I am here, I want to do the right thing and someday say, 'I left the sport better than I came.' I love what I do."