From NASA To NASCAR

Andrea Mueller

Team Penske engineer Andrea Mueller huddles with crew chief Jeremy Bullins and Ryan Blaney during a recent weekend. (Photo: Team Penske)

MOORESVILLE, N.C. - There was no doubt racing would be a career. Dad had a team and later worked on Silver Crown cars. Raised in such an environment, the young racer once brought a remote control sprint car to school for show-and-tell. On the track, the child climbed into quarter midgets and micro midgets and was a California state champion.

“Growing up, I always wanted to be a racecar driver,’’ they said.

That path changed one Saturday morning.

While watching cartoons.

As time passed, the racer headed further in a different direction. Instead of working on race engines, they graduated from college and worked on space shuttle engines for NASA. Eventually, their persistence was rewarded with a job in NASCAR at Team Penske.

It was where Andrea Mueller wanted to be.

Her story carries the same thread - minus the NASA background - of many crewmembers in NASCAR, it’s just that she stands out in this male-dominated sport.

An engineer for Penske’s Nationwide team, she served that role earlier this month when Ryan Blaney made his Sprint Cup debut at Kansas Speedway. While no official records are kept, Mueller is likely among the first female engineers for a Cup race.

Even so, she feels no different than anywhere else she’s been.

“It’s kind of funny,’’ the 34-year-old Mueller said, “Growing up, most of my family is all boys. The neighborhood was all boys. Racing, it’s a majority boys. College classes, 90 percent male.’’

Thus, being among the few females in a setting is “normal to me,’’ she said.

And so is the NASCAR life. She’s been at Penske since 2007 after working four years as a NASA-contracted employee in its engine program.

But it was one day about 20 years ago that changed her direction while watching Saturday morning cartoons.

She recalls seeing a short educational interlude about an IndyCar engineer. She can’t recall the person or the team, but she remembers thinking that being a race engineer would be a good career move. She was good in math and science. She understood racing. She knew where her driving career was headed.

“I was old enough to know that it would be pretty cool to be a racecar driver, but it probably wasn’t going to happen,’’ she said. “I thought (team engineer) would be cool and set the path of getting into college and following that route.’’

She faced challenges while she pursued her mechanical engineering degree at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. A couple of professors encouraged her to look beyond racing. They thought she would burn out on it. They suggested she focus on something else for a job.

Even so, she kept in contact with Team Penske officials. While waiting for a job there, she worked in the space shuttle program. She soon wearied of the red tape affiliated with government regulations and sought something faster.

That opportunity wouldn’t come for three more years, but when Team Penske officials called, she was ready to leave California for North Carolina. She recalls having about a week to get the team’s shop before starting.

She began as a race engineer assistant and moved to various roles before becoming the race engineer for the organization’s Nationwide team. She’s worked with crew chief Jeremy Bullins since he arrived before the 2012 season. Bullins, a former engineer at Richard Childress Racing, taught her about being an engineer and she taught him about the Penske way of doing things.

Mueller’s duties at the shop include performing various simulations to see which setup will work best. She monitors the car’s behavior at the track. That continues during the race while also calculating fuel mileage and discussing options with Bullins.

“I can never ask her for an approximation,’’ Bullins said of Mueller. “If I ask her a question. I’m going to get an exact answer. That’s a good thing.’’

Last season, Bullins, Mueller and the rest of the team celebrated 12 wins among four different drivers to capture the car owner’s Nationwide title. Blaney was among those drivers who won with the team and says it is “lucky to have her.

“She's definitely done a great job coming up with new ideas. On the race weekend, she'll keep asking questions about changes. She's so specific.’’

Mueller says her goal is to become a race engineer at the Cup level.

While females are playing a greater role in the sport from Danica Patrick to Kelley Earnhardt Miller, co-owner of JR Motorsports, to Alba Colon, Chevrolet Racing’s program manager for NASCAR Sprint Cup racing, Mueller accepts her unique standing but is focused on her job.

Mueller understands she can be an example, showing girls that they can choose a career path in racing.

“If there is one girl who looks at me and says ... ‘I can do it’ and it opens up a path, then it’s all worth it,’’ she said.

               

Related Topics:

NASCAR, NASCAR Nationwide Series

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