As a lead engineer, Holl drives into new territory

On Motor Sports

April 25, 1999|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

The first time Diane Holl went to a race with her dad, Tony, she was bored, really bored.

"But my dad said, `You have to have someone to root for. Pick a driver and you'll find an interest.' "

Today, at age 34, Holl laughs at those childhood feelings.

"It's like anything else," says the Englishwoman. "It's like football. If you don't find a quarterback or a team you like, you have no interest in who wins. In my case, it was a remarkably fast transition. It's a passion now."

The team she roots for now is her team. Holl is engineering manager for the CART team of Tony Kanaan. She oversees nine other engineers, all men, and the team's new aerodynamic development program.

"Very clearly, I hired a very well qualified engineer," said Steve Horne, her boss and president of McDonald's Racing. "Even a man would not get to the level she is until he was 40. There are very few people with her background."

Holl is the only woman lead engineer in CART, Formula One, the Indy Racing League or NASCAR -- a fact she quickly brushes aside. "That's what they tell me," she says. "I don't take much notice, but I can say we don't have any old girl, or any girl, network."

Holl has been working at her passion since she "realized I wasn't going to be a prima ballerina." Surrounded by engineers (dad and older brother) and science (her mom's a nurse), she says it was a practical choice.

Excelling at the University of South West in Plymouth, England, she graduated with honors in mechanical engineering and earned the Institute of Mechanical Engineers' prize as best student.

Armed with her degree and a letter of reference from the Reynard Formula One team, for whom she had interned, she was hired by Ferrari and then by Benneton, as an F-1 design engineer. By the time Horne hired her three years ago, she had more than 10 years' experience.

She's brought him an Indy Lights championship, victory for former driver Adrian Fernandez, and, last season, a rookie of the year performance for Kanaan.

"She's helped develop my skills," said Kanaan, who sat on the pole at Long Beach last week and led the race until crashing on the 47th lap. "She is the key. She made the car. She is the engineer."

Some might think Holl's greatest accomplishment came in 1996 when Fernandez won at Toronto for her first CART win.

But Holl's choice is not so obvious.

"I'd say success is being happy, and I'd say it has varying degrees," she said. "For instance, in 1997 we had a car that wasn't very competitive. Whatever we did, we couldn't get it to [run fast]. We tore our hair out over it, but we never gave up. No one gave up. And at the last race, Adrian finished third. He didn't win and he had had a terrible season, but relative to what we had available to work with and given how long and hard we had worked on it, it [the race] was a great success."

And if she had to pick her best moment, it would be Kanaan's Rookie of the Year title.

"Because we did that without a lot of money in the budget," she said. "We earned it."

Unsers on track

Al Unser Jr. and his daughter, Cody, 12, are making progress.

For the first time since breaking his ankle March 21, Little Al will be in a race car early this week, testing at Gateway International Speedway. If all goes well there, he'll be at an afternoon test at Nazareth Speedway Thursday and racing the car Sunday.

Cody, who was stricken with transverse myelitis, an inflammation of the spinal cord, in February, returned to her home in Albuquerque, N.M., from a neurological institute at Easter. She is now going to rehab three times a week. A spokesman said she is in good condition and receiving home tutoring.

Makeup date

Hagerstown Speedway, slowed by a record five straight rainouts early this season, has a full calendar in May. It begins Saturday with the Shorty Bowers/Bull Durham Memorial race. The Memorial race was postponed from April 10, but not for rain. A power failure was the culprit that time.

Gates open at 5 p.m., with racing at 7 o'clock.

The American Motorcycle Association Grand National Dirt Track Series will make the first of two visits to the track May 8. And another highlight of the month comes May 29 and 30, when the World of Outlaws makes its traditional holiday visit. Call 301-582-0640.

New partnership

Rick Galles' race team was left high and dry last month after Big Daddy's Bar-B-Que Sauce ran into financial troubles, but he has forged a partnership with Greg Barnhart, a Chicago businessman. With sponsorship from Spinal Conquest, a spinal cord research foundation based in Dallas, they will field an Indy Racing League car for Davey Hamilton.

"Davey's pretty happy, very excited," Galles said. "He's a very good guy. He needs a fair break."

Galles said although the team starts "way behind," it should make a strong second-half push.

An anonymous donor stipulated the link to racing as the best way to gain attention for the cause. Spinal Conquest also will share the proceeds from sales of display space on the car to other sponsors.

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