Racing Through The Glass Ceiling

Point of Vue Magazine – April 2024
April 2, 2024
Who Runs The World
April 2, 2024
Point of Vue Magazine – April 2024
April 2, 2024
Who Runs The World
April 2, 2024

Caroline Leblanc is a nineteen year old from the Houma-Thibodaux area doing what most people think is unexpected from an average college girl. Attending the University of Alabama, Caroline works tirelessly as a member of the university’s SAE Crimson Racing team. She chose to attend the University of Alabama primarily due to the merit scholarship she was awarded by achieving a good score on the ACT. Her hot take is that she originally wanted to attend Auburn University though now she knows the University of Alabama was ultimately the best decision.

In her studies, Caroline is majoring in mechanical engineering and minoring in automotive engineering. Her father owns Leblanc Associates, a refrigeration and HVAC company based in Houma, which was a company started by her grandfather. She credits a portion of her engineering interests to her father and also to the fact that she was simply a tomboy growing up who always played with legos.

“One of my core memories is just going into my dad’s office, finding junk in his drawers, and building little forts out of it,” Caroline said. “I just love what I do and it just happens to be a male dominated field.”

While one might get the impression that engineering was her passion from the beginning, Caroline actually admits to second guessing her path a number of times. From aspiring to be a veterinarian to an oceanographer to a chef, she ultimately felt that engineering was a safe option when applying to college. Little did she know, she would fall in love with it.

Her freshman year, Caroline joined Alpha Omicron Pi: the same sorority her mother was in. There, she met a sorority sister who was on the Crimson Racing team. While she had never worked on cars before, Caroline was up for the challenge and followed her AOII sister to the team.

“Being in an environment where everyone was willing to teach you, I just fell in love with it and I fell in love with cars and learning about all of the different systems they have,” Caroline said.

The team advisor was also the head of the automotive minor which is how she found her way to the automotive concentration. Hearing about the opportunities in the automotive field encouraged her to pursue that path and expand on those opportunities later in her career.

Though as of now, Caroline is a sophomore at the University of Alabama, she intends to graduate in 2026 with a degree in mechanical engineering. Another aspect that drew her to the college in the first place was their Stem Create Path to the MBA program where, after completing a couple of MBA courses in her undergraduate years, she will only need to complete one year of graduate school in order to graduate in 2027 with a master’s degree in business administration.

Caroline is unsure of her exact plans after graduation, but she has plenty of time to learn more and grow. “I would love to get a masters in motorsports,” Caroline shared. “Something I really love learning about is vehicle dynamics and vehicle simulation which is basically how the car operates, how it stabilizes and balances through different forces. All the technical, science-y things that everyone thinks is so scary–and yes it is so scary–but it’s so cool! A master’s in motorsports would let me dive into that knowledge more.”

She would also love to jump at the chance to work with racing teams in the future as well. “That’s the dream for now. We’ll see where it takes me!” Caroline said.

The most ironic part of her story is that Caroline truly has no idea where this love of cars and racing originated. She joined the team knowing absolutely nothing about this type of work, and yet she persevered through the learning curve to get where she is now.

“I love hands-on work; learning things and then getting my hands on a car. I don’t know if I specifically like working on cars or if I like working on a racecar. Not sure which one sounds cooler,” Caroline quipped.

Lately, she has been working on the electric vehicle side of things. A mentor of hers recently introduced her to vehicle dynamics which include things such as the wheels, tires, and everything that connects the body of the car to the ground. She found it fascinating and knew she wanted to go on working on things like this forever.

When Caroline first joined the team, she was one of only four girls and found it fairly intimidating. However, she found the guys on the team to be very nice and welcoming. The number of women on the team has since increased. Caroline shared, “They have become my family and I think that’s why I like being on this team so much, and working on cars with them has been so much fun.”

Crimson Racing is a completely studentrun team where they are responsible for designing, manufacturing, and racing. The first person Caroline met on the team was the EV (electric vehicle) power systems lead Chris Rodriguez. He was one of her first friends on the team and she learned a lot from him. Another teammate, Justin Trammell introduced her to the suspension side of things and Luke Mauer, who Caroline coins as a genius, has always been a great mentor to her. “It’s so cool to have these people who are my friends and my family,” she said.

Of course, the biggest challenge Caroline first encountered was filling in that knowledge gap, but her team made it easy. There are some who join the team with lots of knowledge and others who go in knowing nothing, but all are welcomed. Their team truly comes together when they must work on designing, constructing, and competing in a formula SAE design competition. The SAE organization holds competitions that the Alabama team participates in regularly.

“Of course, it’s not F1. It’s not as high speed as that. We’re not going 200 mph, but it’s definitely strenuous as students. It’s usually a one year cycle and you don’t have that much time to design. Most of our stuff is in-house manufacturing so sometimes we’re up really late designing or manufacturing or fixing the car. Last week, we had a steering rack problem, and I had to do a drive day check, and I was there til we closed,” Caroline shared.

She explained the challenge of having something you work so hard on fall apart, and the resilience it takes to be able to pick it back up and remind yourself it will be okay. Another challenge Caroline finds that a few team members come across is balancing the team responsibilities with their academic studies. When you’re so dedicated to an extracurricular like this, students must remind themselves that school comes first.

“It’s always hard, but at the end of the day we love it, and that’s why we still do it,” Caroline said. She spends nearly all of her time stowed away in Hardaway Hall— even on the weekends—designing and fixing things. She describes the work as constant, but she can’t help it because she loves what she does. Her main motivation is seeing all of the freshman and new members’ enthusiasm for the team. “I can’t give up because they need a team to continue. Everyone motivates each other because things need to get done and we’re here to support each other,” she said.

Now, Caroline is the assistant lead of EV power systems. Because the international competition is moving toward electric vehicles (Germany has completely cut out internal combustion) they created the EV power systems sub team to get ahead. On this sub team, Caroline and her teammates design and assemble safety shutdown circuits by testing and validating all safety systems to shut down the car if something bad should happen.

“Realistically, with electric systems, we’re running a maximum of 420 volts through the car, and if anything bad happens, we could kill someone. So we’re trying to keep it as safe as possible,” Caroline said.

She is also currently working on the suspension subteam where she works on kinematics and geometry design which is where she studies the force and acceleration pertaining to all of the suspension components. She’s hoping to get even more involved in geometry design.

Another aspect of the team that Caroline is involved in is the driver development team. This is actually a new program they instilled so that anyone who wants to learn how to drive the car can have that opportunity. To be a part of this program, one must attend a lecture, take a test and if they pass, they get to continue to attend lectures training them to drive. In this program, Caroline has been able to create a track of her own and explain why she made it the way she did. They also have access to a virtual reality headset and software that allows them to “drive” on a track made by one of their teammates.

Caroline said, “It’s not the real thing, but very helpful in figuring out where you race and how you should race and what your body should be doing.” She has not yet driven the car, because not just anybody can, but does hope to in the future.

Last fall, Crimson Racing competed in the Pittsburgh Shootout and are looking forward to two more competitions this year: the Formula South invitational in April, hosted in Georgia, and the big competition held in Michigan. Caroline likes being able to have these experiences as well as the camping they get to do there.

While the Crimson Racing team demands most of her attention (and she’s happy to give it), Caroline also dedicates her time to her sorority AOII. Her big and little sister are some of her best friends and she likes to spend her time at their sisterhood events. Being involved there is really her escape from the formula team. She also loves to read, cook, and watch Criminal Minds.

Although it seems Caroline has everything going for her, she vulnerably admits that things have not always been this way for her. “ I struggled a lot in high school. I went to three different high schools. […] I was feeling really self conscious. I developed anorexia and had really bad mental health. I ended up going to the hospital during Covid,” Caroline shared.

“I never talk about it, and it’s still kind of hard to talk about, but it’s something I feel like people should know. People think I have it all together but I’m not perfect at all. Everyday is a struggle for me. What pulls me through it is just trying to stay positive and trying to stay motivated and doing what I love with the people I love.”

With girlhood comes a multitude of struggles from high school cliques to college careers, and Caroline has had her fill of them. She did grow up with her younger brother and with engineers around her who were mostly men, but that doesn’t mean she has not fallen victim to imposter syndrome in this line of work. “There’s always that fear that they won’t accept me because I’m a woman or that I won’t learn anything because I’m too scared to ask questions,” Caroline said. Though she isn’t completely sure how she’s gotten over that, she credits a great portion of her progress to how accepting her team has been of her. “I’ve experienced that in other places and that’s where the fear is from. There’s always those few people, but the people I looked up to were very welcoming. They let me ask questions.”

To other young girls or even older women out there who are interested in a maledominated field and feel intimidated, Caroline’s advice is to just go for it. “Don’t let fear stop you. You might be as lucky as me and get people who are so supportive. The guys and girls. I love the girls on this team. Even if you don’t get that lucky and you run into issues, don’t let that stop you. There are going to be people who support you. Get out of your comfort zone. I’m really shy! One thing I regret is not asking as many questions in the beginning even though I wanted to. So go for it. Who cares?!”