Monday, June 27, 2011

In a Man’s World with Ashley Parlett

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Ashley Parlett can tune brakes with the best of them ... so what if she has a ponytail?
Women are an essential part of modern day NASCAR and women like Ashley Parlett make the transition smooth for all striving to make the job possible.

In a Man’s World is my focus on the women in NASCAR who are in the sport for the love of racing, no glitz or glamour necessary. One of these great examples is Ashley, her experience in NASCAR is lengthy. Working as a brake specialist, then working her way up to a car chief for RAB Racing and now working with Performance Friction Brakes - Parlett has done it all.

Ashley is not in NASCAR for the notoriety, just simply for the love of the sport. She has raced herself, climbing into go-karts at the age of 13.  As a result, the love of the racing was instilled in her at a young age.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Ashley and learning the details of a brake specialist as well as the details of her current job.


Amanda Ebersole (AE):  Can you explain the job of a brake specialist?

Ashley Parlett (AP):  A brake specialist on the team is the person who looks at the race track where they are going and decides on the brake package that is sufficient enough but keeping in mind is also the lightest. They don’t want to put too much brakes on the car because that is additional rotating weight on the car to actually push. You have to make a decision about the fine line between enough brakes and too much as well as adding the extra weight. That person is in charge of making sure that the brakes get on the car.  Additionally, at the race track they make sure there is good communication between the product supplier and the crew chief. Monitoring the brakes and checking the pad wear are essential to making sure that the brakes can maintain throughout the entire race.

What I am doing right now is actually working for one of the manufacturers. My job is to not only sell the brakes but also maintain them for the teams I work with in the circuit.  This includes where they are racing next and what packages the company would suggest to be used for that particular racetrack.  I also have to keep in mind that we have a car out there which is running our brake package.  For example, if the temps are fairly cool then we can afford to take some weight off the disc and make it a smaller disc. We go back into development of a disc, a pad or even a caliper to make it better for the race team and keeping those guys up to date with what we have developed.

We do a lot of engineering on our end for the brakes on the cars. None of the teams make the brakes themselves so we provide them which results in high supply and demand for our products. Every time the car changes, the brakes changes - it either needs less brake, more rear brake, more front brake or more brake all together. During the week I am visiting with my teams who run our packages, visiting new teams to try and sell our packages and making suggestions for what we would like to see put on the cars as well as listening to their feedback for what they would like to see out there as well. When I go to the race track I work with their brake specialist on temps, pad wear, or any kinds of problems and just basically help them maintain as well as monitor their brakes throughout the weekend.

AE: So you travel every weekend to keep up with the situation?

AP: Yes, everywhere excect the fast intermediates like Texas, California and Kansas. At those places the only time that you use brakes is to get on pit road. Sprint Cup cars are really not calling on their brakes much at those specific tracks for it to be an issue. However, they do at the superspeedways (wow) and most people don’t realize that. At superspeedways, short tracks, road courses and the heavy intermediates, they use brakes in the corners.

AE: So from your perspective, heading to the road courses are a challenge?

AP: Yes, brakes play a huge part obviously. We have one of the premier road course packages and have won several Cup and Nationwide races with our packages over the last couple of years. (e.g. Road America - some of the teams with Performance Friction brakes included Roush Fenway Racing and Kenny Wallace just to name a few) We have done some development and made some changes; therefore, for me it will be monitoring the new product and making sure everyone is happy.

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Ashley prepares for a race.
AE: For your current job and your previous job as a car chief, what kind of training was required? Is it a hands-on learning experience versus textbook learning?

AP: Basically for the car chief job, when I moved here (Charlotte, NC) the only thing I knew was working with open wheel cars. I knew very little but I knew mechanically how things worked because I had always built my own race cars. I never went to college for an engineering degree.  Throughout the years of building my own cars and working on World of Outlaw cars, I knew how to build a Sprint car end-to-end with my eyes closed.  When I moved here, clearly stock cars are insanely different and more complicated. I started working with a team and somehow ended up in the brake department.  This was due only to the fact that I did a lot of brake pad development and feedback for a company when I was working with Sprint cars. I got a job with RAB, started there sweeping floors which put me all the way back down on the totem pole. I had to prove myself again, which is standard and normal for anybody. I went from sweeping floors, to building suspensions, then suspensions and setting up the template; after four years, the opportunity came about for a car chief which they chose me specifically for the position.

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The only thing that made me educated about being able to do that was years of building stock cars and knowing how we do everything from end-to-end on the race car. Years of doing this makes it become second nature. Luckily with RAB we had a few seasons where we wrecked a lot (John Wes Townley drove the Zaxby’s car for RAB) and we rebuilt a lot of race cars. When you are with a small team, you don’t come in as the brake specialist and only work doing that specific job.  One day I would be setting up the car, next day I would restock the toolbox and then the following day I would be onto something else. When everything started to fall apart at RAB – we didn’t have a sponsor, a crew chief,  and people were quitting; I started to look around for other opportunities. I talked to the guys at PFB (Performance Friction Brakes (http://www.performancefriction.com/) and they thought I fit the mold of what they were looking for. I left RAB, took the job and started working for the brake manufacturer.  I feel like I have had to learn the products but I always had the hands-on experience.  Now, I have learned the products, codes and business side of brake manufacturing. 

AE: Being a woman in the industry, what has been your biggest challenge? Is it a challenge to be a woman in the garage of NASCAR?

AP: No, I don’t think so. The way I feel about it, I work on race cars because that is what I chose to do as a kid. It has never been hard for me to be a woman in the sport. The way I see it, I always have to work harder than everyone else around me. If I want to do my job and tighten the bolts just as tight as the guys, I had to work twice as hard. I had to lift weights, have thick skin and the only way to get respect is to just walk in the door then go to work. For every guy I have worked with in my entire life (in the racing industry), the only thing I ever had to do to earn their respect was to work just as hard as they did  - side by side with them.

Anytime you say, "I can’t get this loose, can you get this for me?" - it’s a burden on them and makes their job harder. Yes, there is a ponytail hanging out the back of my hat at the end of the day, but I love building race cars and they love building race cars. I think the only thing that is difficult is going to new teams and them understanding that I am not there to make drama amongst the guys.  If someone drops some inappropriate names, I don’t get bent out of shape about it. There is a little bit of hesitation on new hires because there is a chemistry that has to happen on a team and anything that could upset that balance is nerve wracking for management. If there is anything that is difficult, it is the stereotypes - the women that are like “I am a girl in the sport" and all that stuff doesn’t help me out at all. Stop pulling out the fact that you are a girl, drive your race car or turn the wrench on your race car just don’t make it hard on everyone else. I am not doing this for the glory, I am doing this because I love it. I want to be a crew chief someday and I don’t care if I am the first woman crew chief. If I am the 50th woman crew chief, I don’t give a crap. Your career and your talent will take you much further then any title of being the first women to do whatever in NASCAR.

AE: You mentioned that there is a struggle as a new hire (as a female), is there an issue with acceptance that women can and do the same jobs as men?

AP: I don’t know that it’s accepted, it’s just an unknown territory. The problem is that I am cut out of a different cloth than the other girls and they are all cut out of their own cloth as well. Everybody is different, you hire a man and he doesn’t do his job - you cuss him out. You do that to a woman and the next thing you know is that your job is in trouble, there are all these things they are afraid of. On top of it all, we are still on the cusp of a NASCAR official suing NASCAR because of things being said about her. I don’t blame them for being scared, nervous to stick a woman in the middle of it all.

AE: With that all in mind, if there is a woman who has the drive and passion to work on cars, would you tell her to go for it?

AP: Yes, absolutely, you learn a lot along the way. The first day I arrived in Charlotte I cried, not knowing how I was doing to learn everything. You have to understand going in that it is a long battle, a long road.

AE: From what I read, you are also a stunt car driver? Is that something you do often and is it for movies/TV?

AP: Yes and I love it. I did it about five years ago because a company I worked for did promotions.  Every once in a while they needed a girl to come in and drive. Once I worked for RAB, I was too busy, which was a hard pill to swallow at times. You make outstanding money on commercials and I had to pass it up, leaving that part of my life behind because racing and the team came first. Now being with PFB, if and when I can move my schedule around to make it happen, I can still do it. Actually I have a shoot Sunday where I get to wreck something. It’s going to be great, I am ready to wreck something! My schedule with Performance Friction is a little more lenient, not entirely, but if I can schedule something I usually try to work it out. (commercials or movies?) The last couple have just been commercials.  It’s the only thing outside of work that I really enjoy doing besides racing and I haven’t raced a car in a few years.

AE: Besides everything else you also write a blog "Is that grease or mascara...", is writing a passion for you?

AP: I actually have been working on a project that I can’t talk much about right now, in order to make money from writing which I never thought I could do. I haven’t been able to blog as much because all of my energy has been going into my project but I do enjoy it, somehow it just happened. Someone said to me, “Ash you got an interesting story, you should keep a blog” - initially when I did it was just for my mom, dad and the people who grew up knowing me. I guess people like it and it's entertaining so I definitely enjoy it. Honestly, there is a lot of blog entries I don’t post because they are very exposing of who I am as a person which includes sensitive matters that I am not sure I am ready to share with everyone. There is still a little of me that is holding back on it, but I enjoy writing ... I am the world's worst speller though.

(Thank God for spell check Ashley..lol)

AE: Between your blog and Twitter @Just_AP you seem to have a great connection with fans. One particular tweet you sent the other day made me laugh.. you said, “I just rebuilt the carburetor on my lawnmower for the 2nd time…”

AP: Honestly I was thinking about that, I was finishing and putting it all back together and thought - I don’t know what people do who don’t know how to do these things. I am so blessed to have the opportunity to know how to because if not I would have bought three lawn mowers by now. If I didn’t know where to find the problem, I would have went and bought another one. It has been a blessing.
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Ashley and mom JoAnne at Dover
I love my mother but she knows nothing about mechanics. I remember one time when I was a kid our minivan broke down and I remember my dad showing up to help. My mom said “I don’t know, the key won’t work.” As a little girl I remember thinking, it's not the key! The key is what makes it know that the right owner is starting it, the key isn’t broken. My mom, like I am sure a lot of people do, gets in their vehicles and they turn the magical key that makes it go. I like the idea of turning the magical key, knowing that there is fuel and oxygen mixing and causing combustion, which is causing pistons to go up and down which creates power. I like knowing those things; whereas, folks like my mom are content with the magic key which is great for her. I don’t think I could stand not knowing what goes on behind the magical key.

Thank you to Ashley for your time and insightful conversation and for sharing your
photos with us. 


NASCAR By the Numbers and In the Rearview Mirror (looking back at NASCAR's history) are Amanda's two weekly columns with Skirts and Scuffs, but as an Associate Editor her duties are limitless. Amanda also strives to provide exclusive interviews for the readers of Skirts and Scuffs. To read her past columns and interviews click here. Feel free to contact Amanda via Twitter.

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