On The Track, The 'First Lady' Of Audi Calls The Shots

Aug 16, 2014
Originally published on January 30, 2015 8:39 am

As part of a series called "My Big Break," All Things Considered is collecting stories of triumph, big and small. These are the moments when everything seems to click, and people leap forward into their careers.

Leena Gade is the race engineer for Audi Sport.

She oversees the mechanics and engineers, and she's on the radio talking the drivers through the course.

In 2011, she became the first female race engineer to win the Le Mans, the legendary 24-hour endurance race, with her team's Audi R18 race car.

When it comes to split-second decisions on the track, Gade is the one who calls the shots.

"You've got to always be very sure of what you're doing, even if 90 percent of you doubts the decision you're about to make," Leena Gade says. "You have to convince everybody else that it's the right thing to do."

She says one of the most exciting races was the Le Mans in 2011. With under an hour remaining in the race, the driver noticed a slow leak in the rear tire.

"The problem was, we were on for the win," she says.

Her team had just one pit stop left, and the car was still in the lead. Gade had a decision to make: Lose time changing tires or keep the driver on the track and risk a blowout.

"In the end, we made the call," she says.

She instructed the driver to come in to change the tires. The opponent in second place pitted at the same time.

"All the pressure was on our mechanics to get it right," Gade says. "It was one of those stops that wasn't perfect; they fumbled a little bit with the wheel nuts. But the car went back out with new tires, and the opposition hadn't seen it coming."

Gade's team narrowly won the 24-hour race.

"It was by the smallest of margins, as well," she says. "Just over 13 seconds."

She made history that year fulfilling a lifelong motorsport dream.

"I was 9 years old when I got interested in engineering," she says.

When her family lived in India, Gade and her younger sister Teena spent their time taking things apart and putting them back together.

"It was because the electricity always used to get turned off where we lived," she says. "You kind of got bored, and dad's toolkit was around. Just open stuff up."

When her family moved to the U.K., the Gade sisters discovered Formula 1 racing on TV. She says she'd never seen anything like it. The commentary of James Hunt and Murray Walker drew her in to each race.

"Both of them were so passionate about the sport," she says. "From the moment we started watching it, we both just got hooked."

She went on to study engineering in college with her sights set on racing.

"I think my big break came when I applied to a team to be involved in a project," she says. "And the designer happened to be working for Audi Sport as a race engineer."

The designer was also looking for an assistant.

"One conversation led to another, and he asked if I'd be interested in doing it," she says. "At the time, I actually didn't clock that it was for Audi Sport. It was only after he started showing me some data that I suddenly realized what a big deal it was."

Gade signed on, and she was part of the team.

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Transcript

TESS VIGELAND, HOST:

Time now for the latest installment of our series "My Big Break" about career triumphs big and small. Leena Gade is the race engineer for Audi Sport. She oversees the mechanics, the engineers, and she's on the radio talking the drivers through the course. Well, in 2011, she became the first female race engineer to win the Le Mans, the legendary 24-hour endurance race with her team's Audi R18 race car. When it comes to split second decisions on the track, Gade is the one who calls the shots.

LEENA GADE: You've got to always be very sure of what you're doing, even if 90 percent of you doubts the decision you're about to make, you have to convince everybody else that it's the right thing to do. The one that stands out the most is at Le Mans in 2011. We were having a slow puncture. The slow puncture was on a rear tire. And the problem was, we were on for the win. There was one more pit stop to make. We'd literally just done a pit stop and sent the car back out. And I just remember at the time thinking this is not a decision I'm incredibly comfortable with because if it's a rear tire, anything could happen. A blowout or something like that could put you out of the race at this point. In the end, we made the call. They also had one stop to make. Both cars pitted at the same time. All the pressure was on our mechanics to get it right.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIT STOP)

GADE: It was one of those stops that wasn't perfect. they fumbled a little bit with the wheel nuts. But the car went back out with new tires, and the opposition hadn't seen it coming. It was out by the smallest of margins as well. It was just over 13 seconds, so not very much after 24 hours.

I was nine years old when I got interested in engineering. My parents are originally from India and although I was born in the U.K., my family moved back when I was nine years old with the intention of settling there. As it turned out, it didn't work out. We came back to the U.K. three years later. But in that time frame, my sister, who's three years younger than me, we both used to spend a lot of our time after school pulling things apart. And it only was because the electricity always used to get turned off where we lived. You kind of got bored. Dad's tool kit was around - just open stuff up.

We came back to the U.K. Teena, my sister, went back to the school where a lot of her friends were. And at this point, they were all watching Formula 1. She came home from school one day and said right, this weekend we're going to watch this thing called Formula 1, it's on the television. The commentators were an ex-Formula 1 racing driver and then just an enthusiast - it was James Hunt and Murray Walker.

(SOUNDBITE OF FORMULA 1 RACE)

JAMES HUNT: And you can see how the two...

MURRAY WALKER: Yeah, I think it was a most unfortunate accident.

GADE: And both of them were so passionate about the sport. From the moment we started watching it, we both just got hooked.

(SOUNDBITE OF FORMULA 1 CAR)

GADE: Having convinced my parents it was a really good idea to go to university to study engineering, we both picked - mechanical in her case and aerospace in mine and just had the intention of just getting into Motorsport. I think my big break came when I applied to a team to be involved in a project and the designer happened to be working for Audi Sport as a race engineer. And as he was looking for an assistant, one conversation led to another, and he asked if I'd be interested in doing it. It was going to be based in the United States, was I interested? And at the time, I actually didn't clock that it was for Audi Sport. It was only after he started showing me some data that I suddenly realized what a big deal it was. This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I can't afford to not do it. And I guess that was the big break point really for me.

VIGELAND: Leena Gade from Audi Sport. By the way, at this year's Le Mans, Gade and her team won again. You don't have to be a race engineer. We want to hear your story. Tell us your big break. Send us an email at mybigbreak@npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.