There have been moments in her life when Andrea Mueller has totally undersold herself.
Instead of admitting she was a rocket scientist (which she was for three years) or a motorsports engineer (which she has been for 10 years), she often presented herself as a gardener or teacher.
That usually kept skeptics from rolling their eyes in a yeah, right fashion if she mentioned NASA or NASCAR—thus the little white lies. “If I was on vacation or out with friends, it became very time-consuming to tell people what I did,” she said. “Depending on the situation, it became easier to tell people I was something other than what I really was.”
Roll your eyes if you must, but do so at your peril. Mueller, 37, once worked for NASA as a rocket engineer, concentrating on combustion. Then, scratching an itch she’d felt for years, she went racing with Team Penske in 2007. This year, after proving herself in the lower-level Xfinity Series, she became the first female lead engineer on a NASCAR Monster Energy Cup team, working with crew chief Jeremy Bullins and driver Ryan Blaney at Wood Brothers Racing.
She’s a native of Fresno, California, where her father was an accomplished engine tuner and a familiar face around local speedways. Smitten by racing in grade school, she won several quarter-midget titles and dreamed of greater glory. But next up would have been sprints or Midgets, which didn’t appeal to her. When she realized she’d probably maxed out behind the wheel, she chose to stay in racing on the technical/mechanical side.
“I was old enough at that point (and a good high school student) to know my future had two different paths,” Mueller said. “The question was, would the college money go to college or would the college money go to racing? My mom wasn’t super-excited about the (increased) speeds at the next level, and, frankly, I wasn’t setting the world on fire.”
After graduating from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 2003 with a mechanical engineering degree, she spent three years in the Boeing/Pratt & Whitney space shuttle program.
“I had a professor who tried to talk me out of racing,” Mueller said, smiling at the memory. “He said to keep it a hobby, but not for work because that would ruin it. … I thought, ‘Well, maybe he’s right.’ But after about a year in the space program, I knew I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life.”
After going to Penske in 2007, she spent five years on the Cup side with Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski and Sam Hornish Jr. She was the lead engineer on the Xfinity side from 2012-16, helping Keselowski, Hornish Jr., Blaney, Joey Logano and AJ Allmendinger win 33 races and three owners’ championships. That success led to last winter’s historic promotion to lead engineer on the
No. 21 Ford of team co-owners Eddie and Len Wood.
Not surprisingly, Blaney is among her biggest fans. “She was a great person to bring in as one of our engineers,” he said after two early season top-10 finishes, including runner-up to Kurt Busch in the Daytona 500.
“She was more than ready (for the promotion) because she knows cars and knows what the parts and pieces do, and she comes up with ideas to improve everything. It was great getting her back with Jeremy; they have their own kind of language. She and Jeremy and Grant (Hutchens, another engineer) talk very well together. Engineers are supposed to come up with ideas for the crew chief—or if a crew chief has an idea, they spitball it off each other. It’s like a think tank.
“My confidence level with her has been really high since I got (to Penske) in 2012 and it’s only grown since she got to Cup. She’s earned every (advancement) along the way. I don’t even think about the female-to-male ratio in the garage. I just know she’s a great engineer … a fantastic engineer and very special—not because she’s a female engineer, but because her skill set makes her a great engineer.”
After watching Mueller come through the ranks, Bullins knew she’d help Blaney in his second full Cup season. “She’s really smart,” the crew chief said. “She works hard, does a good job and is very thorough. She learned a lot about being lead engineer from the people around her. She brought that experience to this job. … She complements what I do best and what Grant does best.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Mueller says she doesn’t care about becoming NASCAR’s first female crew chief. “There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff that crew chiefs have to deal with,” she said. “I like the technical side of the sport. The crew chief has more managerial things to take care of. My whole job is the technical side, and that’s the side I enjoy the most.”
Wonder what that Cal Poly professor would think of his student now.