When Diane Holl was nine years old and growing up in Guildford, England, her father, Tony, and older brother, David, took her to see her first Formula One race. "I was interested in ballet," she says. "I found racing boring." By the time she was 16, however, Diane was ready to trade in her dreams of a career en pointe for one in the pit and announced to her parents that she wanted to be an auto racing engineer. Today, as the engineering manager for the McDonald's Championship Racing Team, which fields cars on the CART and Indy Lights circuits, Holl is the only female lead engineer in CART, F/1, IRL or NASCAR.
Holl pursued her goal with the singular drive that has become her trademark. In order to get an internship while she was studying at University of South West in Plymouth, she wrote to "every auto team in England—30 or 40 of them," she says. "I was lucky enough to be hired at Reynard, which was very small at the time, and I worked on fabrication and machining."
The only woman in a mechanical engineering class of 65 at South West, she graduated with honors in 1987. Then she started writing letters again, in pursuit of a full-time position, and was lured first by Ferrari and then by Benneton as an F/1 design engineer. She arrived in the U.S. in '94 as the lead research-and-development engineer for Reynard. A year later she joined Tasman Motorsports (now McDonald's) and became the first woman to oversee a winning CART team when Adrian Fernandez won the Molson Indy Toronto in '96.
Holl supervises eight other engineers—all male—and is responsible for such facets as aerodynamics, data acquisition and fuel strategy. More than her gender, it's her relative youth—she's 34—that Steve Home, president of McDonald's Racing, finds exceptional for someone in Holl's position. "Even a man would not get to that level until 40 because it takes a while to build up experience," he says. "There are very few people who have her kind of background."
Holl admits that being a woman in a position of authority in a male-dominated sport changes team dynamics. "They haven't asked me for a bobby pin to hold the chassis together yet," she says, "but there is always the feeling that as a woman, you have to prove yourself. But once you're accepted, there's no problem."