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Respect from garage comes in her own time

CART's only female mechanic has climbed the ranks after a late start.

photo
[Times photo: Bill Serne]
Tess Brelia goes to work changing a tire for American Spirit Team Johansson during a practice session.

By SHARON GINN
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 22, 2003


ST. PETERSBURG -- Frustrated by the wait to join her local fire department, Tess Brelia five years ago decided to sign up for the Bridgestone Racing Academy not far from her native Toronto, hoping to learn how to tinker with the motorcycles she had owned and driven for years.

Not even a year later, Brelia found herself working as a mechanic for a Toyota Atlantic team, her racing career in full gear.

Now Brelia, 34, is in her fifth season as a full-time mechanic, her first in CART as a member of the recently created American Spirit Team Johansson. She is the only female mechanic in CART, a designation that by now Brelia is used to owning wherever she goes.

"Once I started doing it, I really enjoyed it," she said. "It kind of just happened. You can always learn so much. You never know it all. It's a nonstop learning process, which makes it really nice."

More than her long ponytail has gotten Brelia noticed. She has made a name for herself while working on totally different cars on her way up through various circuits.

In 2000 she was one of three mechanics named to the Indy Lights All-Star Team, and in 2001 and 2002 won championships with both her cars.

In 2002, in addition to working on Toyota Atlantic champ Jon Fogarty's car, she was in the pits for one Indy Racing League event, working on Hideki Noda's car in the Chevy 500 at Fort Worth, Texas.

CART is the most specialized circuit she has worked. For years Brelia has worked on virtually everything on her cars, but her duties with Team Johansson's No. 31 car, driven by rookie Ryan Hunter-Reay, are focused on the front end.

She got the job in January after talking with Hunter-Reay, whom she knew from Toyota Atlantic.

Not one to dwell on her status as the lone female mechanic, Brelia said she never feels out of place in the garage, and she is treated like anyone else.

"Everybody's awesome," she said. "The last two years I've won championships with my cars, and it's to the point where you earn the respect. And everybody's really cool. As long as you can sort of be one of the guys, you're fine."

The life of a mechanic isn't easy: There's constant travel, 12-hour days, and little to no recognition. Married four years, the upheaval for Brelia and her husband has been constant. These days she calls Indianapolis home, but the past five years have included moves to California and Niagara Falls.

Still, like most racing team members, Brelia finds the life anything but a drag.

"It's different every day," she said. "You never know what's going to happen."


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