SUSAN WADE: THEY'RE RACERS, NO OTHER LABELS NEEDED

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In some twisted and tasteless way, Pro Stock driver Erica Enders-Stevens might have received the ultimate compliment at Las Vegas. NHRA fans emptied the grandstands before the K&N Horsepower Challenge and SummitRacing.com Nationals winner completed her $100,000 weekend Sunday.

She was treated as a racer, not some novelty "girl racer" used to satisfy an "I was there when she won" neediness.

Maybe Enders-Stevens' amazing feat was not that she won the Horsepower Challenge, doubled up with the Sunday victory, and took home more single-event prize money than any other female drag racer. (She earned a payout bigger than Shirley Muldowney's Top Fuel or Angelle Sampey's Pro Stock Motorcycle series championships.) 

 

 

 

 

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In some twisted and tasteless way, Pro Stock driver Erica Enders-Stevens might have received the ultimate compliment at Las Vegas. NHRA fans emptied the grandstands before the K&N Horsepower Challenge and SummitRacing.com Nationals winner completed her $100,000 weekend Sunday.

She was treated as a racer, not some novelty "girl racer" used to satisfy an "I was there when she won" neediness.

Maybe Enders-Stevens' amazing feat was not that she won the Horsepower Challenge, doubled up with the Sunday victory, and took home more single-event prize money than any other female drag racer. (She earned a payout bigger than Shirley Muldowney's Top Fuel or Angelle Sampey's Pro Stock Motorcycle series championships.)  

Maybe it was that she received the same discourteous, or at least disappointing, behavior from fans not willing to wait around for the class that was hit hardest Sunday by wind delays. She wasn't fawned on as if to say, "Look! A girl can win." Nor was she carrying a banner for women or thumbing her nose at any male chauvinists. She was "just another racer." She was Erica Enders-Stevens, racer.  

She didn’t get the immediate podium winners' treatment and the pictures with Funny Car's Alexis DeJoria and Top Fuel's Tony Schumacher she deserved. It was a completely different scene than when Enders-Stevens shared the 2012 Seattle stage with Courtney Force.

And Force, by the way, was top qualifier in Funny Car at Las Vegas. She set both ends of the track record, including a speed that trumped that of quickest Top Fuel qualifier Antron Brown.

Brown is another NHRA achiever who's gamely enthusiastic with but surely tired of serving as the face of NHRA diversity.

Yes, drag racing keeps proving its diversity and its empowerment of women and minorities, most recently at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. But as Brown said, diversity was not some goal the NHRA finally reached.

"NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing, we never had that problem," he said last Saturday after earning his 35th top-qualifier position.

"Think about it in the '70s," Brown said. "Shirley was out there, doing the Cha-Cha thing, throwin' it down.  The Snake was out there. He says he's Creole, but he knows he's a brother. Nobody else will say it but I'll say it."

Warned that he might be struck by lightning for such talk, Brown said, "No. He knows it. You can't be that cool and not be a brother. C'mon, man – c'mon – You see that swagger he's got? The way he kicks his head to the side and he strolls? C'mon, man talk to me –"

Brown was laughing and teasing, but he became more serious and said that the reason the NHRA always has been inclusive is that "everybody can relate. We're able to do it on our own budget and have fun. All my heroes – Dave Schultz, John Myers, "Big Daddy" Don Garlits – all did their craft in their back yard and came out here and did it on a professional level.

"Look at John Force, our modern-day hero," he said. "He was a truck driver. A truck driver. But he had a passion for the sport. And look where it has taken him. We all have that passion. That's how we live our dream. I'm living my dream."

Getting a little bit carried away with his evangelical flair, the strikingly young 38-year-old said, "I'm an old, beat-up kid from Chesterfield, New Jersey. My family had a septic tank business. I used to pump out sewers for a living. And now I smell the sweet smell of nitro. It gets no better than that."

He said, "I remember as a kid my dad and uncle took a Vega with a small-block engine in it, went out on the weekends – worked hard Monday through Friday, then on weekends they were weekend warriors on the sportsman level, in Super Gas. They put their stuff together as do-it-yourselfers. That's where Warren Johnson came from, back in the day. They made a race vehicle in the back yard and came out to the dragstrip to have fun.

"That's why we're diversified," Brown said.

But Brown knows he has that "African-American" tag hooked to his name, never mind that he is simply an American who never has been to Africa. Until TV networks, sponsors and potential sponsors, and the general public recognize that drag racing is relatable, relevant, and riveting – as well as color-blind and non-patronizing -- that will go on and on. JR Todd recognizes that marketing edge he brings to Bob Vandergriff Racing, although his race gives him no edge, he said, when he puts on his helmet.

Pro Stock Motorcycle's Hector Arana and Funny Car's Cruz Pedregon and Tony Pedregon – all are champions, period – but the asterisk from some will denote "Hispanic."   

Enders-Stevens, DeJoria, Courtney and Brittany Force, Leah Pritchett, Angie Smith, Katie Sullivan, and Dawn Minturn – all know that in this sport, gender and race take a back seat to passion and perseverance.

However, gender and race are the currency the NHRA must use right now to send the message that gender and race aren’t big stories in the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.

Maybe the best example of “girl power” in the NHRA recently was Courtney Force taking charge of her own health and safety. She had complained repeatedly of headaches after driving her Traxxas Ford Mustang early this year, said her head “was going like a ping pong ball” between the protective pads inside her roll cage. Her dad and boss, 16-time champion John Force, downplayed it:  “Aw, it’s probably that new boyfriend. He’ll be a pain. You know, you get a boyfriend, you change your lifestyle.” He even said, “I’m thinking, ‘She’s a girl.’ You know me. I said, ‘Oh, she ain't winning so she's aggravated and everything's a headache.’ ”

But she insisted that she's tough enough to ride out normal tire shake and smart enough to realize the difference between that and a dangerous situation. With mom Laurie urging dad John to "do something about it" and investigate what was wrong, Courtney Force decided to go to Indianapolis to work with her crew in getting the problem fixed with her car once and for all. With encouragement from Verizon IndyCar Series driver Graham Rahal, her boyfriend, she found a qualified concussion specialist, underwent an MRI, and discovered that she had absorbed a mild concussion.

So the NHRA women take charge on and off the track, with no advertising gimmicks assisting.

And maybe Enders-Stevens' rather lonely celebration last Sunday night was a triumph in itself.

 



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