ERICA ENDERS JOINS EXCLUSIVE PRO STOCK CLUB WITH HER SIXTH WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP
Erica Enders not only is the winningest woman driver in NHRA history, but on Sunday, she further cemented herself as one of the best drivers ever in the Pro Stock Class.
Enders clinched her sixth Pro Stock world championship when she beat Elite Motorsports teammate Fernando Cuadra Sr. in the first round of the In-N-Out Burger NHRA Finals in Pomona, California.
“No, it hasn’t,” said Enders when asked if her sixth world championship had sunk in. “I mean, I had obviously dreamt it and hoped it my entire life, even before drag racing and then, of course, my entire career. The season obviously started really poorly, and it took till Chicago to figure our problem out. And then the next race was Bristol and we put our JHG Melling Performance car in the winner's circle there. So that's kind of where our season turned and still was a dog fight obviously. Only won four on the season on the heels of obviously a career-best season last year.
“But I'm really thankful for the position that we were in. ... I talk about my guys all the time, and when their backs are against the wall, they perform, and we execute, and it makes me so proud to be their driver. So, crazy year, but we ended up on top. We took the long way, but we're here.”
With her sixth Pro Stock world championship, Enders is tied with Warren Johnson for second on the Pro Stock all-time list, trailing only the late Bob Glidden, who won 10 world titles.
Enders has now won world championships in 2014-15, 2019-2020, 2022-23 all while driving for Richard Freeman’s Elite Motorsports team. In the process, she has won 47 national events in Pro Stock. Add that to the Wally she won in Super Gas in 2004 in Houston, and she has 48 national-event wins, which is the most by a woman in NHRA history.”
On Sunday, Enders lost in the semifinals to Matt Hartford, but it couldn’t dampen her joy of another world title.
Enders took a moment to address her season’s turning point in her Johnson’s Horsepowered Garage/Melling Performance/Scag Chevy Camaro.
“We solved it on the fourth session, or third, however many we ran and the final qualifying session in Chicago, and first round of eliminations," against Aaron Stanfield, Enders said. “We were low for the round. Unfortunately, I lost on a holeshot, but we knew at that point that we had figured it out, and it applied across the board with a lot of our cars. Mine was the one that had the most substantial issue, obviously. But yeah, we were just really fortunate that we found the issue, but it was because we just kept plugging away at it.
“I mean, we knew we didn't have a horsepower problem, but, man, me and Richard changed engines in my car like three and four times a weekend just trying to figure out what it was. And then you start grasping at straws and you go down these roads that you don't even need to be going down and you kind of just lose your footing. But we rallied and we figured it out.”
Enders acknowledged she wasn’t in the business of sharing her team’s trade secrets.
“It's kind of like Bob Glidden and throwing his firejacket over his intake manifold. I mean, it's just, if I told you, then maybe somebody else would figure their problem out, too,” Enders said. “But it's all about teamwork and it's exactly what makes the dream work. I know that's a coin phrase, but I love it and I believe in it, and I'm thankful for my guys. They never give up and they don't complain when we get our teeth kicked in like other people do. They just put their heads down and they go to work, and we turn the beacons on by doing it the right way.”
When she was 14th in the points standings after Chicago – the sixth race of the season – and had just two round wins, it was taxing on her mentally.
“I question myself. It's easy to get down on yourself and to doubt yourself. And I'm thankful to have my sister there and my dad that they believe in me when I don't, and my team as well,” Erica said. “But Brittany Force said it in Las Vegas at their press conference: It's easy to be positive when you're winning. And, I mean, she's so spot on. It's when you're going through the really troublesome times that you have to dig deep, and you have to fight with all the heart that you have. But, yeah, I questioned it and then I questioned, do I still have it? Am I too old? Am I this? Am I that? And Greg [Anderson] and I joke old guys to the front and look at the end of the season again this year. So, we do still have, it turns out, and as long as the fire's lit underneath me, I'll dig deep to have it, I promise.”
Even as impressive as Enders’ resume is she realizes nothing has come easily.
“I think going through those times make you stronger and they make you a little bit smarter and a lot tougher. Thick skin wasn't something that I had naturally. I had to acquire it,” Enders said. “But for seven years, as you know, we went winless in seven final rounds. We lost before we finally won one in Chicago in 2012. But going through those valleys is what made me better because I never had a car that was going to be parked in the winner's circle, so I had to rise to the occasion. It taught me to be a better driver when we didn't qualify.”
Back in 2005, Enders began her NHRA Pro Stock career, winning eight rounds in her rookie season.
There were times – from 2005-2010 – when Enders was doubting her drag racing career choice. Those six years, Enders had zero wins and her best finish was 13th in the points standings. In 2008, she ran just one Pro Stock event and was 44th in the points.
“When we lost first round, I'd park it right up there on the guardwall when Pro Stock was running, and I'd watch all my competitors and see what they did and see if I could learn something from them,” Enders said. “And it's those moments that make you better. But on the heels of a career-best season last year and coming out, we qualify No. 2 at Gainesville, and then my car wouldn't start first round. We got control-alt-deleted, and it wouldn't even start. And from that point, it was like a tailspin for seven or eight races. And I mentioned it a minute ago, digging deep and finding the issue.
“It's definitely a gut check and it's not something that's easy to go through. But I relate it to the Dodge year in 2016, we went back-to-back world championships and then finished ninth and 10th in the world after that and barely won first round all season long. But going through those moments and still having my core group of people, nobody pointed fingers, nobody got mad and quit. Nobody rolled up the carpet. We just went to work. And that's exactly what we did this year. And it just shows you what happens when you don't give up.”
Enders graduated from Texas A&M in College Station with a degree in marketing and business management. There were times she thought leaving the drag racing and entering the business world would be a good option.
However, her passion for the sport – and Pro Stock – fuels her and all of it is worthwhile when you have a rollercoaster year like 2023 and wind up a world champion.
“I think the words that describe this season are tenacity and just going out and executing the best that we can and not giving up. I mean, like you mentioned, every championship has its story, like what Doug [Kalitta] and Leah [Pruett] just had to go through, final round, winner take all is what Jason Line and I did in 2014. And [Matt] Hagan and I were talking about it, people don't understand the internal pressure and what's happening in your body, and you eat an 80-gallon bucket of Tums and you're just trying not to die or throw up and you don't know what's going to happen. It's just like you're just living right on the edge of everything. And it goes to show you how much this means to all of us. But this season, it's just another reminder that you don't give up.”
Although the ink was barely dry on the 2023 season, Enders was already looking for a three-peat and title No. 7 in 2024.
“I think as soon as those rigs push the clutch in and roll out of the gate,” said Enders when she starts thinking about 2024. “We know what we've got to do, and we know what our competitors are going to do. So, we'll go to work. But as soon as we get back to the shop on Monday, we fly -- or Tuesday now, but we fly home -- we will be at the race shop working. And as soon as the rigs get home, the cars will be unloaded. I've got a new car that Jeg [Coughlin Jr.] has been driving that we've got to figure out. So, all hands on deck as soon as we get back. There's no, unfortunately no umbrella drinks and beach sand and lawn chairs in my immediate future. But that's what makes it so fun and so great is that it's these moments that make all that hard work worth it.”