GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Audio and story by Race Chaser Online Open Wheel Correspondent Joel Sebastianelli — Elite Motorsports photo —
If Erica Enders-Stevens’ drag racing career could ever be summed up in one word, perhaps the most fitting would be “first.”
When she began racing in the NHRA Pro Stock class in 2005, she became the first woman to do so since 1993. In the years that followed, she checked off even more firsts: first woman qualify in the top-half of a Pro Stock field, first woman to reach a final round in the class, first to qualify first, and of course, first to win an event in Pro Stock in 2012.
But as the 2015 season continues to accelerate into full swing, she entered this weekend’s Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals with momentum left over from the most important highlight of all — her first world championship.
Enders-Stevens won six national events last season to capture the crown and led off the new campaign with back to back No. 1 qualifiers. Riding high into one of the NHRA’s most prestigious competitions, her mindset and ultimate goal haven’t changed much.
“If I’ve learned anything, I’ve learned that you can go from hero to zero in a hurry. Week in and week out, you start over with a clean slate,” Enders-Stevens said following her final qualifying run on Saturday.
“Aside from where you are in the points standings, track conditions vary. Atmospheric conditions vary. Racecar setups vary. I’m a human variable with how I drive the race car. Every race track that we go to is different in that sense, but the confidence level is certainly high. Team morale is high and that’s where I feel really blessed.”
Enders-Stevens will be fighting an uphill battle in a new car on Sunday at Auto-Plus Raceway in Gainesville. She qualified seventh at 6.551 seconds and a top speed of 212.36 mph, matching her with tenth seeded Jimmy Alun (6.561/212.06) in the opening round of eliminations on the Pro Stock ladder.
“We have not shown our cards, by any means. We have not made a good run at all. You tend to think differently about Sunday when you’re not running as well as you want to, but we’re just trying to stay positive and going back to what we know.”
“I’m very optimistic. I’m very confident, but we’ve just got to battle through these little bugs.”
The Gatornationals is the third event on the NHRA Mello Yellow Drag Racing Series calendar. Air temperatures in the 80s and sunny skies raised the temperature of the track to around 105-110 degrees. Coupled with moderate wind in the late afternoon, conditions are much different from the opening races in February at Pomona and Phoenix.
Unfavorable seeding for the elimination rounds and an overnight dose of changes to the car could make for a daunting challenge, but Enders-Stevens has performed well at Gainesville in the past. Despite never winning in Gainesville, she notched a runner-up finish at this event in 2006.
Although the end result on track remains to be seen, the atmosphere off the track with the Elite Motorsports crew remains positive throughout any weekend.
“Even before we won a race together, our team has a lot of natural team chemistry. Most importantly, we have a lot of fun together. So even on a weekend like this weekend when we’re ‘sucking,’” she laughed, “a bad day at the race track is better than a good day at work.”
2015 is an exciting time for Erica, but her husband Ritchie was also the beneficiary of great news this weekend. Although sponsorship struggles have held Stevens out of competition so far, he’ll make his return in April at the SpringNationals in Houston.
Stevens will pilot a new Dodge Dart chassis powered by a HEMI engine tuned by Johnson & Johnson Racing. When Stevens straps into the Mopar machine for ten scheduled events, he’ll do so as the teammate to 2012 Pro Stock champion Allen Johnson, pitting the husband and wife duo against each other on different teams.
“I’m really proud for him to get back out here,” Enders-Stevens said of her other half. “We’re not going to be teammates so it will definitely be some cutthroat competition. But at the end of the day, we both share the same passion and we both have such an understanding for the dream. I know how hard he’s worked to get back out here — I know how hard I worked to get to this point, so it’s really cool that we’ll both be out here.”
When asked, Erica Enders-Stevens looks back on her success in 2014 fondly. But on Sunday afternoon, her focus will shift solely be on the present and her climb up the board to claim her first Gatornationals title.
Chris McGaha’s 6.507-212.76 performance was enough for the No. 1 qualifying slot and the only first round bye in Pro Stock, with only 15 cars on the ladder this weekend.
Jason Line is seeded second with a 6.522-213.13, while Phoenix winner Rodger Brogdon rolls out with the third seed on the ladder.
Final eliminations begin on Sunday at 11 a.m. local time.
Listen in to an extended cut of Race Chaser Online’s interview with Enders-Stevens from staff writer Joel Sebastianelli during the Gatornationals weekend in Gainesville below: