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Enders-Stevens Returns To Cockpit At Route 66

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Wednesday, June 26 2013

Erica Enders-Stevens missed last week's race because of sponsorship issues. But she returns to action – and the hunt for the 2013 Pro Stock championship – this weekend in Joliet. (Photo courtesy of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

NHRA Pro Stock driver Erica Enders-Stevens took last weekend off, but missing the series’ inaugural New England Nationals in Epping, N.H. was anything but a vacation. Enders-Stevens was forced off the track because of sponsorship issues at Cagnazzi Racing and it hurt like crazy.

This weekend, Enders-Stevens will be back in her Chevy Camaro when the NHRA hits the strip at Route 66 Raceway in Joliet, Ill. and she will likely be one of the happiest competitors in the field.

Happy because she is back. And happy, also, because her return will be at a place of special historical and personal significance.

When Enders-Stevens defeated Greg Anderson in the finals at the 2012 O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Nationals in Joliet, she became the first woman to win in Pro Stock and the 14th female overall to win in the sport.

“That photo from the winner’s circle is actually the screen saver on my computer and I get to think about it every day,” Enders-Stevens said. “Certainly the best day of my life and something I had worked for over 20 years for and just a huge blessing to get that monkey off of our back and move on to start winning more races.”

Her father, Gregg, and mother Janet have been with her at every step of her racing career and the family’s dedication to racing has been an integral part of her success. The win at Route 66 was a culmination of years of work and dedication the Enders family has poured into the sport.

“I started in 1992 in a Junior Dragster and dreamed of being a pro driver someday,” Enders-Stevens said. “A lot of kids have that dream and it doesn’t happen for many of them. It was one of those moments where it was hard not to be emotional because we had worked so long and hard to get there. That moment you work your entire life for; you eat sleep and dream for; you breathe drag racing and it is hard to explain that exact moment, but it was a huge deal for my family.”

Adding to the day was a surprising marriage proposal by then-boyfriend Richie Stevens following the race.

“Richie was there and he has been so supportive of me and we have been together a really long time and I was like ‘When are we going to get married?’ and he said ‘When you win a race.’ And I guess he was serious,” Enders-Stevens said. “On the way back to the finish line in the parade vehicle Antron [Brown] told me ‘Somebody told me after my first win to take a moment after all the media calms down to walk down the track and remember that moment.’ I took his advice.

“When we got to the finish line and taking pictures in the left lane where we had beat Greg [Anderson] right on the stripe with the Route 66 sign in the background that is when he asked me to marry him. It was one of days that can never ever be topped in the history of the world.”

The team will be racing a Camaro which made its debut at the event in Gainesville, Fla. and has since raced to three final round appearances, but has yet to win. Enders-Stevens was fourth in Pro Stock points before being forced to the sidelines. She will start back up in fifth place and with a major opportunity to make the season-ending Countdown playoffs.

Cagnazzi’s fate after the upcoming event remains uncertain. But back they are this weekend and it feels great.

Matt Hagan kept his points lead but lost his momentum last weekend when he was beaten in the first round of Funny Car eliminations in Epping.

He will arrive in Joliet determined to recapture the momentum and pad the points lead.

“When you get knocked down, you gotta get back up,” Hagan said. “That’s what I’ve learned from the farm, that’s what I’ve learned from life. We knew there would be a point in the season where you struggle a little bit and I think we’re in it right now. But it’s about how we rebound from it.”

The 2011 Funny Car champion has appeared to be in championship form again in 2013. He’s got to victories and four final-round appearances through 11 events. He’s claimed No. 1 qualifying spots three times and he currently holds a 21 point lead over Cruz Pedregon in the standings.

But in the past two events, Hagan and crew chief Dickie Venables have run into trouble. They have failed to reach the semifinals and their once-comfy points lead is down to the 21 points over Cruz Pedregon.

And a group of DSR folks who are used to getting confetti all over them, are suddenly packing up early on race weekends.

“It’s important to me to make sure the confidence in our pit stays high, that our morale stays high because you can’t get down out here,” Hagan said. “We’ve had a lot of success already this season so it’s easy to get down when you’re not going rounds and when you’re not picking up the trophy.”

Hagan is a past winner at Route 66. He collected a Wally there in 2010. Great time, he said, to make a return visit to Victory Lane.

“The guys are back in the shop for a couple days this week to check everything over and get ready for the next two races. Dickie (Venables) has done such a great job already this year, and he and I are keeping our heads held high for the guys and we’ll see what we can do this weekend.”

Already enjoying upward mobility in Funny Cars are John Force and Courtney Force.

Papa John, after failing to make a semifinal round appearance for seven-straight events, won at Bristol two weeks ago and then made it to the final round last week in Epping before losing.

That loss came at the hands of Courtney. In the past two races, John Force has moved from 10th to fifth in the points. Courtney, who lost to dad at Bristol two weeks ago in the first round, hits Route 66 fourth in points – 15 points ahead of dear old dad.

“We have been picking up bonus points left and right and I think we’re on our way back up to where we want to be in the points,” Courtney Force said this week.

“I would say it (Epping) was a pretty successful weekend. These last two have been great with my dad winning the race on Father’s Day and then my team getting the win on my birthday weekend. This was great for John Force Racing, all of our teams and our sponsors.”

A year ago in Joliet, John Force advanced to the finals before losing to Jeff Arend. Force would love another final-round appearance – preferably with a victory in that round – this weekend.

“Chicago is one of the best tracks to race at and was very good to us last year,” he said. “We went to our first final round of my rookie year in Chicago, so this track is special. I know we are excited to see what our car can do again this year. It would be amazing to get another win right away and keep moving up further in the point standings.”

The first 11 races of the year for Top Fueler Shawn Langdon have been of the type that drivers dream. The type characterized by steady improvement: Langdon and his Al-Anabi Silver team – after winning the season opener and then hitting the skids for a couple weeks – have worked their way up to being the tops among Top Fuelers.

After the fourth race of the season, Langdon was a season-low fourth in points – 144 out of first place. Since that time, he has advanced to the final round of eliminations five times in seven races, won twice and earned 659 points. He now enjoys a 43-point lead in the standings over Tony Schumacher for a turnaround of 187 points.

Langdon enters the Route 66 Nationals having won three races this season, more than any other Top Fuel driver, including two of the last four; he visited the winner’s circle at the season-opening NHRA Winternationals in Pomona, Calif. in February, Topeka, Kan. in May and at Englishtown, N.J. earlier this month. He now has four-career Top Fuel wins.

“I’ve always loved racing in Joliet,” Langdon said this week. “It’s always been near the top of the list for me. I’ve had a lot of success there in the Sportsman classes winning the Jeg’s All-Stars event there in 2005 and ’06 so I am very familiar with the track, and I love going back. The weather seems like it will be pretty good this weekend so we should have some cool conditions and be able to make some good runs. When the air is good and the conditions are cool in Joliet, these cars can go very fast.

“We are in a stretch of four straight races and seven races in eight weeks when you count the Western Swing next month, and that’s really hard on the crew guys. The way to keep everyone fresh and pumped up is to keep getting round wins. You get rounds wins, you keep team morale up, they get some bonus money and everyone’s happy. It’s about continuing our progress as a race team.

“Everyone that works for the Al-Anabi Racing Team believes in the team, believes in what Alan (team manager Alan Johnson) is doing and believes in what Jason (gold Al-Anabi crew chief Jason McCulloch) and Brian (silver Al-Anabi crew chief Brian Husen) are doing. The results are everything. As the cars are doing better and going rounds, it gives the team that little bit of extra motivation to keep going and make sure their jobs are done perfectly so we are able to keep improving our race car.”

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Wednesday, June 26 2013
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