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Car Out Of Hock, Enders-Stevens Going For Championship

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, September 22 2013

Erica Enders-Stevens has returned to the track and will start eliminations today in Texas from P1. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Harold Hinson)

ENNIS, Texas – Her historic, gender-breaking NHRA Pro Stock victory was capped by a marriage proposal, a series of real-world events fit for a second storybook Disney Channel movie.

As the cynics in the press box are wont to say…you can’t make this stuff up!

Erica Enders’ marriage to Richie Stevens Jr. is doing just fine, thanks. But Corporate America’s honeymoon with the first woman to drive a “Factory Hot Rod” to a national event victory has waned during the 14 months since Erica trailered four-time world champion Greg Anderson at Route 66 Raceway in Joliet, Ill.

“I don’t know why,” Enders said Saturday afternoon at the Texas Motorplex, shortly after qualifying No. 1 for the 28th annual AAA Texas NHRA FallNationals. “That’s the $2.5-million question.”

A lack of sponsorship funds forced team-owner Victor Cagnazzi to park Enders and her Chevrolet Camaro for six of eight Mello Yello Drag Racing Series events leading into Round 1 of last weekend’s Countdown to

Erica Enders-Stevens is baffled by a lack of interest from Corporate America. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Garry Eller)

the Championship playoffs.

Armed with financial backing from Husky Liners, Enders-Stevens returned to the tour for the sixth annual Carlyle Tools NHRA Carolina Nationals at zMAX Dragway in Concord, N.C. Erica qualified fourth and advanced to the semifinals, a result that placed her seventh among the 10 drivers eligible to compete for the 2013 Pro Stock championship.

Amped by that performance, Enders-Stevens qualified No. 1 here, covering Billy Meyer’s all-concrete Motorplex quarter-mile in 6.557-seconds and 210.93 mph during Saturday’s first of two sessions of rain-shortened time trials. Pre-race ceremonies are scheduled for 10 a.m. (CDT) Sunday, with eliminations at 11. ESPN2 and ESPN2HD will televise three hours of coverage starting at 7:30 p.m. (CDT).

“It’s certainly a great feeling (to qualify No. 1), especially to be at home here in Texas,” said Enders-Stevens, a native of Houston now living in New Orleans. “That’s really important for our morale and team confidence and stuff of that nature. Really proud of my guys and it (her time) stuck. We only had two qualifiers, so we’ll have a little bit more peace of mind going into Sunday. But we’ve certainly got our work cut out for us; the No. 1 qualifier does not mean anything on Sunday.”

A five-time NHRA national event winner, Enders-Stevens posted her first pole of this truncated season, which saw the team skip the entire three-race Western Swing this summer and remarkably remain Countdown-eligible.

“It’s not an ideal situation, obviously,” said Erica, who is making her third playoff appearance. “It was really tough to sit at home and watch. We missed out on testing and seat time for me as the driver, so the guys (her competitors) definitely have that edge on us as far as more runs and more test time and whatnot that we didn’t have the budget to do.”

Enter Winfield Consumer Products, Inc./Husky Liners, a leading producer of custom-fit floor and cargo liners as well as aftermarket automotive accessories for light trucks, SUVs, vans and cars. The company was founded by Robert D. Tyler, who serves as president and card-carrying member of Erica’s Official NHRA Fan Club.

“So, to be back out here with Husky Liners – they came on-board at the very last minute going into Charlotte and the first race of the Countdown,” said Enders-Stevens, who finished a career-best fourth in the 2012 Countdown final standings in Cagnazzi’s stealth-black Chevy Cobalt.

“Honestly, I just feel blessed to have the opportunity to be out here,” Erica said, “because it really gives you time to think when you’re at home watching instead of being out here competing – knowing that you have a great team standing behind you. We’ve got great horsepower. We’ve just needed the money and Bob Tyler from Husky Liners stepped-up…and I’m happy. I’m happy to be here, whether we’re (No.) 1 or 16. We’re in the show for Sunday and I’m excited.”

Simultaneously, Erica admittedly remains “baffled” by the lack of interest exhibited by Corporate America in light of the media buzz created by her four national event victories in 2012. Erica, who will turn 30 on Oct. 8, arguably is not close to maxing-out her driving talent. A daughter of Gregg and Janet Enders, her family’s dedication to drag racing already has been documented in the Disney Channel original movie “Right on Track.” Erica’s win at Route 66 Raceway in July 2012 was the culmination of 20 years of good old middle-class America persistence.

Again, you don’t have to make this stuff up because it’s real.

“We certainly have a lot of value to offer somebody,” said Enders-Stevens, the 14th woman to win in big-time drag racing and easily the most successful female Pro Stock driver in NHRA history. “I mean, we’re 10 percent of a NASCAR (Sprint Cup Series) budget and our sport is the most fan-friendly sport on the planet. Every ticket’s a pit pass, so it’s a great venue to showcase your products. We’ve got a great team, a great organization.

“You know, I’m a marketing major from Texas A&M. I’ve got some of the brightest guys in the business working on sponsorship 24/7, so it’s a little baffling. We didn’t expect it to be easy by any means but it’s a little baffling that somebody hasn’t taken advantage of being on our team. We could totally drive sales and revenue for them. Bob Tyler and the guys at Husky Liners saw the opportunity, and hopefully it connects them into something in the future.”

Asked how many sponsor presentations she has delivered this season, Enders laughed and said, “I can’t count that high. Really, I’ve made cold-calls, I’ve chased every lead in the book. My fans have been so supportive. It’s been really humbling to get the emails and the Facebook messages and tweets like, ‘Hey, my uncle works here…we have a foot in the door at this place…’ I’ve chased every lead that I could. Even fans were offering to send checks _ $100 here…$1,000 here…’Can we do a fund-raiser?…We just want to see you back on the track.’ So I’ve had great support and I’m glad to be here.”

Enders-Stevens will be matched first-round Sunday against fellow-Texan Chris McGaha, who qualified his Harlow Sammons of Odessa Dodge Avenger 16th at 6.654-seconds and 208.68 mph. A clear favorite to win that round, Erica is equally confident that she again can be a consistent player vs. a stout lineup ladder featuring reigning world champion Allen Johnson as well as former champs Anderson, Jeg Coughlin Jr., Jason Line and Mike Edwards, the current point-leader.

“We are (championship-caliber), for sure. I don’t even have to hesitate to answer that,” said Erica, whose Camaro is tuned by crew chiefs Dave Connolly and Tommy Utt. “I’ve got the best guys in the business and they’ve stood behind me from Day One, as I have for them. We’re lucky to have a great group of guys, a group of friends that work well together. I think that’s a little bit of our edge, honestly.

“We keep joking that we’re going to pull a ‘Robert Hight’ on ‘em. He got into the Countdown a few years ago (2009) in the No. 10 position and came back and won the (Funny Car) world championship. I don’t think we have an underdog team or race car by any means, but we’re fighting from the underdog position. We’ve got the mentality to go up there like every run’s our last, because it can be pulled out from under you so quickly. It’s really a crappy situation, but we’re going to give it our all.”

During her forced absence from Pro Stock, Enders-Stevens kept her skills sharp by driving a Pro Modified Camaro owned by Keith Haney in the American Drag Racing League. She is scheduled to drive the car once more during the World Finals IX on Oct. 19-20 at Royal Purple Raceway in Baytown, near Houston. Brandon Pesz of Lethal Acceleration will continue as her crew chief for that gig. This summer marked the first time Erica had ever wheeled a nitrous-powered race car, and she is keeping her notes.

“It’s a completely different animal than a Pro Stock car – 1,000 more horsepower and four kits of nitrous. So it’s a beast,” said Enders-Stevens, who launched her Pro Stock career in 2005 after graduating from the NHRA’s Summit Racing Jr. Drag Racing League and Super Gas and Super Comp divisions of the Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series.

“I mean, yeah, seat time is priceless. I’ll drive anything, given the opportunity,” Erica said. “Keith Haney stepped-up when we missed the Western Swing for NHRA and I jumped at the opportunity. You’re doing burnouts, backing up, the same visualization and track-prep and things of that nature, so that certainly helped me from a driving standpoint. It beat the heck out of sitting at home and pretending I was driving while I watched it on ESPN2. Kept my skills sharp.

“I would rather be so busy that I can’t sit down than to be sitting at home wishing-and-hoping that we were out here. I’m blessed to have the opportunity and we’re going to give it our all. You’ve got my word on that.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, September 22 2013
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