Photos: Courtesy of the NHRA
Pro Stock’s energetic Erica Enders-Stevens has become the NHRA’s latest sensation this season. But Enders-Stevens is hardly the new kid on the block. It’s taken her 10 years, and countless trips down that quarter-mile, to earn the respect and accolades her fellow competitors heap upon her that are matched only by the roars of support from the crowds.
But now she gets to enjoy the payoff that her dedication to her craft has brought in the seat of the ELITE Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro. The current Mello Yello points leader has had two wins in 2014, the latest at her home track in Houston, as well as coming home victorious from the recent K&N Horsepower Challenge in Las Vegas with the season’s biggest cash prize.
Now she’s in line to become the NHRA’s 100th female champ.
“This is the 10th year that I have been trying to make this Pro Stock deal work,” said Enders-Stevens. “I just feel like this year everything has come together. I’m a firm believer there’s a plan bigger than mine and you have to have faith and be patient. I feel so blessed to be with a team like I’m with. My guys are awesome. I mean they really are. It’s the first time since I have raced with my family in the past that I’ve had this much fun. I’m absolutely loving life right now.”
The climb to the top for Ender-Stevens has been anything but easy. She has tried for years to acquire proper funding to keep her in the driver’s seat and after sometimes coming up short, found herself on the sidelines itchy to get back on the track.
“I’ve learn a few life lessons through drag racing. One of them is perseverance in not quitting and not allowing that to be part of your vocabulary. If you left when all the times got hard, I would have left the sport 18 years ago when I was a kid,” she said laughing. “It’s taught me a lot and it’s taught me to put my head down and plow through all the stuff. There are going to be a lot of naysayers and a million people who tell you ‘no’ before you get a ‘yes’. I have to focus on the positive and keep what you want in sight and go after it. It’s a tough business and being a girl in the beginning only added to that. It’s always been a little bit interesting but I’ve never given up. And I’m not going to either until I accomplish everything I want.”
Her ELITE Motorsports team consists of car owner Richard Freeman of Winnewood, Oklahoma; her husband, Richie; and her co-crew chiefs, father-son team of Rick and Ricky Jones. Her clutch guy is Freeman’s brother, Robert, and another brother, Royce Lee, is out there week in and week out.
“Talk about a tongue-twister out there,” she laughed. “I have Rick, Ricky, Richard Freeman, my Richie, Robert and Royce Lee. There are so many ‘Rs’. There are five Richards on our team, but we have different nicknames for them to keep them straight.
“Ricky actually drove this car last year to the finals for a win at Pomona. He’s a huge asset to me because he’s a driver. He speaks the lingo and understands what I’m going through. He’s such a smart kid and although he’s a little bit younger than me, he knows so much about these cars. He’s such a great tuner.”
Her engine team is made up of Nick Ferri and Jake Hairston, who head up the ELITE Performance and build the horsepower. At the moment, this team is producing the most horsepower of all the Pro Stock cars out there and miles per hour are equivalent to horsepower. The proof is owning the NHRA National Speed record for the class of 214.69 mph at Gainesville set earlier this year. Kyle Wilkerson maintains the back half of the car and drives the truck. Of course, she can never forget her husband, Richie, who is her constant companion.
“I’m really blessed to have Richie, my husband in my corner,” Erica said of spouse, Stevens. “He’s a really great driver and we’re working on getting him back out there. Our plan for him is to run about 10 races this year. To have him as my rock and my eyes and ears outside the car and like him, I’m his when he’s inside the car. I love it and I’m lucky.”
Her biggest racing day of her young career came earlier in this year at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway where she came in first in the K&N Horsepower Challenge on Saturday and on Sunday, doubling the victories for the take home tune of $100,000.
“It was a dream come true,” smiled Enders-Stevens. “It was an absolute dream weekend. You look at the 10 years that I have been driving Pro Stock and, granted, I’ve been out of a ride before because lack of sponsorship or have driven for a team that necessarily wasn’t as competitive as we would have liked. So it’s been an up and down kind of roller-coaster of a Pro Stock career, but on that day in Vegas, all I can say is, it’s so hard to win one race. To be able to win two in one weekend is just insane.
“In all my years in Pro Stock racing and up to that day I had only won seven times. It was pretty nuts to get it done twice. The double-up bonus was huge and it was so exciting and I’m sitting here by myself in my office right now smiling like it was just the best day.”
This weekend in Atlanta at the Summit Racing Equipment Southern Nationals, Enders-Stevens could be the one to join racing lore as being the 100th woman to win a professional NHRA National event.
“That is such a huge milestone for our sport and if we could be the one to get that done, it would so significant and mean so much to all of us. All the girls out there really want it, too! Rumor has it the NHRA has pink on the Wally, so it’s kind of like a girly Wally. We got No. 98 and 99 and the ball is in our court because of the schedule of how the NHRA runs things. The Pro Stock division runs before the nitro cars in the procession order going into the finals to offer her first shot.
“We’ve got to get there first. It’s really challenging to get to a final round. We’ve got the momentum right now and we have the confidence and certainly the team and race car, so I’m very optimistic about things and hopefully we can seal the deal.”
On June 13, 1976, Shirley Muldowney won the Springnationals in Columbus, Ohio, defeating the late Bob Evans in the finals. That was the first professional win for a female and recently Muldowney went on the NHRA’s ESPN2 broadcast from Houston and stated she hoped Enders-Stevens would be the one to win it because of their close relationship.
“Shirley is such a legend and such hero of mine,” said EES. “I grew up watching her and to be able to talk with her on a level like we get to chat about things is phenomenal. I could just sit there as a fan and listen to her stories for days. What this woman has been through and the things she knows, the barriers she had to overcome have been incredible.
“She has been so supported. She emails me and we chat and she talks with my dad, occasionally. To hear her say such positive things about me, my driving, my team; it means the world to me because I can’t help but star-struck by her. But, I get to call her my friend, too. It’s a really a cool deal.”