That time when the scoreboard malfunctioned and cruelly teased Erica Enders that she had won at zMAX Dragway has been shoved to a dark corner of her history. That time when the car broke in the final round has been banished. Heartbreaks? Forgotten.
From this past Sunday on, since her long-awaited, historic, career-first Pro Stock victory — one that came with a marriage proposal from longtime boyfriend and racer Richie Stevens right there at Joliet, Ill., in the left lane at the finish line of Route 66 Raceway – Enders has glowed.
“The smile isn’t close to being gone off my face yet,” she said. “It’s a crazy feeling, and it’s awesome that it’s finally happened.”
The smile isn’t close to being gone off my face yet,” she said. “It’s a crazy feeling, and it’s awesome that it’s finally happened.
Ever since, the evidence has mounted that she has the love and respect of so many who have made her achievement extra-special. And this refreshed, energized Enders has made a conscious effort to appreciate not only the kind gestures of this past week but also to be grateful simply for the chance to follow her dreams at all, for the opportunity to compete in the Pro Stock class with the proper resources to be successful.
Her whirlwind fairy-tale that is blending into Friday’s start of the Summit Racing Equipment Nationals at Norwalk, Ohio, stretches from Chicago, where she won in her seventh overall final-round appearance and first of this season, to New Orleans, where she makes her home with Stevens.
She had plenty of well wishes and “Attagirls” from folks at Route 66 Raceway, even before she unstrapped from her seat.
“When I hit my chutes – I hit them before we crossed the finish line – I went straight from focusing on the end of the track to the wall where the win light is,” Enders said. “When I saw that thing come on, I was like, ‘Oh, my God.’ My guys are screaming in my helmet. I’m like, ‘Thank you guys so much.’ They’re the reason why I’m able to do what I do.
“When I came around the track, the guys who are turning us off are all pumping their fists – all the Safety Safari guys were lined up around the corner, and the NHRA employees,” she said, remembering this day she said she “dreamed of . . . My entire life.”
And she got a special phone call right away from her pal, NHRA legend Bob Glidden, who told her he was proud of her.
Enders cradled the Wally trophy she had pursued for two decades, since she was eight years old. She wouldn’t let go of it during her flight home Monday.
I just carried it through the airport. It didn’t go through the x-ray machine, because the TSA guy knew what it was and said it was awesome.
The party was just beginning back in The Big Easy. When Enders and Stevens, who recently won an American Drag Racing League race in the Extreme Pro Stock class, stepped off the airplane, greeting them were Stevens’ best friend and the young man’s girlfriend, hands full of an oversized “Congratulations” sign, balloons, and flowers. Waiting for Enders and Stevens outside was a limo stocked with Dom Pérignon champagne, courtesy of Stevens’ parents.
“That was pretty cool and unexpected,” Enders said. “Then we get home, and his sister had decorated the house, with a sign that said, ‘Congratulations on the two wins and the engagement.’ She also had flowers, a bottle of wine, and a card – and some wedding cake cupcakes. A lot of people have taken the time to make it special.”
And Enders, in the second season of her reprise with Victor Cagnazzi Racing, knows that soon her life will slide back into elapsed times and preparation for the $50,000-to-win K&N Horsepower Challenge (which she will start Saturday against Greg Anderson, her final-round opponent at Joliet) and round-by-round, thousandths-of-a-second decisions on hot, gooey, sun-baked racetracks. It won’t be all Dom Pérignon and soft, yummy cupcakes.
She’s well aware of all that. And she appreciates both the testy and the tasty, for it’s the life she dreamed of.
“You don’t take it for granted when you’re doing well,” Enders said in March 2011 as she came from a program that simply didn’t match its resources to her talent, “but you forget how great it feels until you have it all taken away from you. And I want to focus on the fact you don’t take it for granted, because we have run well before and it’s exciting, and you kind of lose sight of everything until it’s all gone.
“I’ve had an up-and-down career in Pro Stock as far as qualifying and not qualifying and changing teams and manufacturers,” she said. “It feels great to still feel the love and to be paired back with a great group of guys. People are key to making a program work, and I’ve definitely got the right people.”
And she has the right equipment.
Cagnazzi, who gave Enders her first shot at Pro Stock success in 2004, said following her victory at Joliet, “This is the first time we’ve given her the car she deserves. She took it right to the winner’s circle. This is the culmination of a lot of years of a lot of work. She has been so close so often. She is an unbelievable driver. I couldn’t be happier.”
Said Enders, “Victor Cagnazzi gave me an opportunity in 2004 to come drive a Pro Stock car, knowing I had never let the clutch out on a race car before. I owe him and [wife] Brita the world. I mean, I had never driven a door car, let alone a clutch car, when I first started driving for Victor in 2005.”
What impressed Cagnazzi, even back then, was the former Jr. Dragster driver’s passion to race in the Pro Stock class.
“She’s got focus. She’s got the eye of the tiger. She wants to win,” Cagnazzi said. “That’s what we want her to do. Greg Anderson, one of the toughest competitors out there, to go toe to toe with him, I couldn’t be happier for the organization.”
Same goes for her crew chief Dave Connolly, who has won his share of Pro Stock races and still jumps behind the wheel of a factory got rod now and again. He said last Sunday, “It’s more gratifying standing behind the car. She did an awesome job. We knew this win was coming. It’s one of those things we knew was coming. She definitely put in her time and earned it. I can’t thank everyone enough. We have a really great team.”
She’s got focus. She’s got the eye of the tiger. She wants to win. That’s what we want her to do. Greg Anderson, one of the toughest competitors out there, to go toe to toe with him, I couldn’t be happier for the organization.
The list probably could go on. But what’s so humbling for Enders is that she has a list.
“I have learned a lot of life lessons and lessons in the driving cockpit, as well,” she said. “Just the seat time that I’ve had has really made me a better driver. So I have learned a lot. I have become way more confident in the cockpit, and I’ve grown up a lot, too.
“I was 20 when I started. I’ve learned huge lessons, and I guess the biggest one is how quickly everything can disappear, no matter how hard you work at it,” Enders said. “This is something that I’ve dreamed of doing my entire life, and I’m blessed enough to be in the position to capitalize on that. But it can vanish in an instant, and I’m just going to enjoy it and do my job to the best of my ability. I’ve certainly got the team and the car and the motor that’s capable of winning races.”
Many drag racers and industry veterans have told her the victories will keep coming once a racer get that first one. But she knows she must earn any more Wallys that come her way.
“Winning is not easy,” Enders said. “I’ve had a lot of former champions tell me that once the first one comes, the rest will follow. I hope they’re right, but we’ve still got to work hard to get there.”
Hard work doesn’t faze Enders. The Cypress, Texas, native, who studied marketing at Texas A&M, has worked at all aspects of being an elite race-car driver.
“I work out every day. I work with sports psychologists. I practice on the simulator, and I do everything that I can to better my game, because I know how important it is,” she said.
“And being on the marketing side of it and having to pay for my ride and my dad funding this deal for [a few] years . . . I know exactly how much every run costs going up and down the racetrack. It just puts that much more pressure on your shoulders to be able to execute everything to the best of your ability.”
But execute she did last Sunday, and it wasn’t lost on her that so many women had paved the way for her acceptance in the sport — or that she has been blessed so she might be a blessing to others.
“For pioneers like Shirley Muldowney and Shelly Anderson-Payne, they were my heroes growing up, and all the women who paved the way,” Enders said. “There are a lot of little kids who look up to me. I’m blessed enough to be in the position to be a role model for them through the Disney movie. I hope that they see me win and know that no matter what, anything is possible. You’ve just got to set your mind to it and follow your dreams. With hard work, anything’s possible.”
As she said that Sunday night, Erica Enders was smiling. And she still is.