FINALLY! – Erica Enders capped her 20-year quest that included six final-round appearances during eight years in the ultra-competitive NHRA Pro Stock class with a victory Sunday in the O’Reilly Auto Parts Route 66 Nationals at Route 66 Raceway. Enders became the first woman to win a Pro Stock national event, beating on-track nemesis Greg Anderson, who had defeated her in the final round at Charlotte this season and last year at this racetrack.
Enders said this victory was also “for pioneers like Shirley Muldowney and Shelly Anderson-Payne, they were my heroes growing up, and all the women who paved the way. 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.
“It was just like everything came together. I dreamed of this day my entire life. When I can’t sleep at night, I think about winning and planning my speeches,” she said. “It’s so awesome that it finally came true.”
Making the night even more memorable was an official, formal marriage proposal from longtime boyfriend Richie Stevens, the ADRL Pro Stock driver and former NHRA regular. She accepted, and they’re planning a December wedding. Enders’ close friend, NHRA Pro Stock legend Bob Glidden, phoned Enders immediately after her victory and told her he is proud of her.
She shared her faith before a live ESPN2 audience and the media.
“I’m a Christian, and I’m not shy to admit it,” Enders said. “I believe there’s a plan bigger than mine. I always have faith that there’s a reason that things happen. Am I disappointed when we lose six times in a row? Absolutely. But I thank God for the blessings and the safety and focus on the things He puts in front of me. I’m a firm believer that He doesn’t give you what you can’t handle. This is 20 years of racing and eight years in Pro Stock, and it finally came together. I said my prayer before the final round: ‘If it’s your will, Lord, it’s my way. I can’t wait.’ ”
She credited team owner Victor Cagnazzi, her entire team, and sponsor Gaston Kearby.
The testing is really paying off. Pro Stock’s tough. It’ll humble you in an instant. You think you’ve got it figured out, and you go to Bristol and blow all your things up. I can’t say enough for my guys. They’re amazing, and I love them.
“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 the world,” she said. And Enders thanked Kearby “for giving us the money to do this. He’s like a second dad to us. He believes in us more than anything in the world. Chevrolet, Charter Communications, KLR Group … oh my God. This is unbelievable. For all of the kids who were told they couldn’t do it, you can do it.”
What will she do with her trophy? She said it will go to the one who has influenced her most, dad Gregg Enders. “That one goes to my dad, who’s been my rock and my best friend,” Enders said. “He’s the reason I am who I am and why I’m in this position.”
WELL, GUESS WHAT – Greg Anderson long had contended that he didn’t want to go into the drag-racing record book for being the one who lost when Enders became the first female to win a Pro Stock race. He repeated that even in the face of Enders’ stunning runner-up finish at Charlotte, when an electric malfunction on the scoreboard had teased her with a win light in her lane by accident. But when Enders wrote one of the last milestones in the record book for a female Pro Stock driver, the runner-up was . . . Anderson.
“I had said a million times before that Erica was going to win a race and that I just didn’t want it to be against me,” he said Sunday night. “However, you certainly can’t take today’s performance away from her – she earned it. She went out there and took it, with both she and her team doing a better job, and they won the race. And I congratulate them. It’s one for the history books.”
Enders said Anderson was gracious in defeat.
“He grabbed my shoulder and said, ‘Well deserved,’ That means a lot coming from an eight-hundred-billion-time champion and somebody I’ve been trying to beat for eight years since I first let the clutch out in one of these cars,” she said.
“To have him in the other lane when I got my first win is awesome. Steve Torrence had Tony Schumacher in the other lane when he got his first (Top Fuel) win. Two Texas kids who dreamed of doing this our entire lives, to be able to beat the best in the finals like that, I couldn’t have asked for a better situation.”
LADIES DAY – Three pro classes boasted female racers in Sunday’s semifinals. Hillary Will, who’s sticking to a part-time schedule with Dote Family Racing, beat Khalid alBalooshi and T.J. Zizzo (who had just knocked off top qualifier and seven-time champ Tony Schumacher) before Steve Torrence earned his third final-round berth in five races by beating her. Courtney Force reached her first Funny Car final by defeating friend (and chief rival for rookie-of-the-year honors) Alexis DeJoria in the semifinals. But in the Traxxas Ford Mustang, Force missed the chance to take the last spot in the $100,000-to-win Traxxas Shootout. That went to her opponent, Jeff Arend. Enders swiped the Pro Stock Wally. And Minnesota’s Cassie Simonton was runner-up to Frank Manzo in the Top Alcohol Funny Car class.
SHE CALLED IT – Courtney Force said this past weekend that she thought she had a strong chance to reach a final round before the year was over. She might not have thought it would happen so soon, but she carried the John Force Racing banner to the end of the line — defeating Alexis DeJoria for the second time in as many meetings.
REMEMBERING SCOTT – Funny Car winner Jeff Arend, team owner Connie Kalitta, and crew chief Jon Oberhofer gave a shout-out to the late Scott Kalitta who lost his life in the DHL Toyota Funny Car in June 2008. Scott Kalitta’s sons, Corey and Colin, were with the team this weekend. After he defeated Courtney Force in the final, Arend said he considers driving this car a privilege.
“Ever since the day I got to drive for the Kalittas, for Scott, it’s been a big deal,” Arend said. “They wanted a safe and competitive car, and now they have one. This thing is hauling the mail and running good for DHL, Technicoat, and Red Line. I want to thank Nicky, Jon O, and all of my guys including Del Worsham for working so hard.”
Connie Kalitta, Scott’s father, said, “It means a lot to us. It’s Scott’s car, and his kids are here.”
Oberhofer said, “It’s all about family with our win. The boys [Scott;' sons] are here, Colin and Cory. It’s badass that they are here. It’s all about team. We’ve been working hard to make our Toyota a real good race car here. We’ve finally gotten some results.”
Said Arend, “We have a hot rod, and I knew we were going to have a good race in the final with Courtney.”
PIZZA PALS – Tony Schumacher often meets friend T.J. Zizzo and Zizzo’s dad Tony and they head to La Rosa Pizzeria on Milwaukee Avenue in Vernon Hills. Together they talk NHRA drag racing over mouthfuls of deep-dish pizza. After Sunday, the two Top Fuel racers — Schumacher from Long Grove and Zizzo from Lincolnshire — will have plenty to gab about. They met each other in Sunday’s first round of action at their hometown track, Schumacher as No. 1 qualifier and Zizzo No. 16. And everyone will be talking about that match-up. Zizzo won as Schumacher blasted across the finish line with the biggest engine explosion and fireball the Top Fuel class has seen all season.
Schumacher was unhurt, and Zizzo, a part-time, low-budget racer, advanced to the quarterfinals for the first time this year in four races and for only the sixth time in his career.
Zizzo, who drives the Peak/Herculiner Dragster, paid tribute to “our all-volunteer team. We try our hearts out.” He said his weekend has taken so many sudden twists, from flipping pancakes at the start, now getting his first round-win. “What a great day,” he said.
Schumacher still wasn’t sure late in the day what caused the engine in his U.S. Army Dragster to explode and catch the car on fire toward the top end of his first-round run against No. 16 T.J. Zizzo.
But he knew it was plenty frightening.
“Man, that was pretty scary,” Schumacher said shortly after climbing from his seriously wounded race car. “I can’t say that I felt something with the car before the engine let go. To be honest, we seemed to be on a good run. But then it all went bad in a real hurry.”
Schumacher was seeking a second straight victory and a chance to make his father Don’s day even more memorable after the early-morning surprise announcement that he had been elected to the International Motorsports Hall of Fame’s Class of 2013.
The happy news for the seven-time champion driver was that he retained his points lead, despite losing in the first round at his Route 66 Raceway “home track” for the third time in his past four visits.
IN THE HALL – With his seven drivers, crew chiefs, mechanics, employees, and family forming a proud semicircle around him, emotional Don Schumacher received news Sunday morning at Joliet, Ill., from International Motorsports Hall of Fame Operations Manager Bruce Ramey that he is the newest member in the prestigious organization’s Class of 2013.
I didn’t do it. These sponsors did it. Team members did it. And you fans did it. Thank you very, very much.
It was a humble moment at Route 66 Raceway for the always-eloquent Chicago businessman and owner of the largest team in National Hot Rod Association history. His voice quivering, Schumacher — after thanking his personnel — could manage only a “Wow” in response.
“Wow is all I can say,” he said after the surprise announcement that took place in his pit at his hometown race, the O’Reilly Route 66 Nationals. Wife Sarah, whom he thought was in Wisconsin this weekend, stepped from behind him to give him her special congratulations as he began his acceptance.
Schumacher is the third NHRA drag racing legend in less than a year to receive approval from a panel of journalists and industry leaders on behalf of the Talladega, Ala.-based IMHOF. Kenny Bernstein and John Force got the word of the honor last September during the NHRA event at Dallas and were inducted May 3 into the hall.
“It’s very unusual for somebody to be put on the [final] ballot the first time, and Don got into the top 20 the first time around,” Ramey said. “It’s an amazing feat from the people from the International Motorsports Hall of Fame.”
Schumacher said it was “very emotional, even being nominated for this. And to get to this level and be one of the people who are going to be possibly inducted into this. It’s just an amazing thing, but it’s really because of all of these people I’m lucky are working for me.
“Yeah, I took a step in the ’50s and ’60s and got involved in the sport and was successful back then.” He said without them, “I wouldn’t be here today with all of these great, great sponsors, all of these wonderful drivers. It just goes on and on how I’m blessed to be able to be out here and do this,” Schumacher said. “It’s because of the sponsors and because of these team members who are on board with me that have surrounded me and made me look good out here.
“I didn’t do it. These sponsors did it. Team members did it. And you fans did it,” he said.
“Thank you very, very much.”
WHAT CAN BROWN DO FOR YOU? – Antron Brown was the lone DSR driver in a final round, so it was on his shoulders to present the boss with a Wally trophy. He did, beating Steve Torrence in the final round.
CAPPS’ STREAK ENDS – Ron Capps’ Funny Car final-round streak ended at six, as he lost in the opening round to rookie Alexis DeJoria. “We knew they’d be tough,” Capps said of DeJoria’s Kalitta Motorsports-operated team and crew chief Del Worsham, who won last season’s Top Fuel final at Route 66 Raceway and the series crown. “It’s a bummer for us. But we still have a great hot rod. Life is good.”
FINLEY FIGHTING BACK – Pro Stock Motorcycle rider Justin Finley has indicated he has plenty to say in his appeal for reinstatement to NHRA competition. The NHRA announced Saturday it has disqualified Pro Stock Motorcycle rider Justin Finley from the O’Reilly Route 66 Nationals and suspended him from competition for one year for failing to comply with the sanctioning body’s substance abuse testing policy.
HOMETOWN HEARTBREAK – Bob Bode, of Barrington, Ill., was among the local pro racers who didn’t qualify for this 11th event on the 23-race tour. Neither did fellow Funny Car driver Justin Schriefer, of Grant Park. Top Fuel had three native sons on the DNQ list: Luigi Novelli (Crete), Tim Cullinan (Franklin Park), and Chris Karamesines (Chicago). In Pro Stock, Kevin Lawrence (Palos Hills) and former Route 66 Raceway co-owner Steve Spiess (Manhattan) missed the cut. On the flip side, Tony Schumacher (Long Grove) led the Top Fuel field, and T.J. Zizzo (Lincolnshire) took the 16th and final spot. Tim Wilkerson (Springfield) started No. 2 among Funny Car drivers and Dale Creasy Jr. (Beecher) was 15th in qualifying.
STORMS TAKE TOLL – Ashton Premer, a 21-year-old NHRA Top Sportsman class drag racer from Pierce, Neb., was injured in the second of two severe storm fronts Friday that battered Illinois’ Will County and Route 66 Raceway. Premer, who was scheduled to compete in the annual JEGS Allstar sportsman bonus races Saturday, was transported to an undisclosed area hospital. He remained there Saturday.
Injured by airborne debris during the storm, Premer is expected to make a full recovery, according to NHRA Media Relations Representative Alexandra Baca. Federal patient-privacy laws prohibit anyone but a patient and/or family members to discuss the nature and extent of injuries or the treatment or care of the patient.
NHRA racers, as Top Fuel owner-driver Steve Torrence said late Friday night, were lucky to get their two Friday qualifying sessions in between the double-whammy of nasty weather. The first storm blew into the area before noon Friday, blackening the sky and dumping heavy rains. The NHRA Safety Safari dried the track, and it was in prime condition for DSR Top Fuel drivers Antron Brown and Spencer Massey to reset both ends of the track record. The second punch packed winds of 60-80 mph, ripped away awnings, and — according to Funny Car owner-driver Bob Bode, whose pit area was deluged by about six inches of water — flooded many of the race teams’ pit and hospitality areas.
Things got a bit rough after the last cars went down the track on Friday night. As fans were filing out of the stands, another huge storm and 80-mph winds struck the track. The still-inflated promotional balloons were ripped from their moorings and sailed towards the departing crowds, striking several and knocking them around.
Photographer Roger Richards reported late Friday evening, “Things got a bit rough after the last cars went down the track on Friday night. As fans were filing out of the stands, another huge storm and 80-mph winds struck the track. The still-inflated promotional balloons were ripped from their moorings and sailed towards the departing crowds, striking several and knocking them around. At one point, five ambulances were treating the injured and scared fans. It appeared at least one suffered severe injuries.”
Richards said Saturday that one inflatable promotional balloon advertising Full Throttle energy drink, the drag-racing series’ primary sponsor, flew 20-50 feet into the air, cleared the pit area and landed in a vacated parking lot. The Prestone inflatable chose to land, appropriately, at Massey’s pit. That is Massey’s sponsor. Richards said several team members and spectators sat on it to keep it from further adventures.”
Kalitta Motorsports public-relations rep Todd Myers discovered the kindness of strangers Sunday. He said he forgot to roll up his car window and hustled back to the parking lot when the monsoon hit, only to find that some young adults tailgating next to his car had stuffed cloths in the open window to keep the rain from ruining the interior. He offered them a reward, but they wouldn’t accept any.
AW, C’MON – Déjà vu has its ugly side. Ask Funny Car owner-driver Terry Haddock — and the racers and fans inconvenienced by the extensive clean-ups the Safety Safari had to perform. Haddock’s Acme Refining/DiPinto Int’l Toyota got loose on him in late Friday qualifying, and he hit the left guard wall, flattening some headers and doing some body damage. He had been 11th but dropped to 16th. He apologized to Route 66 Raceway officials for “messing up their nice paint job on the wall” and said he would repair the damage and return Saturday. “I’m sure we’ll fix it,” he said. “We ain’t smart enough to quit.” Maybe he should have been extra careful, but the next night his car must have dumped every drop of oil inside it, for the leak took almost 40 minutes to clean up. He stayed in the field and lost in the opening round to John Force, who was sympathetic. “Sad for a kid like that,” Force said. “He’s on a budget. He really is a good racer. That was me years ago. I know a lot of guys complain: ‘You shouldn’t let guys like that come in. They got problems.’ NHRA always reminds me and a few others that was us a few years ago, learning our trade. It’s just sad it cost him money. He really is a good kid, and he works hard.”
SALUTE TO SOLDIERS – With a new back-and-white paint scheme on the Mountain View Racing Dodge Avenger, Pro Stock’s Vincent Nobile was working in conjunction with the NAPA Auto Parts “Get Back and Give Back” program in support of the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund. Funny Car’s Ron Capps, in the NAPA Dodge, also carried the livery and hosted Sgt. Robert James Dickey, 35, of San Antonio, Texas, who was injured by a land mine in Afghanistan and had a below-the-knee amputation of his right leg and lost part of his left calf. The Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, which has provided more than $120 million in support for the families of military personnel lost in service to our nation, has helped Dickey adjust to life after his surgery. Two-time Funny Car champion Cruz Pedregon used his Snap-on Tools Toyota Camry to recognize the Wounded Warriors Project for the second straight visit to Route 66 Raceway. He hosted a large group of Wounded Warriors throughout the weekend and had a special paint scheme to recognize the heroes.
SPORTSMAN RACERS SHINE – With victories by Top Alcohol Dragster racer Chris Demke and Super Comp driver Aaron Kinard, the NHRA Pacific Division broke through for its first overall team title in the annual JEGS Allstars competition. The Pacific Division team scored 1,300 points, ending in a tie with the Southeast Division, which was gunning for a seventh overall title. Per the tie-breaker rules which score additional points for victories, runner-up, and semifinal finishes, the Division 7 team was awarded the title and split a $20,000 bonus from JEGS Mail Order. The Division 5 crew, also seeking its first title, finished a respectable third with 1,100 points.