Erica Enders knew full well when she strapped into the seat for her first NHRA Pro Modified race this April at her home track at Baytown, Texas, that making the field would be as much of a cause for celebration as winning.
Every time the E3 Spark Plugs / J&A Service Series competes at an NHRA national event, the DNQ list reads like a Who’s Who of the class. No one is immune from being left off the 16-car grid.
So Enders never expected the Pro Mod class to be a respecter of her Pro Stock status or the fact she also is licensed in Super Gas and Super Comp or that she brought Disney-style attention to the Jr. Dragster program as the subject of the movie “Right On Track.” And the two-time Pro Stock series champion wasn’t alarmed when she missed the cut in her first three Pro Mod races, including at Bristol, Tenn., and Norwalk, Ohio – all tracks where she has won as a professional.
But finally, on the NHRA’s biggest stage – at Indianapolis in the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals – she broke into the exclusive line-up at No. 15. Then, at the most recent event, at St. Louis, she clocked her best elapsed time in Pro Mod and landed no better than mid-pack.
“It’s crazy,” Enders said. “The fastest field in Pro Mod history happened last week in St. Louis. I just qualified for my first Pro Mod race at the U.S. Nationals, where heavy hitters like Danny Rowe and Steve Matusek didn’t even make the show. It just goes to show you that week in and week out, it’s so competitive. Then Mike Castellana went a [5.]676 [for the national elapsed-time record]. And I ran my career-best, 5.752 at 254[.38] and qualified ninth. So it’s kind of crazy how fast the class has gotten.”
The turbocharged ’18 Camaro she drives belongs to her Elite Motorsports boss, Richard Freeman, and Jim Hairston, Director of Marketing at Petronix Performance Products and father of Elite Performance engine guru Jake Hairston. Freeman owns the engines and operates the Pro Mod team. Jake’s brother, Clint Hairston, shares the car with Enders.
“I’ve enjoyed the opportunity, and I’m definitely thankful to the Hairston family and to Richard. Clint has given up his seat for me to drive at the NHRA races, and then Clint drives at the Mid-West Pro Mod Series that [Osage Casino Tulsa Raceway Park co-owner] Keith Haney puts on. So we’re kind of splitting the driving duties. So technically it’s his car, but he has been gracious enough to give up his seat for me at the NHRA events. It’s been a lot of fun.”
It’s a whole different animal. It is faster. It’s not a whole lot faster. Where I see the biggest difference is from 330 [feet] to 660. It pulls the entire way down [the track].
Enders drove a nitrous Pro Mod car for Haney back in 2013, but never at an NHRA event. “We went to Rockingham and Memphis and a couple of ADRL races,” she said. “It was when I was still driving for Victor Cagnazzi in Pro Stock and we didn’t have a sponsor. So I went and drove some races for Keith Haney. It feels like 150 years ago!”
Her turbo Pro Mod cranks out about the same 60-foot times as the Pro Stock Camaro she drives for Elite and has in sixth place in the Countdown (just 104 points off Tanner Gray’s pace) after three playoff races. Other than that, forget any comparisons.
“It’s a whole different animal,” Enders said. “It is faster. It’s not a whole lot faster. Where I see the biggest difference is from 330 [feet] to 660. It pulls the entire way down [the track], where in Pro Stock, once you’re in high gear, the G-meter kind of tapers off just a little bit. It’s still fast at 210 miles per hour, but it’s not 255. It’s definitely different.”
Just like at Houston, Bristol, and Norwalk, Enders will be driving both the Pro Stock and Pro Mod cars at Dallas, Charlotte and Las Vegas. And that puts a bit of a wrinkle in her routine, especially in her mental preparation.
“Where my biggest challenge has been is going from one car to the other car at the same race, where I’m driving Pro Stock and Pro Mod,” she said. “When they say ‘drive by the seat of your pants’ . . . The feeling that I have in my butt, as far as Pro Stock goes, is more about finesse. If it gets out of the groove, you stick it right back in. But you cannot drive past third gear in Pro Stock, because you’re up on the tire, there’s no downforce, and you will wind up upside-down before you even know it.
“Now, Pro Mod is a longer wheelbase, a bigger tire, more downforce. So you can drive that car further. So where my Pro Stock butt is saying, ‘Shut off – shut off – shut off,’ in Pro Mod you’re a giant sissy if you shut off, because you can handle the car completely different,” Enders said. “That has been my biggest challenge, going from car to car, back and forth, multiple times a weekend, saying, ‘OK, you’ve really got to pay attention to what you’re feeling in your ass.’ You can wind up in a whole lot of trouble really quickly.”
Going back and forth between the two, you’re not as busy in the cockpit of the Pro Mod car, but when you let go of the trans-brake button to leave the starting line, I literally have no idea what it’s going to do.
She said “1,000 percent” it’s maddening to switch between classes, always going from one ultra-competitive class to another, from one frying pan into another fire.
“You’re judged under a completely different microscope, which is fine. I couldn’t care less, because over the years, I’ve acquired some thicker skin, which is not something I had naturally. But it has definitely been an interesting learning curve, and I’m having to deal with all the hoopla that comes with it,” Enders said. “But I love it. I think, given the opportunity, I can drive anything. Now, to be great at something, you have to do it a lot, like I’ve done Pro Stock. But I’m excited. It’s fun, man. I enjoy it.
“In a Pro Mod car, it’s automatic, and then the Pro Stock car it’s a clutch with a five-speed. You have to shift four times. Going back and forth between the two, you’re not as busy in the cockpit of the Pro Mod car, but when you let go of the trans-brake button to leave the starting line, I literally have no idea what it’s going to do. I don’t know if we’re going to make a great pass and go 5.70 at 257 or if I’m going to take out the Christmas Tree, the guard wall, and my competitor. I have no idea. It’s a crazy car to drive,” she said. “Then Pro Stock, I’ve driven that for 14 years, and I am confident every time I get in that car. Whatever it throws at me I can handle. I do not feel that way yet in the Pro Mod car. I’m not sure anybody ever will, because it’s just a crazy car to drive.”
But she likes the challenge.
“We’re planning on running the full year next year in Pro Mod and Pro Stock. We’ll be at all of the races,” Enders said.
The one chance she got this season to have some genuine fun was at the recent World Series of Pro Mod, at Bandimere Speedway near Denver.
That, Enders said, “was an absolute blast. It was awesome. I had so much fun, and it was so laid-back. It was perfect.” However, that experience came without data that will help her few places except for the mile-high track: “It takes longer to build boost when you’re at altitude. Once you pre-stage and you’re having to build boost, it took awhile before the boost was where you could stage. The blower cars had a fun time messing with the turbo guys.”
She said Elite Motorsports becoming involved with Pro Modified racing was strictly a business opportunity for Elite Performance.
“We’re doing our very best to save the Pro Stock class, and Richard has spearheaded that whole deal. I’m so proud of him for the effort and the extra money that he has had to spend,” Enders said. “The only other team out there that has helped has been KB Racing: Greg and Jason and Bo and Fernando, their whole group, bringing cars out. Every week, between the two of us, we have eight to 10 of the 16 cars – between our two teams. We really went the extra mile to make sure that the promise that we made to the NHRA we fulfilled. I’m really proud of Richard and KB. Yes, we’re trying to save the class – I want to preface with that.
“At the same time, our main reason for wanting to get involved in Pro Mod is we have Elite Performance, which is our engine-building business in Oklahoma. We build motors for our sportsman friends. We build engines for Pro Stock. And we wanted to get involved in the Pro Mod deal, too. I think we proved at St. Louis that we can build great horsepower, being that we went that 5.75 and it wasn’t a great run, either. We’ve got plenty of power. We just need to learn how to apply it properly to different racetracks. But that’s our sole reason for competing in Pro Mod, to expand our engine-building business.”
Next year, look for Freeman to drive his own new turbo Pro Mod and a Pro Stock car at a few races.
We’re doing our very best to save the Pro Stock class, and Richard has spearheaded that whole deal. I’m so proud of him for the effort and the extra money that he has had to spend.
“He’s building a Ford Mustang Pro Stock car also that he’s planning to take out – not to run it 24 [times] but for whenever we’re short a car or whenever he feels like driving. He has really done a lot for our class and for our sport. I’m lucky to be a part of it. I love my job. I love my team. I love what I do.”
She means it, even when her Pro Mod Camaro has her confounded.