For Houston native Erica Enders, the final round at Sunday’s NHRA SpringNationals was an emotional defense of the home turf. Despite having 37 NHRA Wally trophies on her shelf, including three from this very race — the most important trophy handed out in the 35-year history for the event –the last one — was one she would prize most.
For Pro Stock rookie Camrie Caruso, it wasn’t about the time, the place, or the moment, but simply capturing win number one.
Regardless of the outcome, history had already been made when the two ladies turned on the win-lights in their respective lanes a round earlier, setting up the first all-female NHRA Pro Stock final round in history. In fact it was the first raceday meeting between two women in Pro Stock, period.
Caruso, just five races into her Pro Stock career, scored a surprise No. 1 qualifier with an impressive 6.547-second lap on Friday night. Enders entered raceday second, just .006-seconds back. Caruso, who had yet to advance past the second round in her budding career, was primed for her best chance yet at going into the late rounds. For Enders, the weekend was about winning and accepting nothing less. She wanted that final trophy at a track that meant so much to she and her family; she raced junior dragsters there as a youngster, won her first national event there in Super Gas in 2004, and had visited victory lane two other times in Pro Stock.
Despite some pre-starting line drama for Caruso — her Camaro failing to perform a proper burnout on two attempts — she shook off the jitters and took an .030 to .053 holeshot advantage out of the gate on the four-time series champion. But she didn’t have the horsepower when it mattered most, trailing across the stripe, 6.568 to 6.624, in what amounted to a 10-foot margin of victory.
“I grew up drag racing here and I don’t know if I can put this into words,” Enders said. “I made my first passes down the racetrack when I was eight years old and my first Wally came here and to do this here in Houston means the world to me. We were able to execute perfectly today and I’m so proud of this team. It was just an unbelievable day. It was challenging to get focused and get my emotions under control, but I tried to put all of that on the backburner and get it done. To be able to execute and have such a great team and great car today, this is one of my proudest moments.”
“I knew what happened on the burnout but I wasn’t sure it the car was going to take off down the track afterwards,” said Caruso of the final round. “We were just hoping for the best at that point. I was a little nervous, but I just focused on what I needed to do. Nothing has changed because we had a good weekend here. We still have to Epping and qualify and then get round wins on race day. Nothing is a given out here.”
For Caruso, who added a first No. 1 qualifier, first semifinal, and final round appearance to her brief resume, it was a career weekend nevertheless. Along with her first career matchup with Enders, she also faced five-time Pro Stock champion Greg Anderson for the first time in the semis — a race she won on by a holeshot-aided 6.60 to 6.56 margin.mFrom the starting line Caruso’s crew chief Jim Yates was all praise for his upstart driver.
“How about Camrie Caruso?” exclaimed Yates, a two-time Pro Stock world champion. “She was .011 against the world champion and we are going into the final! I am incredibly proud to be a part of this team and to be involved with that young lady.”
But the day belonged to Erica, who before qualifying cemented just how badly she wanted this one.
“HRP has meant so much to me my entire life. I have a ton of memories at this facility, and I literally fell in love with the sport watching my dad race here before I was old enough to drive. When they first announced the Jr. Dragster program, I couldn’t get down here fast enough to start racing myself. It’s always been my home track and a place where I want to win more than any other. I definitely want to win and take in every moment that we possibly can, being that it’s the last race (in Houston). Winning the last race here would be huge.”
Mission accomplished, Erica.