Erica Enders on cusp of NHRA stardom
SEATTLE -- Erica Enders was a celebrity long before she was a professional drag racer.
Enders still was a teenager in Houston when her life story was the subject of a TV movie in 2003 titled "Right on Track."
"Since it first came out on the Disney Channel, more than 50 million people have seen it," Enders said. "It was a blessing, but it also was a double-edged sword, just like being a female drag racer."
The movie chronicled her success, along with her younger sister, Courtney, as winning drivers in the NHRA's Jr. Drag Racing League.
Erica was the Jr. Dragster Driver of the Year in 1995 when she was 12. She won 37 times as a kid, beating all the boys along the way.
It was a real-life fairy tale, but Enders learned life isn't always a fairy tale.
Now, at age 27, after years of struggle and disappointment, she is on the verge of beating the boys again.
Enders enters the O'Reilly Northwest Nationals this weekend expecting to win. If she does, and it appears she will soon, Enders will become the first woman in NHRA history to win in the Pro Stock class.
"I can't wait until we get it over with, quit talking about it and move on," Enders said Thursday at the Space Needle in Seattle. "I'm very optimistic about what's to come. We've put the work in and [a victory] is around the corner."
Enders' career has been around the bend, to say the least. She went from a teenage sensation, portrayed in a successful movie and destined to drag racing stardom, to a struggling pro without a ride in 2008 and without a decent ride the next two seasons.
"It was a tough road," Enders said. "Did I want to put my head down and cry sometimes? Sure. But we were raised to never quit. I never gave up on it."
Now Enders has a competitive car with team owner Victor Cagnazzi and talented young crew chief in Dave Connolly. She ranks seventh in the Pro Stock standings, safely inside the 10-driver cutoff for the Countdown championship playoff that begins next month.
"She's really doing an excellent job," Connolly said Thursday. "She is one of the most consistent drivers out here as far as reaction times and getting the cars down the track.
"Erica respects how tough this is, but it's only a matter of time now until she gets that win. And when she does, more wins will follow."
Enders has been the No. 1 qualifier twice this season and made it to the final round twice, but lost both times. Connolly knows the feeling. Connolly has 22 Pro Stock victories as a driver, but he remembers how tough it was to get the first one.
"I think I was in four or five finals before I finally won one," he said. "It's not that you don't believe you can do it, but you just have to get over that hump.
"As long as I do the right things, Erica will get there. She has made some mistakes, but I've been there. And I've made some mistakes as a crew chief when we could have won. We're getting better together."
Connolly is only 28, but his first Pro Stock victory came when he was 21. He drove earlier this season in the four-wide event at Charlotte and he wants to drive again. But for now, he only wants to help Enders succeed.
Enders gives him a lot of credit for her recent success, but it's more than just technical expertise.
Connolly is close friends with former Pro Stock driver Richie Stevens, Enders' boyfriend. The three of them grew up together around drag racing.
"I can speak volumes about Dave," Enders said. "It's so nice to have someone in my corner that I trust. His heart's in the right place.
"He's a real sounding board for me, and so is Richie. They are both tremendous drivers. We have meetings every Sunday morning from a driver standpoint just to talk things out. We're all still young, but we've been here a long time and understand this sport."
Enders understands just how tough it can be. She has taken her lumps and come through it stronger and more mature.
This is her second go-round with Cagnazzi. She started her Pro Stock career with him in 2005. That ended after three years because of sponsorship problems and mediocre results.
Enders learned there's more to this than just driving the race car.
It's inspiring. Girls come to my trailer and say, 'I saw your movie and I've been racing seven years because of you.' That's awesome. But the movie also brought a lot of pressure and expectations. You live life in a fishbowl.” -- Erica Enders
"When I couldn't secure sponsorship after the economy went down, it was a tough deal," she said. "It was a very hard pill to swallow.
"Seven seasons ago, Richie, Dave and I were hired to drive the race car because we were good at it. But now, it really isn't based on your talent -- it's how much money you can bring to the table."
Enders, who was a marketing major at Texas A&M, knew she needed to use those skills as much as her driving talent.
"I came across a couple of rides I could afford to buy," she said. "It kept my name out there and enabled me to get seat time, which is priceless.''
Seat time, but no success in inferior equipment. Enders was an NHRA version of a start-and-park driver in NASCAR. Enders failed to qualify in all 12 events she entered in 2009. She missed 14 of 17 shows last year.
Enders showed up at the track knowing she couldn't compete, but at least she tried to compete. And she also worked the crowds and the suites where investors might be watching.
"Just being out there was a way for me to have something to sell," Enders said. "It's very hard to sit in a boardroom and explain to somebody what I want them to do, but when I can have them out to the races and show them how awesome it could be as an ROI [return on investment] for them, it's magic."
ZaZa Energy, an oil and gas exploration company in Houston, bought what Enders was selling and agreed to sponsor her Chevy Cobalt this season.
"Had I not been in the uncompetitive car last year I wouldn't have been able to sell ZaZa on the deal," Enders said. "They never had been to a drag race and didn't even know what Pro Stock was. They came to the race in Dallas and fell in love with the sport and with me. They said, 'What can we do to get you competitive?'"
Now here she is on the cusp of doing what no woman ever has done by winning in Pro Stock.
"It will be a huge accomplishment," Enders said. "I've driven a lot of cars, but Pro Stocks are the most challenging cars I've ever driven. It's hard every single time."
Enders has learned life can be hard at times, even if you're a teenage movie hero.
"So many good things came from the movie," Enders said. "I was told by [NHRA president] Tom Compton that it single-handedly changed the demographic of the sport. Now over 50 percent of all the Jr. Dragster competitors are female."
Kids and teenage girls continue to flock to Enders' autograph sessions in the pits.
"It's inspiring," Enders said. "Girls come to my trailer and say, 'I saw your movie and I've been racing seven years because of you.' That's awesome.
"But the movie also brought a lot of pressure and expectations. You live life in a fishbowl. Everything you do is magnified. I've tried hard to be a good example, and if one kid gets to chase their dream because of the movie, it was worth it."
After some difficult years, Enders still is chasing her dream. She's closer to reaching it than ever before.
"So few people get to do what they love for a living," she said. "This is all I ever wanted to do. It means the world to me.
"I plan on winning lots of races and the championship one day. I want to be successful in this class and get my name in the history books forever."
Who knows? Maybe that would bring another movie about her life. Enders chuckled at the suggestion.
"Maybe so," she said. "We'll see."
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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