(Photo courtesy NHRA)

After long, hard road, Erica Enders-Stevens enjoying outstanding success in NHRA Pro Stock

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So much has been made about Danica Patrick and when she’ll win her first Sprint Cup race.

Patrick could take a few pointers on how to win from NHRA Pro Stock driver Erica Enders-Stevens. Not only has the New Orleans resident earned three wins in four final-round appearances this season, she has qualified either first or second in 11 of the first 12 events in 2014.

But wait, there’s more, something Patrick likely can only dream about: the 30-year-old Enders-Stevens is dominating the Pro Stock class in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series standings.

In addition to three wins (Las Vegas, Houston, Bristol), Enders-Stevens also one runner-up finish and two other semi-final finishes in the first 12 races heading into this weekend’s Summit Racing Equipment Nationals in Norwalk, Ohio.

Add all those stats together and it’s no wonder Enders-Stevens holds a massive 190-point edge over second-ranked and five-time and defending season champion Jeg Coughlin, and a 191-point edge over third-ranked and 2012 season champ Allen Johnson.

“It really is a dream come true, very surreal,” Enders said in an exclusive interview with NBCSports.com’s MotorSportsTalk. “I’ve dedicated 22 years of my life trying to get to this point, nonetheless with so many people’s help and wouldn’t have been able to get to this point without my dad.

“This is the first year I’ve had a team that stands behind me, a race car that’s capable of winning races and contending for the championship. It’s kind of one of those deals where you thank God for the blessings, stay humble and keep the faith.”

The Houston native, who now lives in New Orleans with husband and fellow Pro Stock racer Richie Stevens (who will likely eventually join his wife on the Elite Motorsports team once enough sponsorship for a second car is procured), has quickly become the most successful female Pro Stock driver in history.

In 164 career races, she has a total of nine wins, 12 runner-up finishes and 15 other semifinal finishes. She’s also been No. 1 qualifier seven times and has a 139-105 round won-loss record.

But it’s not been an easy road for Enders-Stevens. She started racing in the NHRA junior dragster program at the young age of eight. After nine years in that class, she moved up to the sportsman (amateur) ranks and eventually into the Pro Stock class.

Along the way, she learned some hard lessons, including what it was like to lose, failing to qualify for 50 races along the way. She and sister Courtney Enders were also the subject of a 2003 Disney Channel movie, Right On Track, which chronicled their efforts to become successful female racers against long odds and battles against many male racers.

“Back in 1992, my sister and I were the only girls, at least at our home track,” Enders-Stevens said. “Then we’d go to the national events and what-not, and there was just a small handful of us. Now, over 50 percent of the junior dragster drivers are female, which is pretty cool.”

But when she moved to Elite Motorsports at the end of last season, Enders-Stevens found herself in the best spot of her career – and her results this season have proven that.

“It’s been really awesome,” she said. “At the end of 2013, Richard Freeman, who is my team owner, hired me to drive for him and Elite Motorsports, probably the best move of my career.

“People are the most important part of the puzzle. Horsepower doesn’t hurt, but if you’re out here getting along, having fun and enjoying each other’s company, there’s no reason to go home and get a real job.

“I’ve been really blessed with a great group. The first two races, we struggled a little bit. But since Gainesville on, it’s just been kind of a dream season. We’ve jelled real quickly.”

Enders-Stevens has quickly earned a reputation for her nerves of steel and cool demeanor. She rarely strays from her mild-mannered disposition and doesn’t let the pressure of big-time drag racing get to her.

“Ninety percent of it is mental and you’ve just got to stay focused,” she said. “I don’t get excited in regular life, either. My dad used to joke with me as a kid and would say, ‘Act excited.’ And I’d say to him, ‘I am excited.’ I’m always pretty even kilter and just go with the flow.”

Having the first realistic chance to win her first Pro Stock championship, Enders-Stevens hasn’t strayed from her “go with the flow” demeanor. She wants that championship, but there’s still 12 races to go and knows anything can happen between now and season’s end.

“That’s the big picture, but it’s definitely a marathon, not a sprint,” she said. “Every weekend, we have to focus on going one round, one at a time, and not let the big picture interfere with week-to-week success and that’s one thing my team owner has really helped put in perspective.

“Yeah, we have high goals and are going to work hard to get there. At this point of the season, midway through, it’s a dream year, from the wins, to the K&N Challenge (a special race within a race that she also won), to (setting) both ends of the world record (speed and elapsed time).”

While she admittedly had a rough time coming up through the ranks, Enders-Stevens is thankful for the opportunities and success she’s had – and will continue to have – in NHRA racing, perhaps the most progressive form of motorsport in the world with its widespread and welcoming diversity program.

“It’s purely based on opportunity,” Enders-Stevens said. “NHRA has provided us a great platform for us to excel on. I started in junior dragster when I was eight years old and did that for nine years. Then I moved up to the sportsman league, which is like amateurs.

“We were all able to run on the same track as the pros as an amateur. You’re in front of the same crowd and sponsors. Just keeping your name and face out here, it just gives you a great stage to excel on. I think that’s a big reason why there are so many females and you’re able to start at such a young age. It teaches you the fundamentals of the sport and gives you a nice little ladder to climb if that’s your goal.”

She also gives credit to many of her fellow female drivers like Funny Car pilot Alexis DeJoria, Brittany and Courtney Force and others for what they bring to the sport.

But it was legendary Top Fuel driver Shirley Muldowney that first inspired Enders-Stevens and got her interested not only in becoming a drag racer, but also realizing that anyone can win a championship. Muldowney, now retired, became the first female champion in NHRA history, earning three titles in her career.

“Shirley Muldowney, for sure, was my idol,” Enders-Stevens said. “As a kid growing up, I rooted for her. And when she retired, it was Shelley Anderson, who is Shelly Payne now, the Top Fuel dragster.

“I always rooted for the girls, I guess, because I was a girl trying to compete with all the guys. … I certainly looked up to Shirley and she paved the way for us, people like me and Alexis DeJoria and other girls out here who are competing. I know what we have to put up with now in 2014. I can’t imagine what it was like in the ’70s (when Muldowney began racing in the NHRA). She’s (Muldowney) tough for a reason.”

Unlike other drivers who switch classes in their careers, Enders-Stevens plans on remaining in Pro Stock for the rest of her career – which could very well be another 15 to 20 years, with many more wins and potential championships.

“My heart and soul is here,” she said. “(Pro Stock is) a driver’s class. It’s your raw factory hot rod horsepower, it’s real and awesome and I love that the pressure’s on me and my crew chiefs. I like leaving with the clutch, I like shifting.

“The fuel guys (Top Fuel and Funny Cars) joke that we’re taxi cab drivers, and we say that they just stab and steer it. There’s a little fun banter going on between the classes, but I have no desire to run one. If I had no job and somebody offered me a lot of money to run one, sure, I’d do it. I mean, I’m licensed in a Funny Car and that’s the route I was going to go before Pro Stock. But now that I’ve been doing this and trying to make it for 10 years, this is it. I love it.”

Even with her commanding lead over Coughlin and Johnson in the Pro Stock standings, Enders-Stevens isn’t taking anything for granted or cleaning off a spot on the mantle for her potential championship trophy just yet.

But with her best previous season to date ending in a fourth-place finish (2012), she admits she has thought a lot about what it would be like to be an NHRA champion.

“That’s the stuff when you can’t sleep at night, you lay there thinking about since I was a kid,” she said. “There’s a lot of racing left and there’s at least six teams out here that have good cars that’ll be in the mix at the end of the year. It’ll just be staying consistent, not getting ahead of ourselves, going A to B and doing our best every race day. That’s what it’s going to take to win the championship.

“It’s grueling, it’s stressful, it’s tough, we’ve been on the road for a month now, then have a week off and then another three (weeks) in a row again. The summer stretch is really hard on everyone, but you just have to stay focused and not get ahead of yourself.”

She pauses, and then adds, “But it would be awesome (to win the championship).”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Videos below of Enders setting Pro Stock national speed and elapsed time records:

 

 

Otmar Szafnauer confident new F1 rules will create ‘uncertainty’

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 22:  Sergio Perez (L) of Mexico and Sahara Force India and Esteban Ocon of France and Sahara Force India unveil the VJM10 car during the Sahara Force India Formula One team launch at Silverstone on February 22, 2017 in Northampton, England.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Force India chief operating officer Otmar Szafnauer is confident that Formula 1’s new technical regulations will create uncertainty and allow teams to move up the pecking order.

Force India enjoyed its best season in F1 last year, finishing the year fourth in the constructors’ championship behind only Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari.

For 2017, new technical regulations are set to make the cars significantly quicker over a single lap, prompting teams to place great focus on preparing for the upcoming campaign.

Speaking following the launch of Force India’s new car, the VJM10, Szafnauer was positive about the chances that the new rules would bring for both the tam and the sport.

“Whenever you mix up the rules it’s bound to introduce some uncertainty. There’s the opportunity for teams to achieve or underachieve and if that happens it will disrupt the status quo,” Szafnauer said.

“Will the new rules create better racing? Only time will tell. The cars will be significantly faster – not down the straights, but through the corners – but the braking zones will be reduced and that won’t necessarily have a positive impact on overtaking opportunities.

“I certainly like the aesthetics of the new cars because they remind me of the racing cars of old. I’m sure they will look spectacular on the track too.”

When asked about Force India’s objectives for the year ahead, Szafnauer remained coy, but said that the early signs within the team were positive.

“As a team we have some internal objectives, but it’s very hard for me to verbalize those ambitions because it’s impossible to know what our competitors could achieve given such a huge change of regulations,” Szafnauer said.

“What I can say is that we have met our internal targets for the car – for example in terms of the aero numbers we set as the goal for the launch car. How those targets compare to our competitors is impossible to say until we hit the track.”

Force India will enjoy its first public run with the VJM10 car in Barcelona on Monday at the start of collective pre-season testing.

Fernando Alonso finds Lewis Hamilton’s data sharing comments ‘strange’

SUZUKA, JAPAN - OCTOBER 06:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP  in the Drivers Press Conference with Fernando Alonso of Spain and McLaren Honda and Jolyon Palmer of Great Britain and Renault Sport F1  during previews ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Japan at Suzuka Circuit on October 6, 2016 in Suzuka.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Fernando Alonso has joked that Lewis Hamilton could have benefited from using more of Mercedes Formula 1 teammate Nico Rosberg’s data through 2016.

Hamilton said in a recent interview that he was uneasy about having to share data with teammates, instead preferring the raw experience found in go-karting where any on-track advantage was kept secret.

Speaking at the launch of McLaren’s new F1 car, the MCL32, on Friday, Alonso jested that Hamilton may have won the championship in 2016 had he used Rosberg’s data more.

Hamilton fell five points short of Rosberg in the race for the title last year, ending his two-year reign as F1 world champion.

“He’s said many times that he was learning from the data. Mercedes also is one of the teams using more of the data, more with the engineers, to help the drivers,” Alonso said, as quoted by crash.net.

“So I think it is a little bit strange to hear from him. If he was watching more data from Rosberg last year, maybe he would have won the championship?”

Alonso enters the new season looking to build on an encouraging 2016 campaign for McLaren that saw it move up the field following a period of struggle with engine partner Honda.

“I think there’s a lot to admire about what we’ve achieved over the past 12 months. Sure, the results haven’t really showcased it, but we’ve really made progress, and I think the whole team has gelled together through those difficult times,” Alonso said.

“Now, at a moment of significant regulatory change, we need to capitalize on that period of uncertainty to push forwards – and I’m confident that we’ve got the expertise to do just that.

“What I’ve seen of the MCL32 appears to be really promising – the new regulations seem to be well thought-out, and the cars look fast and aggressive.

“The look of the car makes me really want to get in the cockpit – I’ve lost none of that all-important hunger every Formula 1 driver needs. Training over the winter has gone well – I worked really hard – and I can’t wait to get going in the car as I say.

“We still think the start of the season will be a challenge – we can’t ignore the fact that we’re still coming from a significant step behind the current front-runners – but I’d like to think we can target the second half of the year as a time when we’ll really be able to start making useful performance steps.

“The aim is to look respectable this year – and I’d like to think we can achieve that.”

Faster cars set for track in Barcelona ahead of new season

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 23:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP drives during the launch of the Mercedes formula one team's 2017 car, the W08, at Silverstone Circuit on February 23, 2017 in Northampton, England.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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MADRID (AP) Formula One returns to action next week with a test session ahead of a highly anticipated season featuring wider and faster cars to make the series more exciting.

The revamped cars will be on the track in Barcelona on Monday when teams and drivers will get their first real look at what 2017 is going to be like.

“Next week is when we really get to unleash it,” Lewis Hamilton said after Mercedes unveiled its car on Friday.

A second four-day test session will take place in Barcelona from March 7-10.

The first race is the Australian GP on March 26.

The season arrives with regulation changes that significantly altered car design and performance in an attempt to attract more fans and increase track attendance and television audiences.

New aerodynamic and tire rules have given the 2017 cars a meaner look, making them wider and boosting downforce and grip. That translates into faster speeds and, hopefully, more overtaking maneuvers on the track. The rear wings are lower and many of the cars will use a “shark fin” wing on top of the engine.

“The car is wider, tires are bigger, we have a lot more downforce,” Hamilton said. “It’s like taking a small propeller plane and comparing it to a Boeing 737. It’s got so much more performance on it.”

The bigger and quicker cars are also likely to be harder to drive, putting more emphasis on the drivers’ skills and physical conditioning.

Teams are expecting lap times to be three to five seconds faster compared to last year.

“Let’s wait and see,” McLaren veteran Fernando Alonso said. “I think there is some hope that with these regulations we will improve the show. Next week we will have some answers in Barcelona. But definitely it’s a good change for Formula One, something that we probably needed, to have fast and good looking cars.”

The new season will begin without defending champion Nico Rosberg , who retired after winning his first title. Former champion Jenson Button also left, and the Manor team ended, leaving the grid with 20 cars.

Bernie Ecclestone is gone after nearly four decades as F1’s boss. In charge now is U.S. sports and entertainment firm Liberty Media, which took over to try to win back dissatisfied fans and make the series thrilling again.

Here are other things to watch for this season:

MERCEDES’ DOMINANCE

The changes in regulation could help teams cut the gap on Mercedes, which won both the driver and team championships the last three seasons.

The first test session could give an indication of whether teams such as Ferrari and Red Bull will be able to pose a bigger challenge than in 2016. Williams, McLaren and Force India will be hoping to take advantage of the new rules to challenge at the front. Toro Rosso, Renault, Hass and Sauber will try to be near the front more often.

“Maybe we are not going to win 50 races in three years. Maybe we are going to win a couple of races, hopefully a championship. Maybe not, maybe somebody else has done a better job,” Mercedes executive director Toto Wolff said. “It’s all back to square one.”

DRIVER CHANGES

Red Bull, Ferrari and Toro Rosso are keeping the same driver lineup from last season. They’re very much the exception.

Valtteri Bottas got the grid’s most-desired seat at Mercedes, replacing the retiring Rosberg. Bottas’ departure from Williams prompted 35-year-old Felipe Massa to end his own retirement and return to the team.

Former Manor driver Pascal Wehrlein takes Felipe Nasr’s job at Sauber, while Kevin Magnussen left Renault to join American team Haas. Nico Hulkenberg replaced Magnussen at Renault after leaving Force India.

YOUNG TALENT

A few new drivers will be trying to emulate the success of Max Verstappen, who stunned F1 last season by becoming the youngest driver to win a race at age 18.

Lance Stroll, 18, will be replacing Bottas at Williams, while 24-year-old Stoffel Vandoorne comes in for Button at McLaren.

Esteban Ocon, 20, made nine starts with Manor last season and secured a ride with Force India for 2017.

The 22-year-old Wehrlein will not be able to test his new Sauber next week because he injured his back at a racing event last month.

MCLAREN DOUBTS

Going back to the orange livery from the 1960s, McLaren will be hoping to win its first race since 2012.

But there are doubts about whether the renewed partnership with Honda will finally start paying off after two disappointing seasons in which the team struggled to contend for victories or even podium finishes.

There was improvement a year ago, but the pressure for better results this season will increase.

Fresh reset on tap for Takuma Sato at Andretti Autosport

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For a driver you don’t think of as having been long a part of the Verizon IndyCar Series paddock, Takuma Sato is that and more as he prepares to enter his eighth full-time season in 2017.

Sato’s longevity is such that he did parts of seven years and 90 Grand Prix starts from 2002 through 2008, before a one-year gap prior to his arrival in IndyCar in 2010, where he’s now made 118 starts in seven years.

With KV Racing Technology, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and A.J. Foyt Enterprises, Sato was very much enigmatic. His speed and determination was never in question and he produced a number of edge-of-your-seat highlight reel moments; few will forget his daring attempt on Dario Franchitti to win the 2012 Indianapolis 500 with RLL, for example, and a year later he finally secured his first win with Foyt at Long Beach on a track he’s long excelled at.

But despite his undoubted pace, his “no attack, no chance” style sometimes got him into more trouble than he desired.

Sato’s presence in the paddock is a good one because his attitude is forthright, he’s very good with the media (both the American and Japanese media) and he has a seemingly eternal, effervescent smile on his face.

He doesn’t look a day over 32 years old, even though he turned 40 in January.

And with Andretti Autosport, Sato has his best team dynamic available yet as he moves into one of the generally considered “big three” teams for the first time in his career.

He’s been on a single-car team at both RLL and Foyt, a two-car team at Foyt and a three-car team at KV, but has not yet been part of a four-car effort as he will have at Andretti. He’s in the No. 26 Honda with teammates Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi and Marco Andretti.

“I’m very excited. Obviously you want to have more time in the car for the preseason. But there is a lot of progression to be done over the winter,” Sato told NBC Sports.

“I’m already having a good time together with the team.”

Sato will be reunited with engineer Garrett Mothershead, who he worked with at KV his first two years in the series. Together, Sato won his first two poles at Iowa and Edmonton.

Both Sato and Rossi suffered setbacks during the Phoenix test, both drivers losing the back end in Turn 2 and hitting the wall. Both were on qualifying simulations.

Despite that, Sato felt positive with the improvements made to the car on a short oval compared to last year. Foyt’s team struggled on the short ovals with the same Honda package, which is a bit down to Chevrolet on the short ovals, and Sato was able to denote the differences and enhancements Andretti’s team had made.

“In the end it was a qualifying simulation and balance was off. It was a shame and I hate it for the crew,” Sato said.

“Other than that, we made a car that was much better car. We made good progress with all four drivers working together, and our engineering is strong.”

One of the things Sato is renowned for is his ability on street courses. He’s been rather exciting to watch on those circuits over his career, and his setup and feedback work should help the team going forward on these tracks, starting with St. Petersburg.

One of Sato’s teammates, Hunter-Reay, called Sato “one of the fastest guys out there” and is “looking forward to hearing his perspective.”

Expectations aren’t the highest given the struggles of the Honda package compared to Chevrolet. And Sato’s career place in the standings hasn’t been higher than 13th in seven years – incidentally, in 2011 when he last worked with Mothershead.

Although the field is deep, Sato is hopeful of a couple steps forward results and points-wise this year. The Andretti Autosport team wants to be best in class among those with Hondas.

“I have good memories in St. Petersburg! So hopefully we’re competitive there,” Sato said.

“Hopefully we can win a race. Since it’s a frozen package this year, I don’t see a big difference compared to last year. But the personal situation is that I’m in a different team and environment, and that’s big. I’m looking forward to it.”