(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:

 

 

Verizon’s “Lunch with Legends” returns at Watkins Glen

TORONTO - JULY 10:  Dario Franchitti of Scotland driver of the #10 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Dallara and Helio Castroneves of Brazil driver of the #3 Team Penske Dallara Honda chat before warm up for the IZOD IndyCar Series Honda Indy Toronto on July 10, 2011 in the streets of Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)
Franchitti and Castroneves join Bobby Rahal for Verizon event on Friday. Photo: Getty Images
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This weekend at Watkins Glen International, Verizon will host another of its “Lunch with Legends” series – which have also occurred at a couple other events this year, notably at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Road America.

The Verizon IndyCar Series’ title sponsor works to bring fans access while also bringing together legends of the sport for a panel Q&A discussion, hosted by NBCSN contributor Robin Miller.

This week, it’ll be Bobby Rahal, Dario Franchitti and Helio Castroneves having the discussion from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. ET. Castroneves will be checking in after first practice; Franchitti serves as Chip Ganassi Racing’s driver advisor and coach while Rahal fields a singleton entry for Graham Rahal, the Texas race winner.

And while it’s usually members of the paddock that check this out, Verizon is also opening this up to fans. A note on how is below:

As part of the Verizon Inside Indy program that gives fans incredible access to the sport, we’re letting 10 Verizon customers (plus a guest) join us for the Lunch with Legends. We’ll be looking for the fans on Friday and upgrade them on the spot, similar to how we provide fans access to Verizon Pit View.

The event takes place in the Watkins Glen Media Center, on the Great Room, Second Floor.

CJ Wilson Racing secures its elusive first GS win at VIR

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Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Go figure in a race that featured a 52-minute red flag for near-hurricane like weather conditions that the sun would finally shine on CJ Wilson Racing in the GS class of the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge.

Wilson’s team, which won last year’s ST class championship with Chad McCumbee and Stevan McAleer in a Mazda MX-5, made a big switch this year to step up to GS, with Marc Miller and Danny Burkett in its primary No. 33 ONE Capital/Motor Oil Matters car, and purchased two new Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsports.

Miller and Burkett have been podium regulars this year starting from the opening race at Daytona, but their first win has eluded them until Saturday. The cruelest loss came at Watkins Glen; Miller seemed primed to win there but ran aground of slower MINI ST class traffic, and lost out to Bodymotion Racing.

Bodymotion and Multimatic Motorsports had swept the season up until Saturday at VIR but courtesy of Miller passing Billy Johnson in the Multimatic Ford Shelby GT350R-C to start the final stint, and then maintaining the gap from there, the CJWR maiden GS victory was finally achieved.

That stint followed from Burkett, the Mazda Road to Indy veteran-turned-sports car rising star, keeping the car on the road until the conditions shifted on a dime from sunny and cloudy to Noah’s Ark-level downpour at the Alton, Va. 3.27-mile road course.

Where the Andris Laivins-led team was probably smartest was early; the team was among the first to switch onto Continental Tire wet-weather tires, which proved prescient as other struggled to limp back to the pits on slicks before the race was red flag.

“This was probably one of our most difficult races because we had to deal with a monsoon!” Miller admitted. “We faded early as Danny struggled a little bit with the balance of the car, but we had set it up for long runs so we kind of expected that it would be towards the middle of Danny’s stint before it got better but we never got that opportunity.

“The great call that they made was that we took the earliest opportunity to get Continental rain tires on the car and they are excellent in conditions like the ones we had. They are super predictable and very stable.

“When Danny got out and I got in I was hoping it was going to stay damp the rest of the way. I thought that was our best opportunity for victory given that we are just not as quick on the short runs, it takes us four or five laps to get going. I was able to put the move early on Billy and that felt just awesome!

“We were getting great forward bite out of the corners so I could square it up and go, that is really what made the difference. And thanks again to the CJ Wilson Racing crew, the car set up was awesome. We’re so happy to get our first GS win and we are also hoping to do three in a row this year like everyone else seems to be doing. I’m definitely looking forward to the next race.”

Burkett’s win comes a little more than a year after his major sports car debut, when he podiumed at Watkins Glen International in similarly tricky conditions in a BAR1 Motorsports PC car, co-driving with Martin Plowman and Matt McMurry. He dabbled in sports car racing last year but has been the full-time co-pilot of “Darth Cayman” in 2016.

“The conditions were challenging to say the least; it was kind of like driving in a hurricane, it was all about survival!” said the driver who’s nicknamed the “Manitoba Missile.”

“At one point, while on wets, on the front straight I hit a puddle, aquaplaned, and around we went. Luckily enough we didn’t hit anything but it was a total roller coaster of emotions because when that happened my heart sank. I can’t describe it, I can’t wait until we win the Championship.

“I have no idea how I’m going to be able to watch my own kids when they start racing!”

Wilson, who tries to attend as many races as his schedule allows when not a member of the Los Angeles Angels, has now added this win to his other racing accomplishments with his team, which continues its planned strategic growth in 2016.

“This is why we work so hard.  The tough races and close finishes have been difficult to take but I’m so happy for the crew,” he said.

“The way we have evolved as a team is definitely something to be proud of.  Danny and Marc have been great all year in the Cayman and to be able to stand on the top step of the podium with a race win is the biggest step we have taken all year. We have to look forward to our next race at COTA and I can’t wait to see everyone in the paddock.

“All of our partners that have gotten us to this point should feel just as proud, they’re a big part of this win too!”

Miller and Burkett are down 20 points to Johnson and Scott Maxwell with two races to go. Next up is the team’s home race at Circuit of The Americas, not far from its Austin headquarters.

The “three in a row” line mentioned by Miller owes to the fact Bodymotion’s pair of Trent Hindman and Cameron Cassels won Rounds 2 through 4 in a row, while Johnson and Maxwell won Rounds 5 through 7. This was Round 8, so if Burkett and Miller could emulate the three-peat, there’s a chance they could capture the title.

Lamborghini’s long, winding road finally leads to first GTD win at VIR

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Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Given its pace and pedigree of drivers, it seemed only a matter of time before the Lamborghini Huracán GT3 would win its first race in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.

But “only a matter of time” took until Round 9 of 11 this season following a number of unexpected surprises and growing pains that come with the step up into the series and GT Daytona category.

Lamborghini has worked to grow its North American race presence the last few years, particularly with the implementation and rapid growth of the one-make Lamborghini Blancpain Super Trofeo North America series. Drivers like Kevin Conway, a past NASCAR Sprint Cup rookie-of-the-year, Justin Marks, Corey Lewis, Madison Snow, Andrew Palmer, Richard Antinucci, Edoardo Piscopo and others have passed through that series’ halls along with a number of gentlemen drivers. This year, Trent Hindman and Stefan Wilson have become some of the more known notables, while Shinya Michimi has dominated as the top pro in the primarily pro-am series.

While the Super Trofeo one-make series has been a hit, the Huracán GT3 program debuted this year at Daytona with a big splash.

Yet the splash of talent assembled though drove down a tortuous road to get to Sunday at VIRginia International Raceway.

Lamborghini began the year with three full-time cars: the No. 11 O’Gara Motorsport entry for defending GTD class champions Townsend Bell and Bill Sweedler, the No. 16 Change Racing entry for sports car ace Spencer Pumpelly and up-and-comer Corey Lewis, and the No. 48 Paul Miller Racing car for Bryan Sellers and Madison Snow.

Of those three, only Miller had top-level IMSA experience as a team, but by switching cars (from the Audi R8 LMS) and drivers (Sellers and Snow), they faced a steep learning curve with their new elements. O’Gara and Change, meanwhile, stepped up from Super Trofeo into the significantly deeper series.

Add in two other Konrad Motorsport entries for one-off starts in the opening two rounds of the Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup – plus all the extra third and fourth drivers – and on paper, the odds for Lamborghini to start strongly looked good.

The problem, of course, was that Lamborghini started too strongly.

The Rolex 24 at Daytona was an exercise in eyebrow-raising once the Lamborghinis showed their full hand in race pace, running significantly faster lap times from most of its drivers throughout the race. A final charge from Fabio Babini in one of the Konrad cars nearly saw that car win before a late splash of fuel was needed and it dropped to fifth.

It caught the eyes of IMSA, the sanctioning body, which imposed the following penalties on February 22:

Following observed performance during Round 1 of the 2016 Championship, IMSA has levied penalties under Sporting Regulation Attachment 2, Paragraph 2.9 against the following GT Daytona (GTD) teams 11, 16, 21, 28 and 48, as well as to the manufacturer, Lamborghini.

Each team was assessed a post-race penalty of a stop plus five (5) minutes which was added to each car’s finishing time.

The manufacturer penalty was assessed as a loss of Championship and North American Endurance Cup points and a $25,000 fine.

The sanctions from IMSA were not the only speed bump Lamborghini hit in this time frame.

O’Gara’s team dissolved in the blink of an eye after one race owing to other unexpected financial straits that hit team principal Tom O’Gara’s other businesses.

It left Sweedler and Bell without a home – let alone the crew – and produced a bit of a domino effect.

O’Gara team manager Shane Senaviratne restarted his US RaceTronics team – originally founded in 2005 – for Super Trofeo in early March. Meanwhile Sweedler and Bell found a last-minute home with Robby Benton’s Change team in a second car, albeit only on a race-by-race basis.

Bell told me in April after the O’Gara effort collapsed, “It’s been a weird first quarter of the year. Last December I would have told you I’d never had a more solid stable situation. Things got out of our hands a bit quickly. It took a while to get things back on track, but now we have.”

Things didn’t get particularly better at Sebring. There were six Lamborghinis – the five from Daytona with the Bell/Sweedler car now under the Change umbrella – plus the debut of the Dream Racing Huracán. Lawrence DeGeorge had a heavy testing accident in Dream’s Huracán debut but the car was repaired in time for Sebring.

The Bell/Sweedler debut saw the car run out of fuel once, then stay out in the rain once the conditions turned miserable and Bell lost control at Sebring’s notorious Turn 17, having aquaplaned. In the second Change car, Lewis got a penalty in-race for an improper pass-around of the pace car. Even though that car led, it triggered a penalty that cost them nearly two laps and took them out of contention.

So two races, one race full of post-race penalties, the second with in-race penalties, and a best finish of sixth (Miller).

Two top-10s followed in the next round at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca with the Miller car seventh and the No. 16 Change car 10th. After a 15th-place finish, the Bell/Sweedler car was withdrawn, with Bell resuming to focus on his Indianapolis 500 effort with Andretti Autosport and his NBCSN TV commitments, while both he and Sweedler would focus on their 24 Hours of Le Mans encore effort with Scuderia Corsa.

Bell nearly won Indy, and Bell, Sweedler and Jeff Segal did win Le Mans in the GTE-Am class following an incredible effort.

Lamborghini’s plight continued, meanwhile, in GTD. Sellers delivered the manufacturer’s first pole at Detroit, but in an abnormal strategic move, it meant he – and Change, who’d opted to qualify Pumpelly – would be starting their lead pro drivers and finish their lesser experienced pro drivers, Snow and Lewis. Eighth and sixth in the race was hardly what either was looking for.

It took until Canadian Tire Motorsport Park for Lamborghini to get its first podium and top-five results. The Miller car was third, the Change car fifth. Dream Racing came eighth for its best result to date.

Despite a pole at Lime Rock for Change, Pumpelly saw the strategy go awry again and that car ended eighth. Miller was fourth. Road America failed to produce any top-fives on a track with long straightaways.

Snow, Miller and Sellers. Photo: Paul Miller Racing
Snow, Miller and Sellers. Photo: Paul Miller Racing

At VIR this weekend though it all came good – finally – for Miller and Lamborghini.The class of the field all weekend having led every session, Snow never put a wheel wrong while Sellers survived a brief off-course excursion and a last lap restart to secure the manufacturer’s first win in GTD.

Given the number of speed bumps it took to get there, it seemed the victory meant a lot to the Miller team, to Sellers and Snow and to Lamborghini directly.

“As far as Lamborghini’s first win, it’s a huge honor,” Sellers said. “When you think about being a young kid growing up, I think all of us dreamed about driving a Lamborghini. Being able to deliver their first win in IMSA is something pretty special. I’m glad that we at Paul Miller Racing could be the ones to do that for them, and I hope it builds our relationship and makes that stronger.”

“Our relationship with Lamborghini is very strong,” added team owner Paul Miller. “They really appreciate what we’ve done, our level of professionalism, the caliber of drivers in Madison and Bryan. Everything about our team is top drawer, and I think they are starting to recognize that even though we’ve lagged in the championship points. I think they realize we’re delivering a first class effort and finally showing the results that, frankly, should have been here all along.”

For Lamborghini itself, it means it’s finally arrived as a winner along with the other manufacturers in a stacked GTD class.

“We are absolutely thrilled with the Squadra Corse Lamborghini’s first win in the IMSA WeatherTech Sportscar Championship,” said Lamborghini Squadra Corse’s Chris Ward. “The Paul Miller Racing team has done an outstanding job all season long.

“This has been our foundation year for a good springboard into what we hope will be a really successful 2017 campaign. We’ve formed a fantastic relationship not only with Paul Miller Racing but with all of our Squadra Corse supported teams.”

The best may be yet to come from here, if Lamborghini has ironed out all the first-year challenges that come with such a big step up.

Hinchcliffe gets call to dance on Dancing with the Stars

FORT WORTH, TX - AUGUST 27: James Hinchcliffe driver of the #5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda speaks during a media conference before the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on August 27, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Mike Stone/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
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Helio Castroneves has won three Indianapolis 500s, but it was his turn on “Dancing with the Stars” that had as much to do with vaulting him into the national consciousness of mainstream Americana – if not more so – as those three victories.

James Hinchcliffe, meanwhile, has the engaging, dynamic personality that has captured the hearts of the North American open-wheel paddock and fan base for nearly a decade. And he’ll get his own mainstream Americana chance on the next season of “DWTS.”

Hinchcliffe was announced Tuesday morning on “Good Morning America” as part of the new season cast for the new season of the ABC show, which premieres September 12. The report was initially identified by the Indianapolis Star.

“Well, I can honestly say this will rank just above the Indy 500 as one of the most nerve-wracking things that I’ve ever agreed to do,” Hinchcliffe said in a team release.

“Normally I’m used to working under pressure in front of a live audience, but I can’t see them, so this should be a totally new experience for me and especially as someone with no ability to dance whatsoever.”

The 29-year-old Canadian follows Castroneves as Verizon IndyCar Series drivers on the show; former NASCAR team owner and two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip was also on the show a few years ago.

Hinchcliffe sits eighth in points for the 2016 season driving the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda. He has three podiums, including a hard-luck runner-up finish Saturday night at Texas Motor Speedway by just 0.008 of a second to Graham Rahal, after leading from the restart and after the joke of him leading for 76 straight days in the race’s rain delay.

He also scored a famous pole position for this year’s 100th Indianapolis 500, a year after near fatal injuries sustained in an accident in practice in 2015.