(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:

 

 

Bourdais, Coyne thankful to have had time to build over winter

BIRMINGHAM, AL - APRIL 08:  Sebastian Bourdais of France, driver of the #19 Dale Coyne Racing Dallara Honda, waits in the pit during practice for the IndyCar Series Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park on April 8, 2011 in Birmingham, Alabama.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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With both Sebastien Bourdais and Ed Jones having been confirmed relatively early in this Verizon IndyCar Series offseason – by mid-November – it marked a change of course for both Dale Coyne Racing as a team, and for its re-signed lead driver.

Coyne’s a racing lifer and he and his Chicago-based team has been part of the IndyCar fabric for more than 30 years. But throughout that time, it had become something of a running joke that Coyne usually left his driver signings very late in the winter. He even warmed to the joke as the years have gone on.

In Bourdais’ case, not knowing whether he’d have a job year-to-year was always a threat, and became particularly worrisome last offseason when KVSH Racing only formally shored up the deal for him to be back for a third year the week of the IndyCar open test at Phoenix International Raceway in late February.

As such, knowing Coyne wanted to move the program forward – starting by getting the pieces done earlier – and knowing Bourdais wanted the stability and security throughout the offseason, it made sense the deal got done when it did. That peace of mind became evident once KVSH Racing again was set to face an uncertain future as the summer dragged into fall.

“It was massive,” Bourdais told NBC Sports. “It was the first winter I’m not dreading the phone call where someone says, ‘Hey, that went down, or that did, or this happened.’ It’s very very reassuring and appealing. It’s the biggest reason why I was looking for something else. It was just not going to change with the organization we had.

“It’s no one’s fault. ‘Sulli’ (James Sullivan) did an amazing job; Jimmy (Vasser) was helping and Kevin (Kalkhoven) did what he felt he wanted or could do. You couldn’t blame the situation for what it was. But it was all planning, then money ran short and things went bad. Ultimately I’m very happy with what we’re doing here. Hopefully we can produce!”

KVSH was notably bullish on Bourdais’ prospects in preseason last year, while Bourdais sought to downplay it, but a season of underachieving and lost opportunities left the one-car team an unrepresentative 14th in points.

Bourdais, knowing Coyne’s team isn’t regarded as a world-beater (yet, anyway) and with the Honda package still likely to lag a bit behind Chevrolet at most races, is again guarding against setting the expectations too high.

“I don’t want to get the expectations too high. That doesn’t help anyone,” Bourdais said. “But Dale has put a massive commitment behind the program. I’ve kind of managed to get him to agree and commit to it as early as he did. That was so crucial.

Bourdais and Coyne crew at Gateway test. Photo: IndyCar
Bourdais and Coyne crew at Gateway test. Photo: IndyCar

“There’s a lot of things that are working here. Mike Cannon (engineer) did a great job with Darren (Crouser, team manager). It’s the first time there’s that many engineers in the office. They don’t think they’ll be there for a year or two. They want to build something. Of course there are limitations and restrictions. Consistency in a group can go a long way on that. But we’re looking to produce the fruit of everyone’s hard work.”

The engineering shake-up at Coyne provides a veritable smorgasbord of engineering goodness in one room (more here via IndyCar.com). Bourdais’ chief engineer from KVSH, Olivier Boisson, also makes the switch to Coyne. Bourdais is reunited with his championship-winning engineer from the Champ Car days, Craig Hampson, as his lead engineer. Cannon will serve as lead on Jones’ car.

“I raced against him in Champ Car,” Bourdais laughed. “It’s crucial to have him stick around again. The more continuity in the team, the better.”

Coyne was meant to test December 9 at Sebring before a washout cut the test down in advance. The team’s first test with both cars in road and street course configuration is now at Sebring on January 24-25, with Bourdais then continuing in Florida into the weekend for the second year at the Rolex 24 at Daytona in one of the Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GTs.

Bourdais has run the gamut of teammates in his career. Oriol Servia and Bruno Junqueira won races when Bourdais was at Newman/Haas and Graham Rahal impressed as a rookie. In recent years, late deals have left drivers such as Katherine Legge, Sebastian Saavedra and Stefano Coletti scrambling to get integrated into the team, despite their ability.

Jones is unproven at the IndyCar level, but Bourdais said the talent exists for the 21-year-old Dubai-based Brit, who’s found a home in the U.S. in Miami.

“Hell, he won the championship in Lights, so we know he has talent,” Bourdais said. “It’s crucial to make sure the second car doesn’t hurt where I was going. The budget on the second car is fine, so it shouldn’t affect us in a bad way.

“If Ed can achieve and help us raise the bar, even better. That’s pretty much the way I look at it all along. But the biggest thing was making sure it wouldn’t drain the effort on my car, because otherwise you’re better off being alone.”

Bourdais turns 38 at the end of February and will embark on his 12th season in IndyCar, 10th overall (he raced part-time for Coyne in 2011, when he returned to IndyCar and in 2012) looking to build on his career record of 35 wins.

Coyne has four wins all-time and seems a good bet to add to that at least once more this year. If Bourdais can re-enter the top-10 in points after a one-year slip, it should be a good first step in the team’s turnaround.

Jenson Button tests a Honda Civic Red Bull GRC car (VIDEO)

during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of China at Shanghai International Circuit on April 15, 2016 in Shanghai, China.
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Jenson Button’s racing plans for 2017 aren’t settled yet, other than we know he’s staying affiliated with McLaren Honda as the team’s third and reserve driver.

Honda, of course, spreads its wings in so many other forms of motorsport, Red Bull Global Rallycross among them. And given Button’s love of rallying, you wondered if one day, the 2009 World Champion might test a Honda Civic that’s entered by the Honda Red Bull Olsbergs MSE team.

Wonder no more. Button posted this Instagram video of him testing a one of the OMSE Civics at Sebring International Raceway, and thanked OMSE team principal Andreas Eriksson for the opportunity. Button called the test “pure driving” and “pure joy” within the caption.

Button turns 37 tomorrow and it would be a gift not just for him, but for American fans, if this test were eventually to blossom into something more with the team. The OMSE team is yet to reveal its Red Bull GRC program with Honda for the second season of competition for the Civic.

Button isn’t the first high-profile open-wheel driver to have sampled the car, as IndyCar driver Conor Daly did so as well the day after the season finale in Los Angeles.

NAPA returns to Rossi’s No. 98 at Andretti Autosport

during the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 29, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.
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After a shot-in-the-dark last-minute deal with Andretti-Herta Autosport to support Alexander Rossi’s No. 98 Honda at the 100th Indianapolis 500, NAPA Auto Parts entered into sponsorship immortality aboard the winning car.

The discussion from there was always going to be whether the relationship would continue and expand for either the rest of 2016 or into the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series. After a one-weekend continuation into the Detroit doubleheader last year, NAPA and Andretti Autosport confirmed a greater relationship in 2017.

NAPA will serve as co-primary sponsor for Rossi’s car at seven races this season, including the month of May in Indianapolis. St. Petersburg will see the first NAPA appearance, with additional ones at Long Beach, Road America, Watkins Glen and Sonoma.

The NAPA adorned show car has made a number of appearances around the country, including a recent one at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

“We are pleased to announce our continued partnership with one of the more iconic brands in all of motorsports, the Andretti brand” stated NAPA President, Dan Askey. “We are equally excited to partner with one of the rising stars in the sport in Alexander Rossi and proud to have Alexander representing NAPA both on and off the track. We were fortunate to come on board in May of 2016 becoming a part of history as we rode along with Alexander capturing the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500. Andretti Autosport remains one of the elite teams in the IndyCar Series and we look forward to what 2017 holds.”

“NAPA is a storied, American brand and I couldn’t be more proud to announce our partnership is continuing,” added Andretti Autosport CEO Michael Andretti. “We were pleased to have previously announced that Alexander will be returning for the full season, and now to be able to confirm that NAPA is back on board – what a great way for us to start 2017. Our relationship with NAPA came together quickly during our Month of May program last year, and it wasn’t long before the partnership was written into history books. We can’t wait to add a few more pages to history together.”

New GTD manufacturers add intrigue to 2017 Rolex 24 at Daytona

Nos. 33 and 50 Riley Motorsports Mercedes-AMG GT3s. Photo courtesy of IMSA
Nos. 33 and 50 Riley Motorsports Mercedes-AMG GT3s. Photo courtesy of IMSA
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The trio of new manufacturers entering the 2017 Rolex 24 at Daytona – Acura, Lexus and Mercedes-AMG – add three more bullets to an already loaded GT Daytona 27-car class field for the season-opening round of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season. It brings the total number of manufacturers entered this year up to nine, joining six returning brands (Porsche, Audi, Ferrari, Lamborghini, BMW, Aston Martin) from 2016.

The new cars have all taken an interesting road to get here as they make their U.S. race competition debuts, following either or both of testing and international class racing.

Acura enters with arguably the most buzz among the three manufacturers. The sister brand to Honda has the cache of the history of the NSX brand from the early 1990s, and the long-awaited revival of the new NSX as a GT3 model comes with much anticipation.

No. 93 Acura NSX GT3. Photo courtesy of IMSA
No. 93 Acura NSX GT3. Photo courtesy of IMSA

In Michael Shank Racing, Acura has a team with nearly two decades of endurance experience, in collaboration with Peter Cunningham’s RealTime Racing which has been an integral part of the testing process. The car was revealed last spring in New York and made its on-track testing debut in late July at the Pirelli World Challenge weekend at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, not far from Honda of America Manufacturing in Marysville, Ohio. A further public test at Utah Motorsports Campus in August followed.

Testing hasn’t been entirely smooth, which is to be expected as teams work through the mechanical niggles and prefer to diagnose issues early. As Shank explained to at the Performance Racing Industry (PRI) Trade Show in Indianapolis in December, the working process has gotten better with each run.

“Every time we take the car out, it’s getting better, literally,” Shank told NBC Sports. “Every time it goes out the door, there’s more done to the car to make it endurance-worthy, comfortable for drivers, quick – it’s just a huge bucket list, a punch-out list of stuff to get done that we’re slowly taking care of.”

Acura’s pair of NSX GT3s slotted in 20th and 23rd at the Roar Before the Rolex 24 test, which may not be representative of the car’s ultimate pace.

With their lineups of Ozz Negri, Jeff Segal, Tom Dyer and Ryan Hunter-Reay in the No. 86 Acura and Andy Lally, Katherine Legge, Mark Wilkins and Graham Rahal in the No. 93 car, the team has assembled eight all-star drivers who are all close and consistent enough on pace to keep the cars in the fight.

No. 14 Lexus RC F GT3. Photo courtesy of IMSA
No. 14 Lexus RC F GT3. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Lexus enters into GTD following a roller coaster year-and-a-half of buildup. The team’s initial RC F GT3 lacked outright competitiveness before homologation issues, and required a new build of a second generation car that spent the latter half of 2016 building up mileage.

The former Rocketsports Racing – or RSR when it was in IMSA’s Prototype Challenge class – has had a mixed history with GT cars. Paul Gentilozzi’s effort was a race- and championship-winning machine in the Trans-Am days, most recently with a Jaguar XKR in the early 2000s. However, when the RSR Jaguar program entered into GT2 (now GT Le Mans) in the American Le Mans Series, it struggled for both pace and reliability.

Toyota, Lexus’ sister brand, seems entirely committed to the Lexus project, and the renamed 3GT Racing has a great future-looking lineup with Sage Karam, Jack Hawksworth and Robert Alon – all 25 or less – as three of its four full-season drivers. And in Scott Pruett, they have one of the most successful sports car drivers of all-time as their lead driver and mentor-in-chief.

“To have the passion and ability he has at 56, to be a wheelman is unreal,” Karam told NBC Sports. “That dude can still wheel a car. Listening to how he talks and goes about everything, it’s unlike anyone else. I’m blessed to have a teammate like Scott.”

Endurance race extras include a capable quartet of Ian James and Gustavo Menezes (No. 14) and Austin Cindric and Dominik Farnbacher (No. 15), the latter of whom probably has been most integral to the Lexus development process. Lexus was 21st and 24th at the Roar.

The most ironed out car should, in theory, be the new Mercedes-AMG GT3. The car tested for the first time at Daytona in November 2015, which gives it already more than a year up on the other two outright new cars. It had success in European GT racing last year.

In Riley Motorsports, Mercedes has a team that is perhaps the most well-sorted in the paddock. Bill Riley leaves no stone unturned and even with new cars, with the Dodge Viper GT3-R retired from competition, the expectation is that Riley’s pair of Mercedes will be instant competitors. Jeroen Bleekemolen and Ben Keating share the team’s No. 33 car while the WeatherTech Racing pair of Cooper MacNeil and Gunnar Jeannette lead the team’s No. 50 car.

“It’s not too hard (of a transition) because this car is so nice and easy to drive,” Bleekemolen told NBC Sports. “I’ve always said of the SLS, this is the easiest car I know and this car is similar in that way. It’s a very easy car to drive. You get a feel for the car pretty quick and that makes it also a good all-around car. In difficult conditions, it’s going to be good, it’s going to be easy. I love this car.”

Pace at the Roar backed that up. The No. 33 Mercedes was second, the No. 50 Mercedes 11th, and the third Mercedes – the No. 75 SunEnergy1 Racing entry – split them nearly right down the middle in seventh.

Audi won its first WeatherTech Championship race last year in GTD with its new R8 LMS, which extended the new car’s run of early success in international endurance races to four wins in its five most recent starts. The Mercedes’ run of international success last year included a top-four sweep at last year’s 24-hour enduro at the Nürburgring as part of 18 overall wins, so it follows that even though this race is its IMSA debut, it could and probably should contend for class honors.

For Acura and Lexus, the goals are different. With this being the first race for both cars, finishing is the first and most important goal. Ford achieved a wealth of success as it went on with the Ford GT throughout 2016, but arguably fell flat on its face with a litany of issues that popped up on its worldwide race debut at Daytona.

Provided each of those two manufacturers can get one car home to the finish, it will have been a solid start. For Mercedes-AMG, meanwhile, a win at Daytona is within range to extend its run of form, provided it gets past the other outstanding challengers in class.