(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:



Is there a new adventure for Lowdon, Booth? @RealManor Twitter launches today

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A mere two days after the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, and John Booth and Graeme Lowdon’s sign-off to the Manor Marussia F1 Team occurred, Lowdon’s already dropped a hint of what his next move could be.

Lowdon and Booth sat front and center in a Twitter post released Tuesday, with Lowdon writing: “So maybe time for a new adventure? Why not come along too? For any news, just follow MM .”

Fittingly, the aforementioned new Twitter account – @realManor – has premiered today.

Two things to note here. One… the timing is very intriguing to say the least. Booth, then team principal, and Lowdon, then sporting director, tendered their resignations from a team that appeared to be moving forward for 2016, with confirmation of a new Mercedes power unit and technical support from Williams, in the form of gearbox and suspension components. But Booth and Lowdon resigned following apparent disagreements with the direction of the team under new owner Stephen Fitzpatrick.

Second, the naming of the new Twitter account as Real Manor implies, intentional or not, that Manor is more closely aligned to Booth and Lowdon, rather than with the Manor Marussia F1 Team. The Twitter bio page makes that fairly clear: “Official Twitter account of Manor Motorsport. Established in 1990. Over 180 race wins and 19 National and International Championships. We love racing.” Naturally though, the Manor Marussia F1 Team continues with @ManorF1Team as its Twitter account.

With Manor F1’s management structure now going through the change, with Booth and Lowdon now out and former McLaren F1 sporting director Dave Ryan joining the team as racing director, and now this new cat out of the bag, it will be very intriguing to see what develops from a name and/or new adventure standpoint that Lowdon is referring to.

Alfonso Celis Jr. makes solid F1 test debut with Force India

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Mexican driver Alfonso Celis Jr., who was confirmed as a development driver for Sahara Force India late last month, had his first running in the VJM08 chassis during today’s season-ending test at the Yas Marina Circuit.

The Pirelli test, which featured the debut of the new ultrasoft compound, hasn’t gotten much ink thus far – perhaps by design as you’ll see from Celis’ teammate Nico Hulkenberg’s quote below.

As for Celis, who ran 65 laps for his first outing, it was a chance to step up and acclimate to an Formula 1 car for the first time.

“My first day in a Formula One car certainly lived up to expectations,” Celis said. “The car had huge grip and excellent braking efficiency, but my experience in the Formula 3.5 car had prepared me quite well for this big challenge.

“I really enjoyed the experience and I’m pleased with how the day went. For the first few runs I took things steady while I got used to the car and all the systems. Then, with each run, I started to push more and more as I kept learning about the car.

“With the program for the day set by Pirelli, I could simply focus on my driving and getting to know everyone. 2016 is going to be an important year for me as I continue working with the team so I’m pleased to have some valuable miles under my belt already.”

Meanwhile, Hulkenberg’s quote was brief:

“A trouble-free and routine day of tire testing. Lots of laps, well over a race distance for me, and hopefully lots of useful information for Pirelli,” the German said after completing 71 laps.

Force India chief race engineer Tom McCullough said Celis did well enough as he prepares for some free practice outings in 2016.

“We are very pleased to have completed a successful day of Pirelli tire testing with Alfonso and Nico covering a combined total of 136 laps,” he said. “It was Alfonso’s first day in a Formula One car and it’s always fun to be part of that acclimatization process. He worked well with the engineers and improved throughout the morning as he completed numerous long runs on high fuel. The time spent in the car today has been good preparation for his involvement in free practice sessions next year.

“Nico took over the tire program for the afternoon, gathering plenty of useful data with no issues. All in all it’s been a trouble-free day and a nice way to wrap up the 2015 season.”

A handful of tweets from the day are below:

Report: Tony Kanaan undergoes surgery for hernia

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The best kind of love is Instagrammed, right?

NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing driver Tony Kanaan and wife Lauren Kanaan (nee Bohlander) took to Instagram yesterday to post a couple videos of Kanaan’s surgery on Monday.

Kanaan posted an Instagram picture following the surgery, which is reportedly for a hernia per USA Today Sports‘ Brant James (see below).

What was a bit funnier, perhaps, was Lauren Kanaan posting a handful of Instagram videos of a woozy – but still fast and sharp – “TK” from her own account.

If you say so, @tkanaan. 😂

A video posted by Lauren Kanaan (@laurenbohlander) on

Serious #ultimatum. Love you, too @tkanaan 😈😂

A video posted by Lauren Kanaan (@laurenbohlander) on

And one minute ago he loved me. #gofigure #wecanhang @tkanaan

A video posted by Lauren Kanaan (@laurenbohlander) on

The offseason for Tony Kanaan, since the IndyCar season finale at Sonoma on August 30, has included tests at Road America and Phoenix, another triathlon and now this surgery.

Chip Ganassi Racing generally tends to put its IndyCar and NASCAR stars in cars for the Rolex 24 at Daytona, which is already next month.

With rumors swirling that Ganassi will run at least one and possibly two Daytona Prototypes at the Rolex 24 in addition to their new Ford GT program, and with Kanaan one of four drivers with a shot to defend his overall win, you’d think he will be good to go to be named to one of those seats.

MRTI: Team Pelfrey signs Jordan Cane as its second USF2000 driver

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Team Pelfrey has filled out two of its seats in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda championship, with confirmation Tuesday that 14-year-old Jordan Cane will be one of the team’s drivers in 2016.

Cane joins Robert Megennis, 15, as the first two confirmed drivers for 2016, with Cane in the team’s No. 81 entry. Both tested at the Chris Griffis Memorial Test at Circuit of The Americas in late November.

Cane’s contract is for two years, with an option to extend beyond that. He graduates from F1600, where he won seven races and finished fourth in the championship despite missing several races.

“I am so pleased to continue my North American open-wheel racing career with Team Pelfrey,” Cane said.

“My time in America has been such a highlight to my resume especially breaking the all-time win record in my first season and coming away fourth in the F1600 Championship whilst missing six races –not bad for the youngest in the world this year in formula cars. I didn’t expect to have such a fantastic year and I have to thank everyone at Team Pelfrey who has made it possible.”

“We are delighted to have Jordan join us for another two years,” said Nigel Tuckey, team principal of Team Pelfrey. “His growth on and off the track has been extraordinary and his competitive nature is something every driver in the paddock wishes to inhabit. We’ve grown a custom to seeing him on the top step of the podium, and we hope to see more of that come 2016.”

Pelfrey’s four-car lineup in 2015 featured a quartet of rookies, Ayla Agren, Luke Gabin, Garth Rickards and Nikita Lastochkin. All would like to continue for a second season in USF2000, budgets pending, and Lastochkin dominated the Griffis Test while driving with Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing.