(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:

 

 

Perez ‘pretty certain’ on 2017 team, announcement imminent

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - SEPTEMBER 30: Sergio Perez of Mexico driving the (11) Sahara Force India F1 Team VJM09 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo locks a wheel under braking on track during practice for the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang Circuit on September 30, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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SEPANG, Malaysia (AP) Mexican driver Sergio Perez is “pretty certain” which team he will be driving for in the 2017 Formula One season, but stopped short of confirming he will remain with Force India next season.

Force India has an option to retain Perez for next season, contingent on a commercial agreement between team, driver and his personal sponsors.

“Very soon you will have an official announcement,” Perez told reporters following Saturday’s qualifying session at the Malaysian Grand Prix. “I know what I am doing for my future, but I am not in a position yet to confirm it. I am pretty certain what I’m doing, so it’s good.”

Renault had reportedly inquired about signing Perez for next season. If the Mexican stays with Force India, this will be a significant step in firming up the 2017 driver pairings across the mid-range and smaller teams.

It increased the likelihood that Renault will retain at least one of its current drivers, Kevin Magnussen or Jolyon Palmer, while the team remained in the market for an experienced team leader.

There is a 2017 vacancy at Williams to replace the retiring Felipe Massa, and teammate Valtteri Bottas is also yet to be confirmed. The future of Daniil Kvyat at Toro Rosso remains undecided, and the Sauber and Manor teams will seek drivers on the best commercial terms available.

The driver pairings at leading teams Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull will remain unchanged for next season.

Titles, track breakup, cautions peppering Petit Le Mans

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Photo courtesy of IMSA
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BRASELTON, Ga. – The 19th annual Petit Le Mans presented by Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort didn’t have a ton of news in the early stages of the race, but it does now as the race has eclipsed the 4-hour mark of the 10-hour race that caps off the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season.

The race is under its third full-course caution of the race for a track inspection at Turn 3. Just prior to that, there’d been contact as Fred Makowiecki in the No. 912 Porsche North America Porsche 911 RSR hit the rear of Andy Lally, in the No. 44 Magnus Racing Audi R8 LMS.

Class leaders at the 4-hour mark, when the first points in the Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup are awarded, are:

  • P: 1-10-Jordan Taylor, Corvette DP, 2-5-Joao Barbosa, Corvette DP, 3-60-Ozz Negri, Ligier JS P2 Honda
  • PC: 1-52-Tom Kimber-Smith, 2-38-James French, 3-85-Stephen Simpson
  • GTLM: 1-4-Oliver Gavin, Corvette C7.R, 2-62-Toni Vilander, Ferrari 488 GTE, 3-66-Dirk Mueller, Ford GT
  • GTD: 1-44-Andy Lally, Audi R8 LMS, 2-9-Dion von Moltke, Audi R8, 3-6-Mike Skeen, Audi R8

Here’s some notes thus far:

TITLES CLINCHED

Christina Nielsen drove the opening three-plus hours in the No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3 and by doing so, secured the GT Daytona class championship for both her and co-driver Alessandro Balzan. If at least one Silver or Bronze-rated driver completes that minimum drive time of three hours, that is enough to score points for the pairing.

Nielsen, the 24-year-old Dane, becomes another female driver to win a major sports car championship. There are others – Melanie Snow won American Le Mans Series’ GTC in 2009 and Amy Ruman in Trans-Am last year – while Nielsen’s comes in the deep GTD field that features upwards of six manufacturers and 12 to 22 cars entered in every race this year.

“I’m sad that this is perhaps the last time I get to run the 488 this year, but it’s absolutely amazing that we ran it and it ran so well,” said Nielsen after her three-hour, 8-minute driving stint, via IMSA.

“It’s a nice car to drive, the team did a great job, good pit stops. This just shows what the team has been doing all year. It’s a pleasure to be a part of, they just do so much right and so little wrong. To call ourselves ‘champions’ this early is unbelievable, but we’ve still got an endurance championship to go for so, game on.”

This is a stunning achievement for Giacomo Mattioli’s Scuderia Corsa team, which has now thus far won the 24 Hours of Le Mans, IMSA GT Daytona and Pirelli World Challenge GTA titles this year.

I spoke to both Nielsen and Balzan on Friday, and will have more from them to come in the wake of this championship achievement.

Meanwhile, when the race took the green flag, Chevrolet clinched both Manufacturer’s Championships in Prototype and GT Le Mans. Both manufacturers also have drivers going for Driver’s Championships – the Nos. 31, 5 and 10 Corvette DP pairings in Prototype and the No. 4 Corvette C7.R pairing in GTLM.

TRACK BREAKUP

The most recent caution saw a portion of the track come up at Turn 3, and required crews to survey it. But rather than it being a too lengthy caution, the race has resumed.

If there is an upside to this bit, this isn’t IMSA Race Director Beaux Barfield’s first rodeo dealing with track breakups. He’s also dealt with this in his former career as IndyCar Race Director at Detroit and Houston.

A COUPLE CAUTIONS

The debris caution as noted above, which turned into a longer caution, and an off by Tomy Drissi in the No. 20 BAR1 Motorsports Oreca FLM09 at Turn 10 are the first two cautions of the race. And now, at four hours and four minutes, we have our third full-course caution of the race.

WOES THUS FAR

The DeltaWing is done with timing chain issues, capping off a frustrating weekend for the hometown team.

The No. 67 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT’s chances of usurping the championship from the No. 4 Corvette C7.R in GTLM went away when that car went behind the wall in the third hour. Ryan Briscoe and Richard Westbrook were trying to overcome an 11-point deficit.

The sister No. 3 Corvette C7.R went behind the wall at the start of the third hour with a throttle issue. Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia share that car with Mike Rockenfeller.

Mazda’s No. 55 Prototype had a couple offs with Tristan Nunez driving, then a trip to the pits with electronics issues.

Motor issues have hampered the No. 90 Visit Florida Racing Corvette DP of Ryan Dalziel, Marc Goossens and Ryan Hunter-Reay.

Pressing on wounded with what Mike Shank told IMSA Radio was an “issue in the left rear” earlier in the race, and now confirmed as having broken drive pins, is the pace-setting No. 60 Michael Shank Racing Ligier JS P2 Honda of Olivier Pla, Ozz Negri and John Pew.

An alternator belt issue has slowed the No. 16 Change Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3, driven by Spencer Pumpelly, Corey Lewis and Richard Antinucci.

First car behind the wall with a possible suspension issue was the No. 7 Starworks Motorsport Oreca FLM09 of Stefano Coletti, Quinlan Lall and James Dayson. Coletti then spun again when back on track.

Brake issues have slowed the PC-leading No. 8 Starworks Motorsport entry of David Heinemeier Hansson, Alex Popow and Renger van der Zande.

There’s also been a charging system issue for the No. 100 BMW Team RLL BMW M6 GTLM.

F1 team chiefs wary of possible expansion of calendar

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - SEPTEMBER 30:  Franz Tost of Scuderia Toro Rosso and Austria during the Team Managers Press Conference at the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang Circuit on September 30, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Peter Fox/Getty Images)
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Four Formula 1 team bosses have expressed their concern over a possible expansion of the series’ calendar beyond its current 21 races in the future.

F1 was acquired by Liberty Media Corporation last month in a deal worth an estimated $8 billion, with the company expressing a desire to take F1 to new markets and expand its presence in the United States.

As a result, it is believed that the existing figure of 21 races in a season could be surpassed in the future, with as many as 25 rounds in a year being mooted.

Speaking in Friday’s FIA press conference, four F1 team chiefs were asked about the possibility of going beyond 21 races in the future, with all expressing concern.

“I think we are at the limit already so if there would be more races, we would have to have a rotating system with staff people,” McLaren racing director Eric Boullier said.

“And no, we don’t have reserve people back in the factory so that means we would have to hire some people.”

“I think that 20/21 races is quite a good number and if additional races come onto the calendar we also would have to think of a rotating system to bring in more people,” Toro Rosso’s Franz Tost added.

“Because otherwise it’s difficult to handle everything but if we have more races, we also have more income and therefore it shouldn’t be a problem.

“In the end, there must be a profit for the teams otherwise it doesn’t make sense.”

“I go back to the days when we had 14 races and that was too many,” Manor’s Dave Ryan said.

“21 feels like it’s too many but if they’re talking 25 races… I guess it depends what the package is. Maybe they are two-day events, maybe it’s a different format.

“Until we know what they really are asking for or what they’re thinking of, it may be that it works or not. We just have to wait and see.”

Force India’s Bob Fernley added: “Same as Eric. We would need to increase the personnel significantly to be able to bring in reserves.”

Reflecting on Liberty’s takeover itself, the team chiefs were largely enthusiastic, believing it to be a positive step for F1.

“I assume that Liberty Media, as they belong to a very financially strong group, have a quite clear programme and plan of what they want to do with Formula 1,” Tost said.

“Personally, I hope that Formula 1 will become much more interesting in America, that we will hopefully have three races over there. I expect that especially on the media side they will work on our weak platform, the digital media and social media, and then for the smaller teams, from 2021 onwards, the money is being distributed in a much fairer way and equal to the teams and last but not least, together with the FIA, they will find a way to reduce costs in Formula 1.”

“At McLaren we are very positive about the arrival of Liberty. They are used managing big business, connecting fans to media, so we believe it’s good for Formula 1,” Boullier said.

“At the same time, I think they will take their time to understand the business, where they want to bring the business, the show, the entertainment, to which level. We will see what they suggest and plan.”

“I met [new F1 chairman] Chase Carey for the first time, I found him extremely approachable and willing to listen, but I think it’s far too early to make any predictions of where things are going to go or even opinions on that,” Fernley added.

“I think they need time to be able to look at where they are going and what plans they have for Formula 1 and then once they make their announcements on the direction they want to go I think then maybe we can make some comments but it’s too early to judge at this point.”

Magnussen: P14 on grid in Malaysia ‘much better than usual’

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - OCTOBER 01:  Kevin Magnussen of Denmark driving the (20) Renault Sport Formula One Team Renault RS16 Renault RE16 turbo in the Pitlane during qualifying for the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang Circuit on October 1, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Kevin Magnussen felt delighted to match his second-best qualifying result of the 2016 Formula 1 season in Malaysia on Saturday, finishing 14th for Renault in Q2.

Magnussen has scored all seven of Renault’s points since its return to F1 as a constructor in 2016, the most recent coming in Singapore two weeks ago when he finished 10th.

Magnussen is known to be fighting for his future as Renault continues to deliberate its line-up for 2017, and did his chances a world of good by charging to 14th in qualifying on Saturday.

Magnussen finished 13th in Q1 to secure a Q2 berth, where he ended up P14 ahead of both Toro Rosso drivers despite making an error on his final lap as he chased an elusive place in Q3.

“It’s a very good result for us in qualifying. P14 is much better than usual in terms of setting us up for scoring some points in the race,” Magnussen said.

“But it’s an ambivalent result as I felt so close to Q3 that I couldn’t resist giving it everything I’ve got on my final run; I locked up in Turn 1 and lost the lap. I didn’t improve after that so it’s unfortunate.

“From P14, not a lot has to happen in the top ten for us to get points, which is always the aim. Let’s see tomorrow, hopefully our race pace is as good as qualifying today.

“You never really know how it will go here, so fingers crossed!”

Teammate Jolyon Palmer was left ruing a mistake at the final corner of his final Q1 lap as he finished 19th, four-tenths of a second off Magnussen’s time.

“I’ll be frank: my lap was pretty far from what it should have been. I made the wrong call on set-up between my runs and the lap just didn’t come together,” Palmer conceded.

“This was particularly frustrating as the pace has looked promising all weekend and there’s definitely better possible from the car here.

“Tomorrow I’ll be pushing all the way to make amends especially as this is a track where moving up the order is possible.”

The Malaysian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 2am ET on Sunday.