(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:

 

 

Flavio Briatore: Fernando Alonso won’t take vacant Mercedes F1 seat

MONTE-CARLO, MONACO - MAY 24:  Flavio Briatore, his wife Elisabetta Gregoraci and their son Falco Nathan attend the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Monaco on May 24, 2015 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Flavio Briatore has dismissed speculation suggesting that Fernando Alonso could replace Nico Rosberg at Mercedes for the 2017 Formula 1 season.

Briatore previously managed Alonso and remains a close friend of the Spaniard, who currently races for McLaren.

Rosberg announced just five days after winning his maiden F1 title that he would be retiring from racing with immediate effect, freeing up the most coveted seat on the grid.

Alonso is known to be desperate for a third world championship, having not claimed a title since 2006, leading to speculation that he could push for a move to Mercedes for 2017.

Mercedes F1 chief Toto Wolff said that Alonso was a driver that officials at the German marque “have to consider”, but was quick to acknowledge the contract in place with McLaren.

Briatore has become the latest figure to dismiss the idea, also making light of the fact that Alonso is linked to every free seat of note in F1.

“How is it that whenever there is a seat, you always think of Fernando?” Briatore told Italian publication La Gazzetta dello Sport.

“But there is a contract and we respect it.”

Alonso broke out of his Ferrari deal early at the end of 2014 to move to McLaren, but Briatore insisted that this was due to an escape clause in his contract.

“The situation was different. We had a pact with [Ferrari president Luca] di Montezemolo,” Briatore said.

“If we didn’t win the championship in 2014, we would be free, and Luca kept that promise.

“[Ferrari team principal Marco] Mattiacci offered a three-year renewal, but we refused.”

F1 2016 Review: Stories of the season

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 27: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo leads Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo Daniel Ricciardo of Australia driving the (3) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF16- Ferrari 059/5 turbo (Shell GP), Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (33) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer and the rest of the field at the start during the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 27, 2016 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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The 2016 Formula 1 season may have ended a little under two weeks ago now, but it was perhaps right that we let the dust settle before kicking off our series of year reviews on MotorSportsTalk.

Last Friday saw Nico Rosberg perform the ultimate mic drop by announcing his immediate retirement from racing just five days after winning his first F1 World Championship.

We’ll get to that in a bit when looking back on the stories of the season – but through the rest of the year, F1 offered a number of intriguing and notable moments.

Here’s a look back at the biggest stories of the 2016 F1 season.

MERCEDES MAKES IT THREE

Mercedes winning a third straight championship double may not seem like a big story at face value, but it really, really is. Given we are now three years in to the V6 turbo era of F1 and the field has noticeable converged, for Mercedes to have racked up a record number of wins, points and poles is an astonishing achievement.

Very rarely have we seen a true threat to Mercedes’ surpremacy, either. In 2015, Sebastian Vettel’s three victories came on weekends where Mercedes was simply second best. This time around? The two blots on Mercedes’ record book – Spain and Malaysia – were due to mitigating circumstances.

Red Bull and Ferrari may have lurked at times, but in reality, the gap at the front only grew bigger in 2016.

HAMILTON/ROSBERG RIVALRY GETS ANOTHER (FINAL) CHAPTER

The rivalry between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg reached a fiery crescendo in 2016. On-track clashes in Spain and Austria stoked the fire nicely, forcing Mercedes to revise its “terms of engagement” with both drivers to prevent recurrences.

While we failed to see any titanic on-track battles between the duo, this was certainly the bitterest year yet in Hamilton/Rosberg relations. The lengths that Hamilton went to in the title decider to stop his teammate winning was evidence of how sour relations had become, yet he was gracious in defeat once Rosberg had clinched the title.

Following Rosberg’s retirement, it looks like we’ve seen the last chapter of one of F1’s most intense rivalries. While it may have been messy at times, it has at least ensured that Mercedes’ spell of dominance was not a complete procession.

ROSBERG DROPS THE MIC

The last F1 story of the year was the biggest. Nico Rosberg’s sensational decision to retire from racing just five days after winning his maiden world championship shocked the entire F1 paddock (well, except Lewis Hamilton) and the sporting world in general.

Everything about the story was a surprise: the decision itself; the nature in which it happened; the ‘OK-ness’ about it all, as well. F1 will be without its champion next year despite him being perfectly fit and well, young, and coming off the best season of his career. It’s a weird situation…

It also brings into question the legacy that Rosberg will leave behind. Will he be remembered as the driver who defeated one of F1’s all-time greats in Hamilton? Or as the man who was ‘one and done’? Time will tell.

HAAS HITS THE GRID

The star-spangled banner returned to the F1 grid full-time in 2016 as NASCAR team co-owner Gene Haas saw his eponymous operation make its debut. Most were unsure what to expect from Haas F1 Team during its debut season, making Romain Grosjean’s charge to sixth on debut in Australia a surprise for most.

Grosjean went one better at the next race in Bahrain, finishing fifth, but it proved to be the high point of the season. The strategic mastery we saw early on disappeared, and the teething problems that come with any new project began to crop up time and time again. The team scored just one point in the second half of the season.

Nevertheless, it was a strong start to life in F1 from Haas. Let’s see what more it can do in 2017.

FERRARI STRUGGLES, RED BULL EXCELS

When Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen vaulted to the front of the pack on the opening lap of the season in Australia, it seemed our prayers had been answered: finally, there would be some resistance to Mercedes’ steam-roller act we’d seen for the previous two years in F1.

It was about as good as things got for the Scuderia though. Come the end of the year, both Vettel and Raikkonen ended up winless, with Ferrari slipping behind Red Bull to third in the constructors’ championship. It was a big come-down after the hope that ran through the 2015 campaign and off-season.

As for Red Bull? 2016’s success was a big surprise. Renault finally got its act together on the engine side of things, giving Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo the tools with which to win one race each, and even light the fire under the Mercedes boys later in the year.

VERSTAPPEN STEPS UP, STEALS THE SHOW

Max Verstappen’s promotion into a Red Bull seat just four races in to the new season was a major story, with the crest-fallen Daniil Kvyat moving back down to Toro Rosso. We knew this teen protege was going to be special, but few could have predicted just how special he would be through 2016.

From victory on debut (albeit a fortunate one) to his defence of Hamilton in Japan, and, most impressive of all, his magic in the rain at Interlagos, this was a memorable year for Verstappen.

Don’t go thinking this is the finished product yet. Verstappen’s qualifying form remains a bit patchy, lacking the ouright pace over one lap of teammate Daniel Ricciardo, and there were costly errors through the year (the start at Spa being one).

But boy, if this is Verstappen as a sophomore, we can’t wait to see what’s to come in his twenties.

TALKING ‘BOUT MY GENERATION

2016 was a year for the next generation of F1 to come to the fore. Besides Verstappen’s growing stardom, we saw his ex-teammate, Carlos Sainz Jr., lead Toro Rosso and mark himself as one of the best up-and-comers on the grid.

Mercedes youngsters Pascal Wehrlein and Esteban Ocon both enjoyed impressive campaigns, the latter making his debut at Spa, with both now being linked to the vacant Mercedes seat.

We also saw Stoffel Vandoorne make his race debut, replacing the injured Fernando Alonso in Bahrain ahead of his full-time bow with McLaren next year, and had GP3 champion Charles Leclerc run in practice for Haas.

With Lance Stroll also poised to join the grid next year, we’re talking more and more about a younger generation in F1.

CHANGING OF THE GUARD

Tying in with that theme, 2016 saw the last hurrahs in F1 for Felipe Massa and Jenson Button, two of the sport’s veterans. Although Button could yet return in 2018, it’s highly unlikely.

Both ended their careers gracefully, bowing out with class in Abu Dhabi, although it’s hard to play their seasons up as being overly impressive given their form compared to teammates Valtteri Bottas and Fernando Alonso.

With Rosberg now also out of the picture, the F1 grid is becoming more and more unrecognizable to the one we had 10 years ago.

Some of the other big stories were:

  • Force India’s best-ever finish in the constructors’ championship, beating Williams to fourth.
  • Liberty Media’s plan to buy F1, announced back in September.
  • F1’s first race in Baku, Azerbaijan, which proved to be a pleasant surprise.
  • McLaren’s continued revival as Honda makes progress.
  • The reliability of Lewis Hamilton’s car (or lack of) through the season.
  • The power struggle at McLaren that led to Ron Dennis’ exit.
  • Continued efforts to improve safety in F1 with the Halo device.
  • After a damp 2015, the roaring, record-breaking USGP in Austin in October (with a hat-tip to Taylor Swift).

And it is with a T-Swift lyric we shall close things out in our stories of the season. 2016 may have been a bit of a rough year for the world, but the F1 season acted as a kind of escape; a way to shake it off.

John Force Racing will ‘Advance’ with new sponsorship for Courtney Force

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BROWNSBURG, Indiana — John Force likes to use the word “advance” in discussing the long-term future of his four-car race team.

Friday morning, Force literally put “advance” into action, as he announced daughter Courtney Force’s Funny Car will be sponsored during the 2017 24-race NHRA schedule by Advance Auto Parts stores, beginning with the season-opening Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, California. The deal is for multiple seasons.

“This is all about building John Force Racing for the future,” Force told MotorSportsTalk. “We had a great run with Traxxas, they’ll be staying in the sport, which is great. And now we’re partnering with Advance Auto Parts, which we’re very excited about.”

Advance Auto Parts replaces Traxxas, which produces radio-controlled race cars, and which had sponsored Courtney Force for the past five seasons. Traxxas will remain involved in the sport as sponsor of the Traxxas Shootout, a special race-within-a-race for both Funny Cars and Top Fuel dragsters contested during the annual U.S. Nationals in Brownsburg.

Advance Auto Parts, which has nearly 5,400 retail stores across the country, is no stranger to John Force Racing. The auto parts supplier sponsored John Force’s PEAK Chevrolet Camaro at several events during the 2016 season, including a victory in the NHRA Carolina Nationals, which kicked off the six-race NHRA Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

“The opportunity came to grow the deal and they were interested in Courtney so it was a perfect match,” John Force said. “I have done shows with Advance Auto Parts in the past and am looking forward to working with them again.”

Both John and Courtney Force will be featured in several upcoming advertising and marketing campaigns for the company.

 

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Gustav Malja joins Racing Engineering for 2017 GP2 season

2016 GP2 Series Test 3
Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
Wednesday 30 November 2016.
Gustav Malja (SWE, Racing Engineering) 
Photo: Sam Bloxham/GP2 Series Media Service.
ref: Digital Image _SLB2993_1
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Racing Engineering has announced the signing of Gustav Malja for the 2017 GP2 Series season following the Swede’s rookie campaign.

Malja, 21, made his GP2 debut in 2015 before embarking on his first full campaign in the Formula 1 support series with Rapax.

Malja scored points in the opening round of the year in Spain, finishing ninth, before highlighting his season with a run of top-10 finishes from Hockenheim to Sepang.

The run saw Malja finish second in the Spa sprint race and third at Monza in the feature event, enough to give him 13th in the final standings.

Malja will now move up to Racing Engineering for 2017, the team having worked with Norman Nato and Jordan King for the past season.

“I’m excited to join Racing Engineering for the 2017 GP2 season. We began getting to know each other in Abu Dhabi last week, and I immediately felt very much at home,” Malja said.

“It’s a team with a long and successful history in GP2, and I’m convinced it’s the ideal place for my continued development as a driver.

“I’m also very pleased to have everything in place at such an early stage. It will ease preparations this winter and give us all some peace of mind.”

Malja is the fourth driver to confirm his entry to GP2 for 2017, joining Sergio Sette Camara (MP Motorsport), Charles Leclerc and Antonio Fuoco (both Prema Racing) on the grid.