(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:

 

 

Pascal Wehrlein picks 94 as number for Formula 1 career

SPIELBERG, AUSTRIA - JUNE 23:  Pascal Wehrlein of Germany and Mercedes GP drives during Formula One testing at the Red Bull Ring on June 23, 2015 in Spielberg, Austria.  (Photo by Andrew Hone/Getty Images)
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Pascal Wehrlein has confirmed that he will race with no. 94 for the entirety of his Formula 1 career after being unveiled as Manor Racing’s first driver for 2016 on Wednesday.

Wehrlein became the youngest ever champion in the history of the DTM in 2015, prompting Mercedes to seek out a place on the F1 grid for its junior prospect.

After a long winter of negotiations, Wehrlein was announced by Manor on Wednesday ahead of the start of pre-season testing in Barcelona in two weeks’ time.

Since 2014, all drivers racing in F1 are required to pick a number that remains theirs throughout their career in the series, with the no. 1 allocated to the world champion should they wish to use it.

Wehrlein confirmed shortly after the announcement that he would be using no. 94 in F1 – the year of his birth and the number he used in DTM.

“I will carry the #94 again which I ran in DTM last year,” Wehrlein told reporters. “It’s just because I was born in 1994.”

Just one seat remains on the F1 grid for 2016 following Wehrlein’s confirmation, with the identity of his Manor teammate still to be decided.

Kevin Magnussen out to prove ‘many points’ with Renault

Driver Kevin Magnussen of Denmark, poses during the presentation of the Renault R.S.16 at the Renault's technocentre in Guyancourt, west of Paris, Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2016. French carmaker Renault returned to Formula One as a racing team after agreeing to take over Lotus, which had struggled with financial costs last season.  (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
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Kevin Magnussen hopes that he can prove “many points” during his second stint in Formula 1 with Renault following his split with McLaren at the end of last year.

Magnussen arrived in F1 at the beginning of 2014 off the back of an emphatic Formula Renault 3.5 title success, and made an immediate impression by finishing second on debut in Australia.

The Dane was unable to sustain this form throughout the rest of the season, leading to his demotion to reserve driver to make way for Fernando Alonso’s arrival.

Magnussen was released from his McLaren contract at the end of 2015, but landed on his feet by joining Renault for its first season back in F1 as a constructor following Pastor Maldonado’s departure.

“I had a season in 2014 with McLaren and I felt it went quite well pitched against a past world champion [Jenson Button],” Magnussen said.

“To be replaced the following year was tough even if the line-up the team used was very strong. I had been racing every year since I was six so to sit to the side certainly wasn’t part of my plan.”

Magnussen now hopes that he can prove a point to his doubters by impressing with Renault in 2016 where he will race alongside British rookie Jolyon Palmer.

“Hopefully I’ll prove many points. I’m extremely motivated after a whole year away,” Magnussen said.

“I’ve been sitting on the sideline during the races for so many weekends and I’m hungry to come back and prove my worth. I’ve raced my whole life and I’m extremely hungry and keen to get in a race car again and even more so with Renault Sport.

“Without racing last year I actually had more time to train and I feel very fit because of that. I’m physically ready. I’ve not had a lot of time in a race car but the time I had, I felt good.

“I was always surprised at how quickly I re-adapted to driving after time out of the car. I was pretty much immediately on the pace when I tested the Porsche Le Mans car and I’ve been on it whenever I’ve been in an F1 car. I’m ready.”

Conor Daly’s IndyCar gets painted

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Conor Daly
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Conor Daly will compete full-time in the Verizon IndyCar Series this year in a ride for Dale Coyne Racing.

Daly will make laps in the No. 18 Honda sponsored by Jonathan Byrd’s. The 24-year-old driver tweeted out a picture today of his race car getting painted for the season, which starts on March 13.

Daly has six IndyCar races under his belt so far.

USF2000 reintroduces National Class for 2016

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The National Class is officially back in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda series for 2016.

Yes, when Eric Filgueiras and Spencer Racing announced they’d be in the National Class, that kind of gave it away that the class would be back without it being formally introduced.

Luckily though, the series has released the news today. A formal release is below:

Drivers seeking to make their way onto the Mazda Road to Indy now have an alternate, lower-cost route onto the first rung, the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda, with today’s confirmation that the National Class will be returning in 2016.

The Mazda Road to Indy is unique in the world of auto racing, offering a scholarship-funded path all the way from karting via USF2000, the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires to the Verizon IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500.

Eligible to drivers at least 20 years of age before or during the 2016 season, the National Class will be open to all Sports Car Club of America-legal FC (Formula Continental) cars, from any chassis manufacturer, dating back to 2000. Any aerodynamic devices approved by the SCCA are permitted, although in the interests of safety all cars must be fitted with a nosebox crash structure, wheel tethers, Staubli devices, approved head surrounds and seats and yellow light system as required by all other current USF2000 cars.

Cars will be permitted to run either the same 2.0-liter Mazda MZR engine per the USF2000 Championship Class regulations or sealed 2.0-liter Ford Zetec motors as prepared by Elite Engines or Quicksilver RacEngines with National Class mapping. Any SCCA-legal 6″ and 8″ wheels may be used, although all cars must run on Cooper tires.

Entry fees will be discounted 50 percent below the Championship Class rate, and each race winner will earn a free entry for an upcoming event in the same season. The second-place finisher will claim a 50 percent reduction in the entry fee for an upcoming race. In addition, race winners equipped with the MZR engine will take home a $1,000 award from Mazda.

As an added benefit and based on a minimum average car count of five entries per race weekend, the 2016 National Class champion will receive an “entry ticket” to the Mazda Road to Indy $200K Scholarship Shootout in the fall of this year where champions of select junior level-open wheel and karting series from around the world will compete for a Mazda scholarship to enter the USF2000 Championship Class in 2017.

The point system will be the same used by the Masters Class (formerly Expert Class) in the Pro Mazda championship.

“We are excited to bring back the National Class and allow drivers to sample the Mazda Road to Indy,” said Dan Andersen, Owner and CEO of Andersen Promotions. “RC Enerson began his path on the ladder system in the National Class. It’s a great first step onto the platform for many drivers, and we are excited to offer this year’s champion an entry into the Shootout as well as a full-season entry package to USF2000 in 2017 in either the Championship or National Class.”

The Mazda Road to Indy will head to Barber Motorsport Park for Spring Training on March 5 (Indy Lights) and 6/7 (USF2000/Pro Mazda). The 2016 season will kick off on the Streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., on March 11-13 in support of the Verizon IndyCar Series.