Erica Enders-Stevens ready to become first female NHRA Pro Stock champ

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Erica Enders-Stevens has long idolized legendary Top Fuel Shirley “Cha Cha” Muldowney for being the first woman to win not just one, but three NHRA championships (1977, 1980, 1982), as well as former three-time Pro Stock Motorcycle champ Angelle Sampey (2000-2002).

In Sunday’s 50th anniversary and season-ending AutoClub NHRA Finals, Enders-Stevens has the chance to become idolized herself, as she can become the first woman in drag racing history to win the Pro Stock class championship.

“It would be very awesome to be able to make history,” Enders-Stevens said. “It would just show any other female that maybe even had a little bit of doubt that they weren’t capable or whatever.

“I’m a perfect example of a normal kid, through hard work and certainly surrounding myself with the right people and having such a solid support group, that anything is possible. I hope that’s the message that comes across to them.”

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Enders-Stevens comes into this weekend’s action 17 points ahead of former two-time Pro Stock champ (2006, 2011) Jason Line. Also mathematically still in the chase is Dave Connolly (-84 points) and Shane Gray (-111).

“You can’t get too ahead of yourself and dwell on what’s at stake, but at the same time, I’ve never been in this position in Pro Stock, and neither have any of the guys on my team,” Enders-Stevens said in an NHRA media release. “It’s definitely an interesting and awesome position to be in.

“But I try to just stay calm about it and focus on just one round, one at a time, and just going after it and doing our best and having fun most importantly.”

MORE: Tony Schumacher (Top Fuel), Andrew Hines (Pro Stock Motorcycle) close to wrapping up NHRA titles

The Pro Stock class has always been the grittiest class in drag racing because of its blue collar roots. The cars fans see race on the dragstrip are the closest there are to what those same fans drive on the streets and freeways.

Enders comes from blue collar roots and it would certainly be an accomplishment for her to not only win her first Pro Stock championship (she’s already the first woman to ever win a Pro Stock race), but also to be the first female to do so in a class that has up to this point been dominated primarily by male drivers.

Enders-Stevens has five wins this season, while Line has four. Line had been the Pro Stock points leader until the last race at Las Vegas, when he lost to Enders-Stevens in the semifinals (she’d go on to win the entire event in the final round).

But even though he’s back in second place in the points, Line is ready to give Enders-Stevens a real battle for the championship.

“It’s pretty simple, really,” Line said. “You have to go out there to win. There isn’t much more to it than that. Anything is possible, and I feel really good about this weekend.

“All we can do is go there and do the best we can. Of course sometimes you need a little racing luck as well, but we certainly have the ability to win the race, and that’s what we’re going to try to do.”

For Enders-Stevens, she has come from practically the shadows to having a career season that promises continued great performance next season even if she falls short in Sunday’s finals.

“This is the first time in my professional career that I have had such a solid group of guys that stands behind me and has my back,” she said. “That makes my job as a driver a lot easier.

“It’s a team deal and it’s just a really unique atmosphere, and I’m really proud and honored to be their driver. But they have shown exactly what they are made of this year, and when it comes down to crunch time, everybody pulls their weight, and it’s an awesome environment to work in.”

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Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told RACER.com “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).