NHRA: Erica Enders ignores trash talk, leaves opponents in her dust

(Photo courtesy Elite Motorsports)

In a sense, Pro Stock driver Erica Enders’ NHRA career has been similar to that of a heavyweight boxer: it’s been one battle after another, fighting and punching her way to the top for over 20 years.

Ever since she started racing in 1992 at eight years old, Enders has had to endure countless trash talk and downright insults from fellow drag racers – almost exclusively male – for just one singular thing: her gender.

Rather than respect and appreciate Enders’ determination, her natural talent and the goals she hoped to achieve one day, fellow male racers would belittle her just because she was a female.

And then there was the ultimate threat that Enders presented to her male counterparts: the potential of being beaten by “a girl.”

“It got to a point where I was so stressed out,” Enders said. “I’d put my head down on my desk and cry and wonder why I do this, why I work with people that just tear me apart and make me feel like crap.

“I have an education and could probably go get another job and make equal or better money. But that’s not what I want. I’d never be happy. I go to bed thinking of this and I wake up thinking of it. I’m living my dream.”

As her career evolved, in addition to having to put up with the trash talk, Enders oftentimes drove for teams that didn’t have the most competitive equipment, leaving her to be more of an also-ran than a championship contender.

But since joining Elite Motorsports prior to the start of the 2014 season, Enders has truly been living her dream. She went out and became the first female Pro Stock champion in NHRA history last season.

“I didn’t have a real easy road through Pro Stock, it’s been way more valleys than peaks, a lot of issues throughout the years,” she said. “I just stuck with it, had a no-quit attitude and finally got surrounded by the right people. That’s why we’re having the success we’re having.”

This season, with two races remaining in the NHRA Countdown to the Championship, Enders is closing in on her second straight Pro Stock title.

And while there is still some trash talk to endure, she takes comfort in knowing that she’s the best driver in the class.

“It’s been a tough road,” she said. “It gave us the underdog status for a few years, and now that we’ve proven ourselves and were able to win the championship last year, it’s definitely different to be chased rather than to chase.”

Enders’ win this past weekend at the Texas Motorplex in Ennis, Texas, was yet another affirmation of just how good of a driver she has become. It was her eighth win of the season, setting an overall NHRA record for most wins in a single season in any class by a female racer.

“We as a team try to focus on just one round, one at a time, not getting ahead of ourselves, not focusing on who’s in the other lane and what’s going on,” she said. “We just do our best and have fun. I don’t really care if they throw darts at us or wave pom-poms. We get to do what we love for a living and it’s a true blessing.”

All the past trash-talking – and even the small amount that still lingers today – has only served to inspire and motivate Enders even more.

That’s why she is bound and determined to win a second championship in 2015 to not only prove that 2014 wasn’t a fluke, but to also show she truly belongs among the best drivers in the sport, regardless of gender.

“There’s a little bit of animosity between a lot of teams out there, but that’s just natural with competition,” she said. “It’s more than winning and losing here and it’s more than just points, it’s our livelihood.

“We pour our blood, sweat and tears into this, it costs a lot of money and we’re on the road 300 days a year and we’re away from our families, so it’s all about business when it boils down to it.

“We’re just going to keep having fun and keep doing our best and let our scoreboard do the talking.”

With races remaining at Las Vegas next weekend and two weeks later in the season finale at Pomona, Calif., Enders is close to locking up her second consecutive Pro Stock championship.

She leads her closest challenger, former champ Greg Anderson, by 154 points – which is the equivalent of more than the most points a driver can earn in any single race (150 points).

“It’d be a huge bonus to go back-to-back (championships),” she said. “I’d by lying if I told you I didn’t want to do that. I want to do that more than anything in the world.

“I think that solidifies the fact that our hard work has paid off and we belong here. It hasn’t always been fun and easy, but we’re here together now and we have the right people and I believe with all my heart that we can go back-to-back.”

But she’s not taking anything for granted, either. The lean and hungry years she experienced earlier in her career taught her that lesson very well.

“By no means is it over yet,” Enders said. “I know there’s only eight rounds of racing left, but there are a lot of bonus qualifying points to be gotten. We still have to go out there and do our job.

“We’re not going to change the way we race because of our point lead. We’re just going to stay focused and we want to win the final two – and the championship – and that’s what we’re going to set our goals at.”

And as for the trash talking that still exists, she’ll continue to turn a deaf ear to it.

“It’s really not worth talking about,” Enders said. “It’s like high school with money, it’s crazy. I don’t have time for it and my guys don’t have time for it. (Opponents) can talk all that they want, we’ll just continue to work hard. When they’re talking about us, we’ll be working and we’ll just leave it at that and just keep plowing away.”

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With throaty roar, NASCAR Next Gen Camaro is taking Le Mans by storm on global stage

Le Mans 24 Hour Race - Car Parade
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

LE MANS, France — The V8 engine of the NASCAR Chevrolet Camaro has a distinct growl that cannot go unnoticed even among the most elite sports cars in the world at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

When the Hendrick Motorsports crew fired up the car inside Garage 56, NASCAR chairman Jim France broke into a huge grin and gave a thumbs up.

“The only guy who didn’t cover his ears,” laughed seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

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France has been waiting since 1962 – the year his father, NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., brought him to his first 24 Hours of Le Mans – to hear the roar of a stock car at the most prestigious endurance race in the world.

A path finally opened when NASCAR developed its Next Gen car, which debuted last year. France worked out a deal to enter a car in a specialized “Innovative Car” class designed to showcase technology and development. The effort would be part of NASCAR’s 75th celebration and it comes as Le Mans marks its 100th.

Once he had the approval, France persuaded Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear – NASCAR’s winningest team, manufacturer and tire supplier – to build a car capable of running the twice-around-the-clock race.

The race doesn’t start until Saturday, but NASCAR’s arrival has already been wildly embraced and France could not be more thrilled.

“Dad’s vision, to be able to follow it, it took awhile to follow it up, and my goal was to outdo what he accomplished,” France told The Associated Press. “I just hope we don’t fall on our ass.”

The car is in a class of its own and not racing anyone else in the 62-car field. But the lineup of 2010 Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller, 2009 Formula One champion Jenson Button and Johnson has been fast enough; Rockenfeller put down a qualifying lap that was faster than every car in the GTE AM class by a full three seconds.

The Hendrick Motorsports crew won its class in the pit stop competition and finished fifth overall as the only team using a manual jack against teams exclusively using air jacks. Rick Hendrick said he could not be prouder of the showing his organization has made even before race day.

“When we said we’re gonna do it, I said, ‘Look, we can’t do this half-assed. I want to be as sharp as anybody out there,” Hendrick told AP. “I don’t want to be any less than any other team here. And just to see the reaction from the crowd, people are so excited about this car. My granddaughter has been sending me all these TikTok things that fans are making about NASCAR being at Le Mans.”

This isn’t NASCAR’s first attempt to run Le Mans. The late France Sr. brokered a deal in 1976, as America celebrated its bicentennial, to bring two cars to compete in the Grand International class and NASCAR selected the teams. Herschel McGriff and his son, Doug, drove a Wedge-powered, Olympia Beer-sponsored Dodge Charger, and Junie Donlavey piloted a Ford Torino shared by Richard Brooks and Dick Hutcherson.

Neither car came close to finishing the race. McGriff, now 95 and inducted into NASCAR’s Hall of Fame in January, is in Le Mans as France’s guest, clad head-to-toe in the noticeable Garage 56 uniforms.

“I threw a lot of hints that I would like to come. And I’ve been treated as royalty,” McGriff said. “This is unbelievable to me. I recognize nothing but I’m anxious to see everything. I’ve been watching and seeing pictures and I can certainly see the fans love their NASCAR.”

The goal is to finish the full race Sunday and, just maybe, beat cars from other classes. Should they pull off the feat, the driver trio wants its own podium celebration.

“I think people will talk about this car for a long, long time,” said Rockenfeller, who along with sports car driver Jordan Taylor did much of the development alongside crew chief Chad Knaus and Greg Ives, a former crew chief who stepped into a projects role at Hendrick this year.

“When we started with the Cup car, we felt already there was so much potential,” Rockenfeller said. “And then we tweaked it. And we go faster, and faster, at Le Mans on the SIM. But you never know until you hit the real track, and to be actually faster than the SIM. Everybody in the paddock, all the drivers, they come up and they are, ‘Wow, this is so cool,’ and they were impressed by the pit stops. We’ve overachieved, almost, and now of course the goal is to run for 24 hours.”

The car completed a full 24-hour test at Sebring, Florida, earlier this year, Knaus said, and is capable of finishing the race. Button believes NASCAR will leave a lasting impression no matter what happens.

“If you haven’t seen this car live yet, it’s an absolute beast,” Button said. “When you see and hear it go by, it just puts a massive smile on your face.”

For Hendrick, the effort is the first in his newfound embrace of racing outside NASCAR, the stock car series founded long ago in the American South. Aside from the Le Mans project, he will own the Indy car that Kyle Larson drives for Arrow McLaren in next year’s Indianapolis 500 and it will be sponsored by his automotive company.

“If you’d have told me I’d be racing at Le Mans and Indianapolis within the same year, I’d never have believed you,” Hendrick told AP. “But we’re doing both and we’re going to do it right.”

Le Mans 24 Hour Race - Car Parade
Fans gather around the NASCAR Next Gen Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 that is the Garage 56 entry for the 100th 24 Hours of Le Mans at the Circuit de la Sarthe (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).

General Motors is celebrating the achievement with a 2024 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Garage 56 Edition and only 56 will be available to collectors later this year.

“Even though Chevrolet has been racing since its inception in 1911, we’ve never done anything quite like Garage 56,” said GM President Mark Reuss. “A NASCAR stock car running at Le Mans is something fans doubted they would see again.”

The race hasn’t even started yet, but Hendrick has enjoyed it so much that he doesn’t want the project to end.

“It’s like a shame to go through all this and do all this, and then Sunday it’s done,” Hendrick said. “It’s just really special to be here.”