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NHRA surprise: Enders switches to Dodge; Jeg Coughlin Jr. new teammate

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In a surprise move, Elite Motorsports and two-time defending Pro Stock championship driver Erica Enders will compete with Mopar muscle under the hood next season.

In addition, after appearing in only a handful of races in 2015, five-time Pro Stock champ Jeg Coughlin Jr. has joined Enders as a teammate with Elite Motorsports and will return to full-time status in 2016 and will also be powered by Mopar.

Enders and Coughlin will both run Hemi-powered Dodge Darts in competition.

“The Mopar brand is excited to announce that two proven champions, Erica Enders and Jeg Coughlin Jr., will fly the Mopar colors in the NHRA Pro Stock class next season,” Pietro Gorlier, Head of Parts and Service (Mopar), FCA – Global, said in a media release. “We couldn’t ask for greater competitors or brand ambassadors to represent us at the drag strip.”

Not only is the power under the hood a change for Enders and Coughlin, the entire Pro Stock class will undergo a number of significant changes.

Two of the most notable changes are the switch from carburetors to Electronic Fuel Injection, as well as the elimination of Pro Stock’s well-known hood scoops.

After becoming the first woman in Pro Stock history to earn a championship in 2014, Enders doubled-down in an even more dominant fashion in 2015.

Earning six wins in 2014, Enders then set a new record for female drivers for wins in 2015 with a series-high nine en route to her second consecutive Pro Stock crown.

Enders now has 21 career Pro Stock wins, second-most by a female driver in NHRA annals. Only Pro Stock Motorcycle’s Angelle Sampey has more career wins (41).

In a sense, it will be somewhat of a homecoming for Enders, who earlier in her career (2006-07) raced under the Mopar banner with Dodge power.

“We’re entering a new era of Pro Stock and it’s going to be awesome to take a new Mopar-powered Dodge Dart into 2016 and beyond,” Enders said in a release. “We won the last two championships with carburetors and now the goal is to win the first one with fuel injection.

“The Dart Pro Stock cars look awesome and I’m already very familiar with Mopar because I’ve driven for them in the past. It’s an honor and a privilege to represent them moving forward, along with my teammate Jeg Coughlin Jr.”

Coughlin earned his fifth and most recent Pro Stock championship in 2013, driving a Mopar-powered Dodge Dart. He will join Enders as a teammate with Elite Motorsports, driving the Magneti Marelli Offered by Mopar Dodge Dart.

Coughlin has 76 wins in his NHRA career, including 58 in Pro Stock. He’s also the only driver in NHRA history to win in seven different classes: Pro Stock, Comp, Top Dragster, Super Gas, Super Stock, Stock and Super Comp.

He’s also the only driver in NHRA history to win in four different classes in the same season (1997: Pro Stock, Super Stock, Super Gas, and Comp) and the only driver in the pro ranks to win from every qualifying position, No. 1 to No. 16.

“The 2016 season is a turning point for the NHRA and the Pro Stock class,” Coughlin said in a media release. “We’re really looking forward to the upcoming challenges. … It will be a great next chapter in our careers.

“Also, I am looking forward to working beside one of the greatest drivers in the NHRA, Erica Enders, and the greatest crew, including Rick and Rickie Jones, Mark Ingersoll and Brian ‘Lump’ Self, all talented and championship-proven crew chiefs. It will be a great year for the entire Elite Motorsports team.”

Elite Motorsports will still have some connection with Chevrolet, as two other cars — those of Vincent Nobile and Drew Skillman — will continue to be powered by Chevy, according to a team source.

In other news, Mopar also announced that it has extended a long partnership with former two-time champion Matt Hagan and Don Schumacher Racing in the NHRA Funny Car class.

“We’re also very proud to once again partner with Don Schumacher Racing and work together to bring home a fourth NHRA Funny Car crown in six years,” Gorlier said.

Schumacher first raced a Mopar-powered Funny Car more than 40 years ago, and since becoming a team owner has fielded Mopar cars from 2003 to the present.

“We had our most successful season competing in Funny Cars in 2015, and much of the credit goes to Mopar and all of its engineers and technicians who developed the new 2015 Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car body that we used,” Schumacher said in a release.

DSR Funny Car drivers Hagan, Jack Beckman, Ron Capps and Tommy Johnson Jr., combined to place a Mopar car in 23 final rounds on the 24-race 2015 NHRA schedule. All four drivers not only combined for 15 wins, all four placed in the final top-five season standings, as well.

Hagan also set the quickest run in NHRA Funny Car history back in August at Brainerd, Minn.

The 2016 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season opens Feb. 11-14 at the NHRA Winternationals, at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, Calif.

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Hunter McElrea wins Mazda Road to Indy USF2000 Scholarship

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Hunter McElrea bested 18 competitors to win the third annual Road to Indy USF2000 $200,000 Scholarship Shootout on Sunday at Bondurant Racing School in Chandler, Ariz.

The two-day contest featured on-track competition in Formula Mazda cars as well as interview sessions and assessment from a panel of judges.

“I can’t believe it,” McElrea said at IndyCar.com. “This is definitely the most exciting opportunity that I have had in my racing career. I cannot thank Mazda and everyone enough for making this possible for me. The fact that I am going to be on the grid next year thanks to them is a dream come true.

“They have given me the opportunity to prove myself in such a high level that I never even thought I would be able to reach. I have to thank Andersen Promotions, Cooper tires, all of the judges, everyone from Mazda, the Bondurant Racing School and the other competitors, who literally pushed me to the limit.

“I am just so happy. It is still sinking in, but I just can’t wait to get next year started, and I’ll be representing Mazda in that nice Soul Red USF2000 car.”

MORE: Michael Carter wins Mazda Road to 24 shootout

The 19-year-old McElrea was born in California, but reared in Australia.

As a result of winning the award, McElrea will compete in the 2019 season of the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship, the first rung of the Mazda Road to Indy development ladder.

McElrea won the Australian Formula Ford Championship this year on the strength of 13 victories in 21 races.

Early competition resulted in a final field of six drivers that included Jake Craig, Michael Eastwell, Braden Eves, Flinn Lazier and Ross Martin. They competed in a qualification session and 30-minute simulated race. McElrea won that race.

“Today was an incredible day,” said Tom Long, Mazda Motorsports factory driver and one of the judges. “There was so much talent here for the shootout. Hunter McElrea just rose to the top when it was time to shine, but our decision was very, very difficult.

“In the end, given all of the circumstances, we were able to make a pretty good decision and we are really, really proud of not only Hunter but our whole team here with Mazda to be able to grant this $200,000 scholarship for his opportunity in USF2000 next year.”