NHRA: After slow start, Pro Stock champ Erica Enders gets back on right track at Las Vegas

(Photos courtesy Elite Motorsports)

If Erica Enders had gone one more race like she had in the first three of the 2016 NHRA season, it would not have been a surprise if Elite Motorsports would have printed up some posters:

“Missing: Two-time defending NHRA Pro Stock champ. Best reaction times in the business. Beats all competitors. If you find her, please call.”

Even though Enders never actually was missing, her game was, to the point that some may have wondered if whoever was behind the wheel may be an imposter of the real thing.

Enders uncharacteristically lost in the first round of each of the first three races on the NHRA national event schedule.

When fans looked at the Pro Stock point standings, her name was nowhere to be found in the top 10.


In effect, Enders couldn’t have gotten off to a worst start.

But then came this past weekend’s race at Las Vegas, and with it came the old Enders, the same driver who dominated the last two seasons en route to the championship.

As if waking up from a long winter’s slumber, Enders roared to life and took her Elite Motorsports/Mopar Dodge all the way to a semifinal finish in Sunday’s final eliminations of the Denso Spark Plus Nationals NHRA Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The first sentence in Enders’ post-race media release said it all: “That’s more like it.”

“You find out what real champions are made of when you have to go through a little bit of adversity,” Enders said. “It makes you dig deeper and want it more.

“I don’t know we could possibly want it more than we already do, but my guys are amazing.”

To break through the first round elimination wall, Enders went back to the basics and what took her to the last two Pro Stock championships.

Now, it’s a matter of building upon what happened in Las Vegas and going from there for Enders, who climbed to ninth in the standings. By comparison, she was never lower than seventh in the Pro Stock points in her two championship seasons in 2014 and 2015.

She knows she has a ways to go, but if anyone can do it, Enders can.

“It was really nice to go rounds,” she said. “It felt like it was back to normal. We’re used to going deep into the race on Sunday, and we’re going to get back there.

“We just need a little bit more time. We certainly made strides in the right direction with our engine development program. We have work to do, but a semifinal appearance in Las Vegas was definitely awesome.”

Part of Enders’ slow start could be due to the fact that her team switched from Chevrolet power, which took her to the last two titles, to Dodge power for 2016. And in so doing, it’s not unusual in any form of motorsport to get off to a slow start when switching from one engine or manufacturer to another.


But the Las Vegas showing is a very promising sign that bigger and better things are coming going forward.

Coming into this past weekend, Enders had won the last four Pro Stock final rounds at Las Vegas.

After qualifying a season-best fifth, she roared past first round foe Aaron Strong and teammate Drew Skillman in the second round before dropping to eventual event winner Jason Line in the third/semifinal round.

Line also defeated Enders in the second round of Saturday’s K&N Horsepower Challenge special race-within-a-race, ending Enders’ streak of two consecutive wins in that event as well.

But Sunday’s performance told a better tale.

“We did a lot better than we expected to today,” said Enders, who is now 18-1 in round wins in national events at Las Vegas with her Elite Motorsports team. “It was a good day, a good points day.

“We’ve got to get back to the shop, fix these awesome Hemis and go to Charlotte (the next race on the schedule) renewed, refreshed and ready to win a race.

“We’re not at the top of the pack, but we’ll keep making strides in the right direction and we’ll get better. It’s just a matter of time until we’re back to our winning ways.”

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After New York whirlwind, Josef Newgarden makes special trip to simulator before Detroit


DETROIT – There’s no rest for the weary as an Indy 500 winner, but Josef Newgarden discovered there are plenty of extra laps.

The reigning Indy 500 champion added an extra trip Wednesday night back to Concord, N.C., for one last session on the GM Racing simulator before Sunday’s Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix.

After a 30-year run on the Belle Isle course, the race has been moved to a nine-turn, 1.7-mile layout downtown, so two extra hours on the simulator were worth it for Newgarden.

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“I really wanted to do it,” he told NBC Sports at a Thursday media luncheon. “If there’s any time that the sim is most useful, it’s in this situation when no one has ever been on a track, and we’re able to simulate it as best as we can. We want to get some seat time.

“It’s extra important coming off the Indy 500 because you’ve been out of rhythm for a road or street course-type environment, so I really wanted some laps. I was really appreciative to Chevy. There was a few guys that just came in and stayed late for me so I could get those laps before coming up here. I don’t know if it’s going to make a difference, but I feel like it’s going to help for me.”

After a whirlwind tour of New York for two days, Newgarden arrived at the simulator (which is at the GM Racing Technical Center adjacent to Hendrick Motorsports) in time for a two hour session that started at 6 p.m. Wednesday. He stayed overnight in Charlotte and then was up for an early commercial flight to Detroit, where he had more media obligations.

Newgarden joked that if he had a jet, he would have made a quick stop in Nashville, Tennessee, but a few more days away from home (where he has yet to return in weeks) is a worthy tradeoff for winning the Greatest Spectacle in Racing – though the nonstop interviews can take a toll.

“It’s the hardest part of the gig for me is all this fanfare and celebration,” Newgarden said. “I love doing it because I’m so passionate about the Indy 500 and that racetrack and what that race represents. I feel honored to be able to speak about it. It’s been really natural and easy for me to enjoy it because I’ve been there for so many years.

“Speaking about this win has been almost the easiest job I’ve ever had for postrace celebrations. But it’s still for me a lot of work. I get worn out pretty easily. I’m very introverted. So to do this for three days straight, it’s been a lot.”

Though he is terrified of heights, touring the top of the Empire State Building for the first time was a major highlight (and produced the tour’s most viral moment).

“I was scared to get to the very top level,” Newgarden said. “That thing was swaying. No one else thought it was swaying. I’m pretty sure it was. I really impressed by the facility. I’d never seen it before. It’s one of those bucket list things. If you go to New York, it’s really special to do that. So to be there with the wreath and the whole setup, it just felt like an honor to be in that moment.”

Now the attention shifts to Detroit and an inaugural circuit that’s expected to be challenging. Along with a Jefferson Avenue straightaway that’s 0.9 miles long, the track has several low-speed corners and a “split” pit lane (teams will stop on both sides of a rectangular area) with a narrow exit that blends just before a 90-degree lefthand turn into Turn 1.

Newgarden thinks the track is most similar to the Music City Grand Prix in Nashville.

“It’s really hard to predict with this stuff until we actually run,” he said. “Maybe we go super smooth and have no issues. Typically when you have a new event, you’re going to have some teething issues. That’s understandable. We’ve always got to massage the event to get it where we want it, but this team has worked pretty hard. They’ve tried to get feedback constantly on what are we doing right, what do we need to look out for. They’ve done a ton of grinding to make sure this surface is in as good of shape as possible.

“There’s been no expense spared, but you can’t foresee everything. I have no idea how it’s going to race. I think typically when you look at a circuit that seems simple on paper, people tend to think it’s not going to be an exciting race, or challenging. I find the opposite always happens when we think that way. Watch it be the most exciting, chaotic, entertaining race.

Newgarden won the last two pole positions at Belle Isle’s 2.35-mile layout and hopes to continue the momentum while avoiding any post-Brickyard letdown.

“I love this is an opportunity for us to get something right quicker than anyone else,” he said. “A new track is always exciting from that standpoint. I feel I’m in a different spot. I’m pretty run down. I’m really trying to refocus and gain some energy back for tomorrow. Which I’ll have time to today, which is great.

“I don’t want that Indy 500 hangover. People always talk about it. They’ve always observed it. That doesn’t mean we have to win this weekend, but I’d like to leave here feeling like we had a really complete event, did a good job and had a solid finish leading into the summer. I want to win everywhere I go, but if we come out of here with a solid result and no mistakes, then probably everyone will be happy with it.”