After dismal 2016 season, the only way for Erica Enders in 2017 is up

(Photos courtesy NHRA)
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Erica Enders spent the previous two seasons as the queen of the drag racing world, becoming the first woman to win a NHRA Pro Stock championship in 2014, and then making it two in a row in 2015.

En route to both championships, Enders won six races in 2014 and a career-best nine in 2015.

Aspirations and expectations for a three-peat were high when the 2016 season began. Not only did Enders’ team, Elite Motorsports, switch from Chevrolet Camaros to Hemi-powered Dodge Darts, five-time Pro Stock champ Jeg Coughlin Jr. came on board as Enders’ full-time teammate.

Everyone on the Elite team was poised to dominate the class more so than ever – at least on paper.

But now with one race left, this weekend’s season-ending Auto Club Finals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, California, Enders can’t wait to rip that paper up into little pieces.

After the two greatest seasons of her career, the 33-year-old Houston native is ending the worst full-time season of her career.

And it can’t come soon enough.

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Not only has Enders failed to win even one race this season – the highest she’s reached this season has been two semifinals – she’s also had 14 first round exits in the first 23 races.

She also barely qualified for the NHRA’s six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs – and then kicked off the Countdown by failing to qualify for the first race at Charlotte.

“It’s been a frustrating year for sure,” Enders said. “To go from the best two years of your career where everything was so awesome, winning two championships and a bunch of races to struggling like this has been hard on all of us.”

With the best Coughlin and Enders can finish is ninth and 10th in the season standings, the overall Elite operation has already begun making changes for 2017.

Testing is a major priority during the off-season. The team is already working on new motors for next season. And new cars are on the horizon: Elite’s website is already advertising two of its 2016 Dodge Darts for sale (the listing touts “all the best parts, every option”).

And there are rumors of a major announcement coming soon after the season ends.

As trite as it may sound, it is also truthful: the adversity Enders, Coughlin and the entire Elite operation have fought in 2016 has helped bring everyone closer together.

“What I’ve learned is that my team, this family we have here, they’re even more awesome than I thought,” Enders said. “It’s easy to have fun and get along when everything is going well but not so much when times are tough.

“But no one gave up or bitched. There has been no inner turmoil. In fact we may be stronger now than we ever were.”

Not only are they ready to put the frustration of this season in the rearview mirror with grace, they’re ready to bounce back in a big way next season.

If anyone thinks Enders’ two championships were flukes, wait until she comes back with a vengeance in 2017.

“I can’t wait for next year,” Enders said. “It’ll be great to have a fresh start and we have a plan to get back on top that I know will work.”

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New Chip Ganassi driver Marcus Armstrong will team with boyhood idol Scott Dixon

Marcus Armstrong Scott Dixon
Joe Portlock - Formula 1/Formula Motorsport Limited via Getty Images
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Marcus Armstrong was a Scott Dixon fan his entire life, and when he was 8, the aspiring young racer asked his fellow New Zealander to autograph a helmet visor that he hung on his bedroom wall.

Next year, Armstrong will be Dixon’s teammate.

Armstrong was named Friday as the fourth IndyCar driver in the Chip Ganassi Racing lineup and will pilot the No. 11 next season on road and street courses.

A driver for the five oval races on the 17-race schedule will be named later.

The No. 11 is essentially the No. 48 that seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson drove the last two seasons, with Chip Ganassi making the change to run four cars numbered in sequential order. Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson drives the No. 8, six-time champion Dixon drives the No. 9, and 2020 IndyCar champion Alex Palou drives the No. 10.

So just who is the second Kiwi in the Ganassi lineup?

A 22-year-old who spent the past three seasons in Formula One feeder series F2, a Ferrari development driver in 2021, and former roommate of Callum Illot and former teammate of Christian Lundgaard – both of whom just completed their rookie IndyCar seasons.

“I’ve always been attracted to the IndyCar championship because it’s one of those championships that’s been really well televised in New Zealand since I was young, mainly because of Scott and his success,” Armstrong told The Associated Press. “As time progressed, as I got closer to F1 and single-seaters, the attraction to IndyCar grew just because of how competitive the championship is – I like to challenge myself and the level of competition in IndyCar is remarkably high.”

Armstrong, from Christchurch, New Zealand, was set to travel from his current home in London to Indianapolis this weekend to meet his new team. He won’t need an introduction to Dixon, the 42-year-old considered the best IndyCar driver of his generation and Armstrong’s unequivocal childhood hero.

Last season, Dixon earned his 53rd career victory to pass Mario Andretti for second on the all-time list. Dixon has driven for Ganassi in all but 23 of his 345 career starts.

“For a long time I’ve been a Scott Dixon fan. I don’t want to make him cringe with our age difference,” Armstrong told the AP.

Despite the two-decade age difference, Armstrong never considered someday racing with Dixon a fantasy.

He convinced his father after winning five national karting championships to allow him to leave New Zealand for Italy at age 14, where he moved by himself to pursue a racing career. Armstrong said as soon as he’d received parental permission, he’d never look back.

Armstrong was in Formula 4 two years after his move to Italy and won that title in his first season. He won four races and four poles in F3 in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, then collected four wins and eight podiums in three seasons of F2.

“Maybe it’s a strength, or maybe it’s a weakness, but I always thought I was capable of doing great in the sport,” Armstrong told the AP. “I think you probably have to succeed in the sport, you need to believe in yourself. I always pictured myself being in IndyCar.

“As Scott’s teammate? I can’t specifically say I saw that. It’s an extraordinary chain of events.”

Armstrong becomes just the latest driver to leave Europe, where F1 is the pinnacle but has only 20 seats each year. Alexander Rossi began the trend in 2016 when the American left F1 and won the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie. He’s been followed by Ericsson, last season’s Indy 500 winner, Romain Grosjean, Illot, Lundgaard, and on Thursday three-time W Series champion and Williams F1 reserve driver Jamie Chadwick was announced as driver for Andretti Autosport in IndyCar’s second-tier development series.

Armstrong said he could have remained in F2 for a fourth season, but he’d been watching IndyCar for so long, and after conversations with Illot and Lundgaard, he decided to make the move to what he believes is the most balanced racing series in the world. He tested for Dale Coyne Racing at Sebring in October.

He doesn’t know if European racing is done for good, just that he wants to be in IndyCar right now.

“I don’t want to think too far into the future, I’m just grateful for this opportunity that is standing right in front of me,” Armstrong said. “I want to perform as well as I can in the near future and just consolidate myself in the fantastic chance that is IndyCar and just do my best.

“I’m not looking at F1 as a landing spot – I am looking at IndyCar, and that’s exactly why I am here.”