For the longest time, many wondered if Erica Enders would ever return to championship form.
Heck, even Enders herself wondered if she would ever be that same cutthroat, championship driver that took the Pro Stock world by storm with back-to-back championships in 2014 and 2015.
But after – by her own admission – losing her way the past few seasons both on the race track and in her personal life, Enders rebounded in a major way on Sunday, wrapping up her third professional title in the Pro Stock category at the 55th annual Auto Club NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway.
“I’m really proud to put a 3x by our name,” Enders said. “The first (championship) was epic, coming down to the final round and winner take all. It is something we will never forget, and being the first it was just amazing. Then the way that we did it in 2015, locking it up before we left Las Vegas coming to Pomona with no weight on our shoulders.
“This one means a lot because of the valleys that we have been through. Switching manufacturers, switching rules to electronic fuel injection, it was a challenge for us. And on a personal level, I have struggled mentally in the race car and I have struggled in my personal life.
“It is just an awesome feeling to be back on top and knowing that all of my struggles and all of those hardships paid off. That is the reason you don’t ever give up.”
Coming into the weekend holding a sizable gap over her teammate Jeg Coughlin and a handful of others still mathematically eligible to compete for the crown, Enders overcame a year’s worth of gamesmanship all wrapped up into one race.
She faced a determined Greg Anderson in round one after Anderson placed his Summit Racing Camaro in the 15th position on the ladder hoping to match up with either Coughlin or Enders to help enhance the odds of his KB Racing teammates still eligible for the championship.
But it mattered not as Enders put the pressure aside and bested the savvy veteran in possibly the best race of the weekend with a 6.570-second pass at 210.41 mph in her Melling Performance/Elite Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro to best Anderson’s 6.575 at 210.31 mph.
The win all but locked up the championship for Enders, but a second round win over Chris McGaha sealed the deal. While Enders lost in the semifinals to Fernando Cuadra, her poise under pressure in the opening rounds sealed her third championship. Meanwhile, teammate Coughlin went on to win the race and secure the second position in points, giving Elite Motorsports a clean sweep of the top two positions in the Pro Stock class.
“Today ended up being a great day with us locking up our third championship and my teammate Jeg winning the race and solidifying the second position,” Enders said. “For everyone at Elite Motorsports to take back the No. 1 and No. 2 positions in the world in NHRA Pro Stock is a huge thrill for us and we take a lot of pride in what we do. We spend a lot of time on the road away from our friends and family and it paid off this year.
“With the Greg Anderson thing, Friday I found it a bit interesting, but not surprised at all because they have done it for many years before. It is what it is. I would rather race someone like him in the first round than going out and racing somebody I have covered by a tenth. Not because we change how we race, but as far as setting up for the rest of the race.
“We went out there and they gave us all that they had and we gave them all that we had. Today ended in our favor and it was a great drag race. We were one thou apart on the tree and four thou apart at the stripe and our Melling Performance car was able to take the win. That was better than winning the race or the world championship.
“I was throwing my arms around (at the top end) and ended up unplugging my radio so I didn’t even get to hear any communication from my guys to tell me what we ran. I just saw that yellow light on the guard wall past the finish line. The race of the year for me and I couldn’t be more proud.”
Enders was not only proud to further her resume as one of the all-time greats in the Pro Stock class, she was thrilled to join the list of all-time great female competitors. She joined Angelle Sampey and Shirley Muldowney as three-time world champions in the NHRA, and even received a bit of a pep talk from one of those iconic greats on Sunday.
“It is pretty awesome to join the winningest females Angelle and, of course, Shirley who is one of my heroes,” Enders said. “They paved the way for all of the girls nowadays. (Shirley) was just a tough woman who really offered a lot of solid advice to me, even through text messaging this morning.”
Enders’ 2019 season can be summed up in one word – rocky. Just like her career arc over the past few seasons, Enders began the year strong, then dipped in the middle, before ending the year on a high note. Enders never lead the championship standings until four races to go in the season and was as low as eighth in the order as little as three months ago.
But after back-to-back runner-ups to end the regular season and then two huge wins in the Countdown to the Championship at St. Louis and Las Vegas – her only wins of the year – Enders turned in an improbable, yet still impressive, championship performance that saw her overtake many of the best in the sport.
Enders finished the year with two wins in five final rounds, while also adding three No. 1 qualifiers – all coming in the Countdown.
Her two wins this season marked her first multi-win season since her back-to-back championship seasons. In fact, after winning 15 races during those two title-winning years, Enders has had four wins since as she and her team struggled with a multitude of rule changes in the class and manufacturer changes, along with a few personal gremlins along the way.
“I reflect back to our first championship in 2014. Eddie Krawiec came up to me before the final round and said, ‘whatever you do don’t cry.’ I had that in the back of my mind. I’m not a big crier anyway, but to give your whole life to something is quite a sacrifice,” Enders said. “I was eight-years-old and I think back to my dad and all that my parents sacrificed to allow me and my sister to do what we wanted to do for a living and chase our dreams.
“It has been a really long road and it hasn’t been easy at all. There have been way more valleys than there have been peaks and I talk about that all of the time, but I feel like that story is important. You persevere and you never give up. There are so many people who stab you in the back and pull the rug out from underneath of you along the way. It is just how the world works. It is very cutthroat and challenging.
“But I love what I do and I love the guys I do it with every week. I am honored to be a three-time world champion and represent a sport that I love and I am passionate about. I would not have given 28 years of my life and everything we have sacrificed if I didn’t. People on the outside don’t understand what it takes from you. For all of my guys that sacrifice time with their kids and their wives, it means the world to me. I am glad we did this together as a family.”
And of course, it is her family that she reflects on most as she hoists that trophy in a season of redemption for Enders and her entire team.
“I always wanted to be a professional race car driver. It sounds cliché now, but as a kid growing up watching our dad race sportsman, Courtney and I were at the track with him and he would let us write his dial-in on his window in shoe polish,” Enders said. “Coming from that to spending nine years in the Junior Dragster League, five years in the Lucas Oil Series and now this is my 15th year in Pro Stock.
“I am proud. It is a journey I am proud of. I have learned a lot of lessons, the most important of which is winning and losing with grace. That is something we had to do today, which wasn’t easy with all of the drama. It is about finding the courage in the drama.”
With her legacy now cemented, Enders is excited about what is to come for her Melling Performance/Elite Motorsports team in the seasons ahead. Which is saying a lot considering the near-demise of the class in recent years.
Now, with rule changes and adjustments to the schedule, the Pro Stock class is seeing growth and unity for the first time in a long time, something Enders is excited about for the future of, what she considers, the best class in the NHRA.
“I have to give my hats off to my team owner Richard Freeman. He is really the one who pushed this. The class kind of went in a direction where parts were hard to get, people were making their own even though it is not allowed and ultimately it became really expensive,” Enders said. “We have since lowered the cost substantially, which in turn comes from some of the rule changes with the lower RPMs and we are not going through as many parts. But I think when the EFI rule change happened you saw a lot of people go away because the cost was so substantial to switch everything over.
“We love it. We eat, sleep and breath it. And I feel that, not taking anything away from any of the other classes, this is super challenging. Having to leave with a clutch, having to shift, us being naturally aspirated, we don’t have any power adders so it is all real, raw horsepower.
“I commend the other teams out there for stepping up to the plate and Graham Light said before he left it is the first time in the history of the sport that the group of Pro Stock has ever worked together. It is a collective effort and I am proud to be a part of it.”
So, with all that she has accomplished in the Pro Stock ranks and being labeled as one of the best natural racers in the sport, is there a chance she might one day try her hand at another class?
“I’ve had opportunities to drive nitro cars, but this is where my heart is at,” Enders said. “I’ve learned to never say never, but I love Pro Stock. I think you will see a lot of good stuff coming out of this class in the future.”