BAYTOWN, Texas – Just as NHRA Legend Shirley Muldowney did several decades earlier at a racetrack near Columbus, Ohio, Houston native Erica Enders will head to ultrafast Royal Purple Raceway this weekend trying to make some NHRA history during NHRA’s 60th anniversary season.
In 1976 Muldowney erased gender barriers in the male-dominated world of professional drag racing, when she claimed a monumental victory in Top Fuel. Since then, there have been 10 other female drivers who have joined Muldowney as winners in the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series and many more women who have enjoyed success at all levels of NHRA drag racing.
Enders, 27, who is one of only five women to ever compete in the Pro Stock category since it was introduced by NHRA in 1970, is in position to become the first female winner in the 200-mph category. She remains the only female driver to ever reach a final round in NHRA Pro Stock – what many motorsports journalists have called the most tightly-packed competitive form of auto racing – by posting runner-up finishes in Gainesville (2006) and Chicago (2005).
Enders will continue her quest for that milestone victory and to improve upon her sixth place position in the series point standings at the O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Spring Nationals presented by Pennzoil, April 29-May 1. Larry Dixon (Top Fuel), Matt Hagan (Funny Car), Jeg Coughlin (Pro Stock) and Andrew Hines (Pro Stock Motorcycle) are the defending winners of the event which will be televised on ESPN2 HD.
She certainly understands the significance of what it would mean to become the first female winner in NHRA Pro Stock competition. NHRA’s other three pro categories – Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock Motorcycle – feature multiple female winners.
“When I can’t sleep at night, I think about stuff like that,” Enders said. “I think about what I would say in my interviews and how I’d react. It’ll be that one moment I’ve been working for my entire life. I’m sure it’ll be so awesome and exciting and emotional. For people to understand is really hard to do, because this is 19 years I’ve been working toward this. I’ve really worked my butt off to get here. Raising the money to have this ride has been tough. I think it’ll be the coolest moment of my life, ever.”
Enders, who was the subject of the Disney Channel original movie “Right on Track” about her start in drag racing as a kid in the NHRA Jr. Drag Racing League, had her best seasons behind the wheel in Pro Stock competition in 2005 and 2006. This season she has reunited with North Carolina-based Cagnazzi Racing and is driving a Chevy Cobalt with sponsorship from a Houston-based company, ZaZa Energy. She opened the season with a No. 1 qualifying performance at the Kragen O’Reilly Winternationals in Southern California, the second of her career. With new crew chief Dave Connolly now calling the shots for her car’s setup, Enders feels like all of the pieces of the puzzle are finally in place.
“We have a lot of confidence going in,” Enders said. “We’ve tested really well, and we’ve run really well all season. Sundays haven’t played out the way they should have. We’ve definitely had one of the top-five cars out there every weekend. That will continue. I’m very excited, very optimistic.”
She gained a bit of national media exposure after beating NASCAR driver Kurt Busch in his NHRA Pro Stock debut during the first round of competition at the Tire Kingdom NHRA Gatornationals in Florida. Her focus behind the wheel has been very strong this season.
“I’m doing a good job leaving, a good job shifting and driving the race car to point A to point B,” said Enders, who set the national speed record in Pro Stock with a 213.57 mph run in Florida. “I know that it’s right around the corner, without sounding cocky. It’s gonna happen; we’re gonna do it. We’ve all spent a lot of effort and worked really hard to get here. I think it’ll pay off. I hope we’re not winning yet so we’re saving one up for me at Houston. That’d be awesome.”
With all of her track time over the years at Royal Purple Raceway, Enders has a solid understanding of what it takes to run well there. She earned her first NHRA national event victory during her sportsman racing days there in the Super Gas category.
“It’ll be our first real summer race, just because of Houston’s climate,” Enders said. “Usually in Houston, the challenge is getting down a hot race track on Sunday. (Royal Purple Raceway) is a good track. The Angel brothers do a really nice job with it. I’ve had thousands and thousands of runs there, so I know that track up and down. I think we’ll be all right.”
If Enders is able to become a Pro Stock pioneer and break through with her first victory, she will certainly give a part of the credit to the trail-blazing Muldowney, who will be honored at the track over the weekend during part of NHRA’s 60th anniversary celebration.
“Shirley is somebody who has done a tremendous amount for the sport and for the girls in the sport,” Enders said. “I know what I’ve been through since I turned pro, and that was only seven years ago. I can’t even begin to imagine what she went through back in the ’60s and ’70s when it wasn’t common to see a woman in a male-dominated sport. She’s definitely paved the way for us. I definitely look up to her. I would love to sit down with her and hear her stories because it’d be so cool to just hear her side of everything. She’s done a lot for all the girls.”
In Top Fuel, longtime Funny Car driver Del Worsham is leading the way in his Al-Anabi Racing dragster with two wins to his credit in the first four races. His teammate, defending world champ Dixon, a three-time winner at this track, is right on his heels, in second place in the standings. The remainder of the top 10 is loaded with talented drivers, including Las Vegas winner Antron Brown, seven-time world champ Tony Schumacher, Kragen O’Reilly Winternationals winner Morgan Lucas, and former Houston winners Brandon Bernstein, and Doug Kalitta.
Past Royal Purple Raceway Funny Car winner Robert Hight leads a strong Funny Car contingent, that also includes his teammates, Tire Kingdom Gatornationals winner Mike Neff and 15-time world champ and seven-time Houston winner John Force. Recent VisitMyrtleBeach.com NHRA Four-Wide Nationals winner Jack Beckman wants to keep his hot streak going, while two-time Houston winner Cruz Pedregon has been strong all season in his Snap-on Tools Toyota Camry. Defending winner Hagan is looking to make a climb upward in the series standings with a great performance in his DieHard Dodge Charger. Ron Capps, Bob Tasca and Jeff Arend also are among the pre-race favorites.
* SCHEDULE: Full Throttle Drag Racing Series qualifying sessions are scheduled for 2:45 and 5:15 p.m. on Friday, April 29 and 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 30. Final eliminations begin at 11 a.m. on Sunday, May 1.
* TICKETS: Tickets are available for the O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Spring Nationals. Call Royal Purple Raceway at (281) 383-2666 or visit www.royalpurpleraceway.com/buy-tickets.
* ON TV: ESPN2 and ESPN2HD will televise two hours of qualifying highlights at 6 p.m. (ET) on Saturday, April 30. ESPN2 and ESPN2HD will televise three hours of eliminations coverage beginning at 7 p.m. (ET) on Sunday, May 1.
* LUCAS OIL SERIES: The O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Spring Nationals also will feature competition in eight categories in the NHRA Lucas Oil Series, where the future stars of the NHRA Full Throttle Series gain experience. In addition, the Top Sportsman category also will be featured. Lucas Oil Series qualifying begins at 8 a.m. on April 29. Lucas Oil Series eliminations begin at 8 a.m. on April 30 and continue through May 1.
* GET SCREENED AMERICA PRO MOD SERIES: NHRA’s popular Pro Mod touring series will make its third start of the 10-race 2011 season at the O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Spring Nationals. The series features some of the world’s fastest and most unique doorslammer cars, with an eclectic mix of vintage and late-model body styles, in quarter-mile competition. Two of three scheduled rounds of qualifying will be held on Friday, April 29 at 1 and 4:30 p.m. The final round of qualifying is set for 12:45 p.m. on Saturday, April 30. The first round of eliminations is scheduled for Saturday, April 30 at 3:15 p.m. Eliminations will continue on Sunday, May 1 at approximately 2:30 p.m.
* ON THE WEB: Get live timing, scoring, multimedia and the latest news updates from every NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series event on the Internet at www.nhra.com. Visit the official NHRA pages on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.