Erica Enders in action against Shane Gray - Anne Proffit photoEnlarge Photo
That's what Erica Enders discovered last weekend when she became the first female Pro Stock driver to bring home a Wally trophy, winning the O'Reilly Auto Parts Route 66 NHRA Nationals at Route 66 Raceway in Joliet, IL on Sunday.
Driving the GK Motorsports' KLR Group Chevy Cobalt, Enders beat Greg Anderson--the same driver who stopped her from reaching Victory Lane in this race's final round last year--outrunning the four-time champion with a pass of 6.627 seconds at 207.40 mph to Anderson's 6.641/208.36 in his Chevy Camaro.
"For pioneers like Shirley Muldowney and Shelly Anderson-Payne, they were my heroes growing up, and all the women who paved the way," Enders acknowledged. "There are a lot of little kids who look up to me. I'm blessed enough to be in the position to be a role model for them and I hope that they see me win and know that no matter what, anything is possible. You've just got to set your mind to it and follow your dreams. With hard work, anything's possible."
Enders, who is one of only six women to ever compete in the factory hot-rod category, defeated Kurt Johnson, Vincent Nobile and V Gaines in the first three rounds to advance to her seventh career Pro Stock final round. The 28-year-old Houston native led Anderson the full way down the quarter-mile dragstrip to take the win she's been working toward since starting to race in NHRA's Full Throttle Drag Racing Series' Pro Stock category in 2005.
She's been working toward this moment since age 8, convincing her father to buy a Jr Dragster so that Enders would be able to compete in the new class NHRA created to promote younger drivers. Moving through the ranks of NHRA Sportsman classes, she won a Super Gas national event in 2004 and felt ready to advance to the Pro Stock category. Working with Cagnazzi Racing she became the first woman to reach a Pro Stock final round--at Chicago in 2005.
Enders drifted through the Pro Stock class through the end of this century's first decade as she searched for sponsorship and the right group to work with. She recommitted with team owner Victor Cagnazzi for the 2011 season, thanks to sponsor Gaston Kearby. Last year she competed in three final-round bouts, including Chicago, where Anderson admitted he didn't want to be the first driver to lose to Enders in the Pro Stock final round.
So much for that!
"It's awesome," she said after finally vanquishing Anderson. "I think if I could've planned it, I would've asked to run Greg in the finals. He made it clear that he didn't want to lose to me. He's a very competitive guy, and I love him, but I couldn't wait to beat him. I'm really glad it was here in Chicago. This is the place of my first final in Pro Stock in 2005, so it's nice to circle back around and get it done here."
Anderson was gracious in defeat, Enders said. "He grabbed my shoulder and said, 'Well deserved.' That means a lot coming from an eight-hundred-billion-time champion and somebody I've been trying to beat for eight years since I first let the clutch out in one of these cars.
"To have him in the other lane when I got my first win is awesome. Steve Torrence had Tony Schumacher in the other lane when he got his first (Top Fuel) win. Two Texas kids who dreamed of doing this our entire lives, to be able to beat the best in the finals like that, I couldn't have asked for a better situation."
With her first victory in Pro Stock, Enders has moved to fifth place in the rankings, helped by the win, two-final-round and four semifinal round achievements this year. Erica Enders has won at least one round in each of the last five races and has reached the semifinals in the last three contests, heading into the next race this weekend in Norwalk, Ohio.
The memories of Enders' first win will always be strong: "When I saw the win light come on, I was like, Oh my God.' And When I came around the track, all the Safety Safari guys were lined up around the corner and the NHRA employees," she regaled. "It was just like everything came together. I dreamed of this day my entire life. When I can't sleep at night, I think about winning and planning my speeches. It's so awesome that it finally came true."
To top off her magical weekend in Chicago, longtime boyfriend Richie Stevens (an excellent Pro Stock racer as well) proposed on Sunday night after the race and Enders accepted. The duo, who reside in New Orleans, Stevens' hometown, intend to wed in December, once the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series competition is complete.