The competitiveness of female drivers across all the classes of the NHRA’s Mello Yello series this season has been a huge story. Women have been competing in the NHRA since Shirley Muldowney broke through the gender barrier over 40 years ago, and starting with Muldowney, they have enjoyed success, winning races, and, in the cases of Muldowney and Angelle Sampey-Drago, championships. This season, five women in four classes made it into the championship Countdown and four of those women, Alexis DeJoria, Courtney Force, Angie Smith, and Erica Enders-Stevens, have won races this season.
Erica Enders-Stevens also led the Pro Stock points standings for much of the year, the first woman to ever do so. With ten wins, she’s the third winningest female driver in NHRA history. Toni Montgomery had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Enders-Stevens at last month’s Carolina Nationals, the first race of the Countdown. Enders-Stevens shared her thoughts on her season, the championship, the challenges faced by female drivers, and what it’s like to be a movie star.
Toni Montgomery, Frontstretch.com: Your team sat out a couple of events in August and momentum can be a big thing. What can you do as a driver when that rhythm is broken and that momentum is broken to try to keep that sharp when you get back to the track?
Erica Enders-Stevens: I spent a lot of time in the simulator at home in the shop and working out with a trainer and you just kind of have to put out of your mind that those two races were skipped. I couldn’t do anything to change the fact that we couldn’t go so I need to focus on the task at hand and that means getting back out here and doing the best that we can do. We certainly didn’t start off on the right foot at Brainerd. We had a parts failure, stupid, stupid parts failure. We got back to the trailer, figured it out immediately after our first round loss, threw it in the trash and went to St. Louis and tested. Our car really started acting right again in Indy so we’re hopeful to start the Countdown off on the right foot but we can’t dwell on the past and can’t change that we didn’t have the opportunity to go so we’ve jut got to focus on what’s ahead of us.
Montgomery: You were fast qualifier for the opening Countdown race so it looks like the momentum has come back at just the right time.
Enders-Stevens: It has come back, thankfully. It’s hard to look back at that, of course we didn’t want to but it was a business decision that we had to make and it kind of came at an interesting time because we had just won Norwalk and didn’t do killer in Denver but anyway, we’ve got things back rolling smoothly the way that they had been earlier in the season. That gives us the confidence and allows us to take a deep breath. Not in the sense that we’re going to walk through it by any means, but just that things are going the way we’ve anticipated them to go.
Montgomery: Is your approach to these final races different from your approach to the other races so far this year?
Erica Enders-Stevens: You know I guess if I said no I might be lying a little bit. I mean I know how crucial these six races are. There’s only 24 rounds of racing left in the entire year and every point is going to matter so I know that, that’s in the back of my mind but mentally and physically I don’t prepare any differently being that we’re in the Countdown now. We have the same mindset, we have the same goals. Our key is going to be taking it one round and one day at a time and not getting ahead of ourselves. Yeah, we talk about points and yeah it’s exciting to know where you are in the standings and what you need to make up or whatnot. I’m just going to look at it as it doesn’t matter who’s in the other lane, it’s about us, our car, our lane, me and that Christmas tree and hitting my shift points and keeping the car in the groove and keeping it safe. That’ll be the mindset. I know I keep repeating myself but one day, one round at a time. That’s very important. We got ahead of ourselves earlier this season and struggled a bit. I struggled a bit as a driver and just needed to take a step back and reassess and concentrate on the task at hand.
Montgomery: You are the lone woman forging the trail so to speak in Pro Stock. Question 1, why Pro Stock? And Question 2, the other women who are racing in the other divisions, other ladies came along before them, and broke the trail so to speak. Do you think you have more of a challenge because you are leading the way, so to speak, in Pro Stock?
Erica Enders-Stevens: Pro Stock because it’s always been my favorite class, I mean even as a kid watching it. I thoroughly enjoyed the fact that they leave with the clutch and you have to shift and it’s more of like your factory hot rod. Like if you didn’t know anything about cars and you owned a Camaro and you came out to the race track, and they have the Funny Car Camaros, they kind of maybe around the headlights look like them, but our car, aside from the hood scoop, looks like a Camaro that you would take off of the street so I don’t know, I just like the factory hot rod aspect of it. As far as a bigger challenge, I don’t know, I don’t really, I think if you ask the other ladies the same question we don’t want to be viewed any differently but at the same time it’s a pretty cool aspect that we’re the only females out here in a male dominated sport and not only are we just out here but we’re competitive and we’re winning races, all of us, Courtney and Alexis included and it’s exciting. It’s really neat that our sport is so diverse not just from male to female but race wise also. It’s pretty cool. I don’t know how to answer that. It’s a double edged sword I guess in a sense.
Montgomery: I talked to Angelle today too and she’s coming back, but she said you guys talk about this a lot.
Erica Enders-Stevens: Yeah I heard that. I’m excited for it. We have. She lives about 20 minutes from where I live right now. She’s a great girl, obviously a very talented rider. The most successful female in our sport by a long shot. I mean she’s got 41 wins, Shirley’s got 18, and I’m in third with 10 so I’ve certainly got my work cut out to catch them and now that she’s coming back I have no doubt that she’ll do a great job. She’s a fierce competitor and I admire that about her.
Montgomery: You have a lot of young girls that come up to you at the ropes because they saw the movie Right on Track. Is that odd having a movie made about you?
Erica Enders-Stevens: It’s pretty surreal in a sense because I don’t view myself as anything special, you know? I’m just a normal kid that with the help of my family obviously and being surrounded by the right people has been able to accomplish a lot of really cool things and hopefully I’m nowhere near done accomplishing stuff like that yet. It’s really neat. I mean my sister and I became the first sisters to win in a national event and People magazine did a story on us and that’s how the whole Disney movie deal started. The Disney executives saw that article and called us and that was during a time they were doing a series of movies about females being successful in male dominated sports. They called my dad and said ‘Hey, we would like to make your daughters’ life stories into a made for TV movie’ and he’s like ‘What? Do you have the right number?’ But it was a pretty cool opportunity and we were on set the entire six weeks it was filmed. Courtney, my sister, and I did the all of the stunt driving, quote unquote. It wasn’t really anything crazy, but it was awesome and it put us in a position to be able to be a positive role model for the younger kids, and not just the girls, the guys too. It’s so neat to hear those stories. The movie was released in 03 so here we are 11 years later and these kids have grown up with me. They saw it as a young kid and it still airs on the Disney Channel so we get a whole new generation of kids as well and I can see that look in their eyes. The same look that I had back when I was a kid. I mean when I stood outside the pits at Shirley Muldowney’s or Shelly Anderson Payne’s and it’s nice to see that little sparkle that they have, that passion inside of them, and maybe it’s not for drag racing, it’s something else, but if we just show them that they can do anything that they set their mind to, they just gotta work hard and keep at it and not take no for an answer. I mean I’ve been told no 800 million times, you know, you’ll never make it, you can’t have that sponsor. It’s been a battle. It’s been a roller coaster ride but we just keep on trucking.
Montgomery: Do you find that more challenging? Sponsors?
Erica Enders-Stevens: Absolutely. Yeah somebody needs to wake up! I think it’s the most challenging part of this business. Of course it’s a challenge to drive the race cars but you don’t get to show your talent if you don’t have the funding to get out here so it’s definitely the most challenging aspect. And I might be a little biased to our sport but I think it’s a great sell. I think it’s a great bang for your buck. We can run at a tenth of of a NASCAR team. We have 24 races, we’re on ESPN2, we have over 100,000 fans come through the gates here over a three day weekend so all of the numbers are there and the demographics are awesome and it’s just going to take the right person that has an interest in it and to see it. I’ll tell you, getting them out here, it makes a big difference because you can watch it on TV and it’s cool but it doesn’t do it justice at all as I’m sure you’ve realized. It’s definitely neat but I love it obviously so I might be a little biased.
Montgomery: One more thing is the family aspect of the sport. You referred to it a little bit. Your family is involved in all this and we all know you had the unique situation of having to race against your husband in Indy so tell me a little bit about the family aspect of the sport. Your sister is still involved. She’s not driving but she’s still involved?
Erica Enders-Stevens: Absolutely, yup. My sister works for our team and is a big part of my program. I’m so thrilled that she’s out here with me. She’s probably my biggest supporter and takes my back. She’s a talented driver herself but we go back to the sponsorship aspect of it and that’s a challenge so we continue to work on that for her but as far as family is concerned this sport is full of it, just like NASCAR and IndyCar and all the other forms of motorsports as well. That’s what it’s all about at the end of the day. Race cars come and go, money comes and goes, trophies come and go but family is there forever and it’s so awesome that my family shares this same passion with me. My team owner Richard Freeman, his two brothers work on my team, his dad’s there. It’s all family oriented and you can go to Don Schumacher or Kurt and Warren Johnson or AJ in Pro Stock. You just go down the list and there’s so many families out here that are racing together and that’s really cool.
Montgomery: Allen Johnson, would you consider him kind of a mentor for you in Pro Stock?
Erica Enders-Stevens: Yeah, I’ve learned from AJ. He’s probably my best friend out here, him and his wife. They were in our wedding, she was a bridesmaid and he was a groomsman. He’s a great person with a huge heart but also a tremendous driver and his dad is pretty smart in the horsepower department as well so yeah. When we have dinner sometimes we’ll all have rules and say ‘OK, no racing talk’ but when we do talk about racing I just listen to him. He’s been out here for 20 years now driving Pro Stock and I’ve only been out here ten so he’s got twice the experience and I just love hearing his stories and listening to his advice. He’s a good friend. I’m glad to have him.