Erica Enders should come with a warning label: Isn’t great friend material.
The 39-year-old will go down as one of the best to ever compete in the NHRA, but greatness doesn’t always have time for anything other than the craft.
“She’s not a normal human,” younger sister Courtney Enders says. “If you are a true Erica Enders friend from school or home or church, you have to understand that she’s kind of a half-assed friend.
“I don’t mean that in a sense that she’s not going to be there for you, or nice. But she can’t go to your kid’s birthday parties. She can’t always be a bridesmaid in your wedding. She can’t always sit on the phone and talk about 9 to 5 normal life for an hour, because she just doesn’t have the physical time or the mental capacity because she gives so much of her mind, soul and body to her fans, her team, the industry, me, her sponsors. There are not a lot of pieces of the Erica pie that are left, and if you are truly her friend, you have to understand that and deal with it. She’s not always going to answer the phone.”
Enders entered the year fresh off a fifth Pro Stock world championship. It came with a 10-win season and a win-loss record of 55 and 9.
She is far from done. In her 10th season with Elite Motorsports, Enders is one victory away from sole possession of being the winningest female in NHRA national event history. Victories this season have come at Bristol Dragway (No. 44) and Heartland Motorsports Park (No. 45). Those go with a Super Gas victory from 2004.
Enders is tied with Angelle Sampey, who previously held the record with 46 victories.
It’s been an improbable journey, even if Enders was born and bred to be a racer. She started at eight years old in junior dragsters, developing tunnel vision toward being being an NHRA champion from the start.
But for nearly a decade, Enders struggled to establish herself. Not only were there winless seasons spent driving less than stellar equipment, but there were many times when she failed to qualify for national events.
Enders made her first Pro Stock start in 2005. Her first victory came in 2012, which turned out to be a four-win season. In 2013, she added two more victories.
Then came Richard Freeman. The idea that racers understand other racers and see talent not noticed by the untrained eye is at the crux of Enders being signed at Elite going into 2014.
“What I recognized was how she drove,” Freeman says.
Freeman has been around other great drivers, name-dropping Greg Stanfield and Mike Edwards. When he watched Enders, he noticed that even though she wasn’t driving the best equipment, her routine never changed.
Freeman is a self-described underdog, which is what Enders was. Although she was a winner in the sport, Enders wasn’t yet striking the fear in the competition she does today with her distinctive red Chevy Camaro.
“What I saw in her was she could do what many others just couldn’t get done,” Freeman says. “In my opinion, she is very possibly the best ever to step foot in a Pro Stock. And I say that not because she drives for me, but if you go look, in two years working for me in 2014 and 2015, I don’t know that she ever red-lit. That’s unheard of.”
Claiming a championship was unthinkable for Enders and Elite Motorsports simply because Freeman initially had no plans of fielding the car full-time. But as Enders started winning, the team quickly gelled.
Courtney vividly remembers the 2014 season. When her sister arrived at Elite, Courtney isn’t sure Erica yet knew her place in the sport. And there were no thoughts of her being one of the most dominant drivers or even a champion. However, there was excitement about being in a place where such an opportunity could be realized.
Gone were the days of just hoping to be in the field or just looking for a round win. Enders was suddenly a weekly contender.
“Once we started winning races, I remember a couple of times I was like, ‘Erica, holy ****, what are you doing?’” Courtney says. “She was like, ‘I don’t even know. This is crazy.’ We were taken aback by what was happening.”
Enders became the first female to win a Pro Stock championship in 2014.
“Once we finished off that first championship and she realized about being the first woman champion and knocking off all these items on the list, it was like, ‘OK, how do we back this up? How is it not a fluke?’” Courtney says. “I think the mindset the second year was, the confidence was high but not completely in knowing who she was. The thought was, we had to put an exclamation on this and let the world know it wasn’t one of those fairytale stories of getting it and leaving. It was figuring out, how do we dominate and prove that what we earned was right.”
A second world title followed in 2015. In those two seasons, Enders won 15 events.
“We got to the end of those years, and people questioned if she had some way of cheating,” Freeman says. “Tim Freeman, who now works for me but at the time worked for one of our biggest competitors, has told me many times, ‘We just didn’t see a way that any human being could do that and do it that well.’ I think her average reaction time in the 2015 countdown was 0.014.
“We won a ton of races in 2015, and we weren’t the most powerful car. We were the best program at that point. That’s why I went after her.”
Nail polish, grease and grit
The first thing Mark Ingersoll noticed about Enders was her passion to be the best.
“She’s not happy if she’s not doing the best or we’re not the fastest,” Ingersoll says.
Ingersoll became a crew chief for Enders after the 2014 season, and the two have been together ever since. It is a perfect match. The passion and competitive nature of Enders is met equally by Ingersoll’s.
“She’s worried about what she’s doing and I tell her all the time that she’s the last thing I’m worried about,” Ingersoll says. “I know when it comes down to it, the pressure is on. I’m putting every dollar I’ve got on her. That’s what she does. She doubts herself, but that’s what makes her great. She knows how good she needs to be and how good she can be, and I relate to her through the car.”
It helps that all Enders thinks about is racing. She is all in, all the time. Even when she’s on the starting line watching a teammate.
Keep an eye on her the next time you’re tuned into an event. Enders will be behind the car, most likely with her arms crossed. Behind the sunglasses, she’s honed in on the Christmas Tree. When the lights start flashing, she goes through the motions with her feet.
It’s the same in the pits. Enders isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty. Ingersoll says she knows exactly what’s going on with her car and contributes to the work.
“She can tell you if something feels different and what it is on every run,” Ingersoll says. “I’ve worked with a lot of drivers, and I’ve never seen anybody that can feel and know exactly what’s go ing on in the car like her. You can’t really teach that.”
Chase Freeman – the nephew of Richard Freeman – first worked with Enders when she arrived in 2014 before he briefly left the program. He returned in 2016, becoming one of Enders’ best friends. Chase has had a front-row seat to Enders’ growth and dedication to the job.
“Her methodical approach” is what he says makes Enders different from others. “She has a number for everything. She’s the only person that can tell you what she wants to do with her clutch linkage, and then it goes out and does it. She is mindful of every little change the car makes because she’s so in tune with the car. She strives for perfection in everything she does.”
The most impressive part of that perfection?
“Her ability to turn off her brain and just perform,” Courtney says. “She thinks so much; I have to tell her to stop thinking so much. Just shut up and drive because you’re so good at what you do. As soon as she puts on her helmet, I see a different set of eyeballs. That’s why I’m always the last one at the door, and we’re joking around and singing or one week, we’re quoting movies right before she went up.
“It’s a different set of eyeballs once she puts that helmet on – it’s, like, mean. It’s crazy. It’s a different part of her brain. I’ve always been envious of the ability of her turning off the world and doing what she was born to do, because if I was in her shoes, I’d be wondering what sponsors are watching or this crew guy didn’t do this and the fans are watching, did I screw this up.
“She’s just so good at shutting the world out when she puts that helmet on, and that is a huge part of her success.”
Richard describes how Enders is there every step of the way when it comes to her car. Whether it’s testing for days on end, being in the shop at all hours or preparing for an engine dyno.
“Them fingernails fly all over the place,” Richard says.
But her attention to detail gets to him – in a humorous way.
“Sometimes it’s annoying,” he says. “We tell her all the time, ‘Hey, just get in the son of a bitch and drive it.’ At the end of the day, Erica’s attention and detail to what she does, from the clutch pedal to things feeling different – and you can ask anyone – you’re like, ‘**** it, shut up.’
“Most people and I’m a driver myself, don’t pay attention to that stuff. But that’s the reason I’m not her. That’s the reason I’m not that good. Heck, there are times I roll through the water box, and I’m thinking about going fishing. I promise you, she is not thinking about that.”