BAYTOWN, Texas — There is a new car and a new team but the one thing that didn’t change for Erica Enders-Stevens heading into the 2014 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season was the belief in herself.
That mental fortitude coupled with the strong performance of her Elite Motorsports Pro Stock team has formed a lethal duo and led to a blazing start to the season. Enders-Stevens has posted one win, two final round appearances, a victory in the K&N Horsepower Challenge and takes the points lead into her home event, this weekend’s 27th annual O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA SpringNationals presented by Super Start Batteries at Royal Purple Raceway.
All in all, Enders-Stevens could not have asked for a better start to a season that has her thinking world championship.
“There’s so many variables in getting the car down the race track but in my opinion it’s the six inches between your ears that’s most important,” Enders-Stevens said. “It’s all in your head and having a positive outlook, having faith in your team and confidence in yourself. We’re having a successful run at the moment and we hope to carry it along as long as we can.”
Bob Vandergriff (Top Fuel), Cruz Pedregon (Funny Car) and Jason Line (Pro Stock) were winners of last year’s event at one of the circuit’s quickest and fastest tracks.
All eyes at Royal Purple Raceway will also be on Enders-Stevens in Pro Stock, Alexis DeJoria and Courtney Force in Funny Car, and Brittany Force and Leah Pritchett in Top Fuel, as the landmark 100th win by a professional driver will be within reach at Houston. Female drivers currently have 98 NHRA victories and Enders-Stevens can bring the total one closer to the magical mark with an impressive performance in Houston.
It would also mark Enders-Stevens’ eighth career victory and first at her home track. Enders-Stevens has been fortunate enough to be a part historic achievements before, becoming the first female winner in Pro Stock history, and has learned to handle the spotlight that comes along with it. That spotlight grows larger at her home track, but Enders-Stevens remains focused on the task at hand.
“Racing in front of your home fans is fun and that makes it great, but there can be a lot of distractions and you have to learn how to handle it,” Enders-Stevens said. “I think I’ve learned to do that, but it should be a really good weekend. Hopefully there’s some on-track success that keeps them happy all weekend.”
There’s been plenty of success in recent events for Enders-Stevens. Led by the father-son crew chief duo of Rick Jones and Rickie Jones, Enders-Stevens has advanced to the second round or further in all five events to start the year. After a runner-up finish in Gainesville, Enders-Stevens had her memorable double-up winning weekend in Las Vegas before advancing to the final foursome at the recent NHRA Four-Wide Nationals in Charlotte.
Enders-Stevens might not have predicted this kind of success to open the year, but she was confident in what her team was capable of doing from the outset.
“Things came together right away and we gelled from the start,” Enders-Stevens said. “I was very optimistic about what we could do and we’ve been fortunate to piece together some really good weeks. As an athlete, you have to believe in what you’re doing and I certainly believed in this team from the start. It’s been very satisfying.”
But Enders-Stevens is far from content and knows she can’t let up against a loaded and talented Pro Stock class. Defending event winner Line won the season-opening race in Pomona and reigning champ Jeg Coughlin Jr. has four wins at Royal Purple Raceway. Other marquee challengers include Allen Johnson, two-time event winner Vincent Nobile, Chris McGaha, Dave Connolly, Shane Gray, Greg Anderson and V Gaines.
“In my time it’s always been a very competitive class, but I believe this year is the toughest yet,” Enders-Stevens said. “There’s a lot of drivers capable of winning a championship and it’s going to be a battle to the end. Qualifying is very crucial and keeping lane choice is huge.”
In Top Fuel, Vandergriff will face heavy challenges from a loaded Top Fuel field in his quest to repeat. The points leader is Doug Kalitta, who has one win and three final round appearances in 2014, but Antron Brown, the 2012 world champ and 2008 event winner, won in Charlotte and has two wins this season. Other marquee contenders include Tony Schumacher, who has two wins in Houston, reigning champ Shawn Langdon, Steve Torrence, Spencer Massey, 2014 rookie Richie Crampton and Winternationals winner Khalid alBalooshi.
The 16-time Funny Car world champ, John Force, has seven wins in Houston, the most for any driver in a pro category. Force will be looking to end a 12-year drought at the facility, while defending race winner Pedregon has three wins at the facility and could get his 2014 season going with a victory. Other favorites include points leader Robert Hight, who won in 2005 and has two wins in four final round appearances in 2014, Ron Capps, Matt Hagan, Tony Pedregon, Del Worsham, Jack Beckman, Tim Wilkerson and Tommy Johnson Jr.