Enders-Stevens: 'We're definitely headed in the right direction'

Erica Enders-Stevens, driver of the Elite Motorsports Chevy Camaro, is the defending NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Pro Stock world champion and recently scored her second event win of the season at her home event in Houston. It was her third final-round appearance of the year, and she has been the No. 1 qualifier at two events. She also won the K&N Horsepower Challenge specialty race in Las Vegas for the second consecutive year. She took part in a recent NHRA media teleconference to talk about her season to date.

Q: Erica, it seems that Las Vegas kick-started the season a little bit for you guys. What did you find either going into that race or at that race that kind of was a breath of fresh air to the team?

Enders-Stevens: We kind of struggled a little bit at the beginning of the year, as all teams have with the rule changes and the tire and the fuel. The key to our success in Vegas was staying after the Charlotte event on Monday and doing some testing. We made some significant changes to our race car and definitely headed in the right direction. So Vegas has been really great to my team and me over the last few years. I was very happy to be able to get everything lined up in order to go into that event and come out with a double win again.

Q: We race in Vegas twice a year. Does it give you that little bit of comfort at the start of the season thinking you can sort some stuff out and boost the season?

Enders-Stevens: Yeah, absolutely. We love going to Vegas because of our past success there. But had we not gone to Charlotte or stayed at Charlotte and tested, we would not have run like we did in Vegas this spring. That was crucial to our success there. Vegas is lucky for us. Some drivers have lucky tracks. Some crews have tracks where they have better setups. It seems to be a combination of both of those for our team. I think we have 18 consecutive round-wins there now. And headed into the fall race later this year in October, you know, that's the second-to-the-last race before the season ends. Hopefully we're right in the mix of things like we were last year.

Q: You've been doing this it seems like forever. I wonder if over the years your personal habits have changed in terms of working out or dieting. Your reaction times are amazing. Is that something you can actually work on, or over the years are there exercises or programs that you've done that keep you in shape?

Enders-Stevens: Yeah, absolutely. My sister, Courtney [Enders], is a personal trainer. She has my entire team and me on some sort of a meal plan. I'm pretty mindful of what I put in my body on race weekends. Obviously, living on the road is pretty hard to stay in shape while you're gone on the road all the time having to eat out three meals a day, just being physically and mentally exhausted. She's really been a help to me. What you fuel your body with is pretty crucial to how you perform. As far as reaction times and stuff goes, I have a simulator here at our shop in New Orleans. Every race weekend, I get in my car in the pit area, and I sit in there for 15 or 20 minutes alone by myself, and I do a lot of visualizing. That mental side of it really helps to perform the best that I can.

Q: Could you talk a little bit about getting that second championship after coming off of a championship? Talk a little bit about the special moments that you've had already trying to become a repeat champion and what you hope will work for you to get you that second one.

Enders-Stevens: It was such a dream season last year for my entire team. Aside from my engine guy, Nick Ferri, none of us had won championships before. It was a first for us. We all definitely wanted it very badly. I talk about my team a lot. I feel like people are the most important part of the puzzle. This is the first time in my professional career that I have had such a solid group of guys. I mean, they have my back. They treat me with respect. It's just an awesome environment to work in. It's positive. That's what allowed me to do my job better, I believe. Being able to have fun with these guys, we have a lot of natural team chemistry; we choose to spend our time away from the track together as well. Typically, when you're done racing, you're just out of there, going to hang out with your family or friends rather than your team.

I've got a unique environment to work with, and they're definitely the reason why we are successful. This year is a little different. We've had a little bit of a target on our back throughout my career, just being a girl. When we started to have success again after I joined back with Cagnazzi in '11, '12, and '13 and our dominant season last year with Elite Motorsports. It's different to be chased rather than to chase. It's a little bit of a different mindset. Going through the struggles that we did at the beginning of this year, being able to tackle those issues and come out on top again, the season is very, very long and challenging. I'm sure it will be another knock-down, drag-out fight till the end of the year with Jason [Line] and me. Being in the position we are now, having accomplished exactly what we accomplished last year to this point -- last year, we had a runner-up at Gainesville, doubled up at Vegas, win at Houston -- this season, we had a runner-up at Phoenix and went on to double up at Vegas and win Houston. We're on the track to doing what we did last year, but just keeping at the front of our minds that we're out here to have fun. We're a lower-budget team, but we're doing the best that we can with what we have. Richard Freeman has just organized a great group of people. I'm really excited and optimistic about what's to come.

Q: Is there any part of being a champion that you can't quantify, can't define, that you either have it or you don't?

Enders-Stevens: I don't know. I mean, I do believe that you either have it or you don't as far as being able to drive is concerned. But I go back to what I said a second ago: It's all about the people. When I drove for the team prior to this one, we had the horsepower, and we had a huge budget actually, almost a million and a half dollars more per year than what we're running on at Elite Motorsports. We weren't able to get it done. I believe it was because of the people. I've got the best people in the world now. I'm a firm believer in the idea that there's a plan bigger than mine. I understand now why he made us wait. It was all about having the perfect group together.

Q: When you tested the car, did it come easily in finding what you were looking for, or was it so fine that it took you all a few runs to discover that answer you were looking for?

Enders-Stevens: We did stay after in Charlotte. We were fighting weather all week. It rained Monday morning, so we only actually got a half a day of testing in. We made six runs, which is a handful. My crew chiefs Rick and Rickie Jones and Mark Ingersoll had a list of ideas they wanted to try. They were pretty significant changes. The Pro Stock cars are very finicky. The work that has to be done on them is very tedious, but at the same time, there were some huge swings for the fence that we had to change. We don't test as much as the other teams because of budget. But since we struggled so much, we had to make the decision to stay. They were changes that we weren't comfortable making during qualifying or elimination rounds because typically those changes can either make it or break it for you, I guess, without trying to divulge too much information on what we changed. They were huge swings. Fortunately enough for us, they were in the right direction. We picked away at it on that Monday test. We started with smaller changes. When we saw we were heading in the right direction, we were able to use that data we acquired to make other changes as well. When we left that test in Charlotte, the confidence in my crew chiefs' voices was very evident. That's something I feed off of. I'm excited we did stay and they were able to make the changes they wanted to make. It was definitely crucial.

Q: You're very dependent then on the crew chief and the technicians working on your car. What kind of stress was it for you to make the runs not knowing exactly whether it was going to work or not?

Enders-Stevens: I have all the faith in the world in my guys. I know that we all want it very, very badly and that everybody is trying their hardest every time we go up there, including myself behind the wheel, every crewmember that I have from my tire guys to my engine guys to my crew chiefs making the calls on the race car. It was very challenging for us at the beginning when we were uncertain with what was happening with the new rule changes. We had to dig deep and do the very best we could, even when the future didn't look extremely bright certain weekends at the racetrack, Charlotte for instance. Had there been 17 cars on the property, we would not have made the show. We did not get down any qualifying passes, and two were taken from us due to rain. That was a very grim weekend and very challenging. But we all dug deep. Staying after that Monday, it just completely turned everything around for us. I rely on them greatly. I'm there for them when they fall and vice versa. When I'm not up on the wheel, they pick me up and give me even a better race car than they normally do. It's a great team environment to work in.

Q: Dynasties, great performances are all built on little moments. Not all of them necessarily happen on the racetrack. Where does the 11-minute engine change that your team went through this past week rank for you? Does a moment like that, where your guys do something that is really impossible, yet they pull it off, does that make you a better driver?

Enders-Stevens: The motor change going into the semifinals in Houston was probably one of the most amazing experiences in my professional career. To be in my pit area when not just my team but Drew Skillman's team jumped in on my race car to get it done. We pitted after second round, did our normal maintenance on the car, serviced it for the next round, but we went to warm the car up. There was 15 minutes left before we had to be in the water for live TV. We just manned up. Everybody threw in on the race car. Drew Skillman's guys got an engine out of the trailer, took the intake manifolds and carburetors, while my guys drained the water, disconnected the motor in my car. There was one moment prior to deciding what we were going to do that one person said, “I don't know if we have time. We’ve got to be in the water in 15 minutes.” I'm like, “We got to try; we got to try.” That was it. Everybody pulled their weight, pulled together. Not only did they get it done, but they got it done with zero mistakes. It was just such a cool environment to be in.

As far as making me a better driver because of it, I mean, over the years, I heard champions like Bob Glidden, Greg Anderson, Jason Line, Allen Johnson say, “You’ve got to learn how to win.” That is one of those moments I completely understand that. Had I not been in an experience like that before and gone up to the starting line, I mean, your heart's pounding, things are so crazy, you've still got to go up there and get suited up and buckled in in time, then have your wits about you to calm down, get your heart rate under control, get your breathing under control. We were running Jonathan Gray, who is one of the best leavers in the class. I had my work cut out for me. I knew I needed to be on the Tree. We were able to get it done. That environment in our pit, I can't wait till people see the footage of it because it was absolutely incredible.

Q: You're starting to approach Shirley Muldowney on the list of female all-time winners. Do you look at numbers like that or do you let it fall where it may race to race to race?

Enders-Stevens: Yeah, I mean, I know the two females that are ahead of us right now are Angelle [Sampey] with 41 wins and Shirley with 18. They're heroes of mine, mentored me, been friends of mine over the years. First of all, it's awesome to have my name on the list with theirs. If the trend continues with what we've been able to accomplish over the last couple years, I'm hopeful we can continue to rack the wins up. I know where we stand with wins as far as those two women go. At the same time, we're going to go out and do what we love, have fun. I'm proud of my team regardless and very optimistic about the years to come with Elite Motorsports. I've never had as much fun in my entire life, and it's because of the guys that are involved.