Déjà vu for Erica Enders-Stevens
Erica Enders-Stevens is happy. She is successful. She will enter the seventh event of the NHRA season this weekend leading the Pro Stock division in points after winning twice.
And after registering the 99th victory by a female in series history, she is in position to claim the historic 100th that so many of her peers -- including Brittany and Courtney Force and Alexis DeJoria -- so covet.
"It would mean the world," she said. "We've done a lot from 87 [all-time wins] on: We have eight of them. It would be really significant to get that one done."
In a career that has rushed ahead in ever-quicker bursts for nearly two decades, time is precious.
We're planning on running the entire year, but it certainly depends on sponsorship.Erica Enders-Stevens
Because although she attempts to talk around it, although she is outwardly hopeful, there is the sense she fears this extremely successful season could be impeded the same way her 2013 campaign was.
"We're planning on running the entire year, but it certainly depends on sponsorship," she said, revealing the simplistic truth of motorsports.
She knows it well. Last season, standing fourth in points and with two wins, Enders-Stevens then missed six races with Cagnazzi Racing because of sponsor shortfalls, relegating her to a ninth seed in the season-ending Countdown, where she slogged through to an overall sixth-place points finish. It could have been different, and she knows it. But nothing happens in racing without checks that cash.
"It was very gut-wrenching and pretty depressing, actually," she said. "I knew exactly what we were capable of and to have to sit on the sidelines and watch just broke my heart.
"I definitely think we could have made a hard-core run for the championship last year."
Enders-Stevens began this season with a financial commitment for 15 of the 24 races but faces the same problem despite her success.
"We're working on putting some things together right now -- it all depends on money, unfortunately, and we continue to work on that," she said. "That's the most challenging part of the entire business."
Enders-Stevens, now 30, has been chasing -- and winning -- championships since she was 8. Among the first children to compete in a newly sanctioned NHRA Jr. Dragster division, she won her second-ever event in an all-girl final, in a car that is now enshrined in the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum. In 1993, she claimed the Division 4 championship in the 8-9-year-old class.
At 16, she became the youngest NHRA national event finalist and was eventually named Sportsman Rookie of the Year. In 2003, Disney debuted "On the Right Track," a movie chronicling the exploits of Enders-Stevens and her drag racing sister, Courtney.
Enders-Stevens earned her first national event victory in 2004, a Super Gas race on her home track of Houston. In 2005 she became the first woman to reach a final round in Pro Stock and won more rounds in the class than all others in the history of the series combined.
In 2012, she became the first woman to win a Pro Stock event, defeating four-time series champion Greg Anderson. It was a wonderful moment for Enders-Stevens, an eventful day. Fellow NHRA racer Richie Stevens Jr., proposed immediately after the win at Route 66 Raceway in Joliet, Ill. And then there was the souvenir.
At the behest of sponsor Gaston Kirby, she posed for a photograph in team gear and with her trophy in front of Anderson's transporter. He was displeased when the image circulated on the Internet, later calling her unprofessional in a television interview.
"That was a tough deal," she said. "... To be the best, you have to beat the best, and there was no disrespect meant to Greg by any means. I told him that. It was just meant for Gaston's office, and his 12-year-old kid put it on Facebook. So there's another life lesson."
Enders-Stevens aspires to be the best. And she thinks it can happen at Elite Motorsports, which is owned by the Freeman family and sponsored by its trailer and transport business. Quick success at Elite Motorsports has been validating after having her final season at Cagnazzi interrupted, then losing her seat there when Cagnazzi Racing merged with Gray Motorsports for the 2014 season.
By the end of 2013, Elite Motorsports co-owner Richard Freeman had already begun the process of hiring a driver he calls "a real big secret, for some reason." In the Freemans' shop, she said, she has found the best working environment of her professional career.
"It's tough out there being the only girl," Enders-Stevens said. "When I started, I was 19 years old in Pro Stock, so I'm sure I got the reputation of being just a silver-spoon kid, but I've tried to earn the respect of my competitors and the fans out there and my crew members and whatnot. But it hasn't been any easy road, and I've certainly had to learn how to grow thick skin.
"This group of guys I am with now, we have a good time and laugh our guts out. ... I think we can conquer the world together.''
But someone will have to pay for it. With eight wins and a passel of firsts and feats in her Pro Stock and Sportsman career, Enders-Stevens admits to some frustration over the inability to secure a full-season funding package.
"We have proven ourselves over and over and at crunch time too, and when things really mattered and the pressure was on," she said. "... I know that after this win in Houston, it has been absolutely insane as far as what's happening. We are trending on Yahoo, which is crazy. I don't even have a PR person right now because it's not in the budget. It's just one of those deals where I think everything will fall into place."
The tone of Freeman's voice suggests he does too. Though a Pro Stock team capable of winning can cost upward of $1.5 million, Elite has enough resources for 15 races through a sponsorship from the family's trailer and transport business and a collection of smaller-buy loyal backers. The prize money Enders-Stevens has won will help offset some costs, although "it never covers all of it," Freeman said. Perhaps more important, the team is hopeful that the points she is amassing will qualify her for around the fifth position for the season-ending six-race Countdown, even after skipping an expensive western swing through Denver; Sonoma, California; and Seattle to save money in the second half of the schedule.
"I will tell you that our success up to this point is going to make it very difficult to not go [to every race], but I'm not stupid about it," Freeman said. "Our main objective, which I think we have a pretty good grasp on, is making sure we get in the Countdown. If we can go in that deal in the top five, I think our chances are real good. But we're not going to go broke doing this."
But then, as if talking himself into it as he went, Freeman added: "Odds of going to 24 ... 80-20, 80 going. But if we win two or three more, we're going to all 24, period."
And Enders-Stevens might finally have her chance to conquer the world with them.