As a lead-in to the annual NHRA Western Swing, which begins July 20-22 in Denver, then rolls on west to Sonoma July 27-29 before finishing in Seattle Aug. 3-5, NHRA hosted a national teleconference with several Full Throttle drivers. The first interview is with NHRA Pro Stock driver Erica Enders.
Enders recently made NHRA history in Chicago by becoming the first woman to win a Pro Stock race. She's one of only six women who have ever raced in the 200-mph factory hot rod category. Enders had been to six final rounds before breaking through for her first victory. With the win, she became the 12th woman to win a race in the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series, and Pro Stock was the only Pro category without a female winner. She's only the 55th winner in Pro Stock, which started in 1970.
Q: Erica, you've had a little more than a week to think about what you accomplished in Chicago. Has it all really sunk in yet?
Enders: A little bit. Up until Norwalk, I was still floating on cloud nine and just really excited about the accomplishment that we were finally able to get and couldn't be more proud of my team. Just excited to finally get it done.
Q: With so many finals that you had leading up to that victory, you had six finals, were you starting to kind of think,"Man, am I ever going to get this done?"?
Enders: Yes, a little bit. I was kind of wondering if it was ever going to happen. But you know, at the same time, Pro Stock is such a competitive class, and you've got to perform pretty much perfectly on Sunday to be able to get to a final round. I figured one of these days, the odds are going to fall in our favor.
Q: How confident are you now with the win? Do you feel like getting a second win is going to be easier?
Enders: That's what everybody tells me, but I haven't changed my mind-set or how I prepare or go into a race. It's just one of those deals where you've just got to do everything perfect, like I said, on Sunday. We've got a great car right now, and that's something that the guys back at the engine shop have been really working at. We had a couple R&D projects in the works, and some of them didn't work, and the others we've tested on hot racetracks like in Rockingham, N.C., with over 100-degree air temperature. My crew chiefs, Dave Connolly and Tommy Utt, are really awesome at their hot-track setups. I'm looking forward to the summer and really optimistic about the future and getting more wins for our team.
Q: It's a pretty tight bunch at the top of the Pro Stock standings, and coming into the Western Swing, it's grueling for everyone. Are you good specifically at any of these three tracks in the Swing, either in Denver or Sonoma or up at Pacific Raceways? Have they been kind to you in the past?
Enders: Denver, kind of. Denver is so different for us because being a naturally aspirated race car, the altitude really impacts our horsepower up there. Our e.t.s are down significantly, and so are our mile an hours. We've tested there, and after last year at Denver, I feel more confident going in this year than I did the previous year because I hadn't raced there in a couple years prior due to lack of sponsorship. Sonoma and Seattle have both been good to us in past years. I think both tracks we had a semifinal finish, I'm pretty sure anyway.
The Swing is pretty tough and grueling, especially on the Pro Stock cars with parts and whatnot. We usually carry three motors, one in the car and two under the bench, and I have two teammates that we share an engine program with as well. We just have to be really careful and race smart; otherwise, we'll be shipping motors all the way back to Charlotte overnight and trying to get them fixed and send them back out West. I am looking forward to the Swing and hopeful that we can score another win out West.
Q: Your Cobalt is a very cool-looking race car, and I'm wondering, the choice to run the Cobalt, is that yours or is that just the team's, and is there any plan to go to the Camaro, or what are your plans along that line?
Enders: I'm sure you're asking about our choice to run the Cobalt over the Camaro. We've run this car the last couple years. It takes a lot of time to break in a car and get the data on the new chassis. We do plan on switching over to the Camaro, and it is the decision of my team, not mine, and GM's as well. We do plan on switching over, but if I had to bet, I would say that we wouldn't bring it out until the 2013 season just due to testing and figuring out the car.
Q: I'm wondering how much of an influence and how much of a help has Dave Connolly been since he's been crew chiefing for you?
Enders: Dave is awesome. He's one of my best friends, and I really trust him in the crew chief position. He's obviously a tremendous driver, and he's proven that with the 26 wins he's got in Pro Stock. To have somebody of a driving caliber like him in my corner helping me, understanding what I'm going through, most crew chiefs out there haven't ever driven, and it makes a big difference for him to understand what I'm going through and offer advice if I need it. He's really awesome to be teammates with, and I'm glad that he's in my corner, like I said.
Q: Are you going to keep that stealth paint job on the Camaro?
Enders: That's the plan. I've got a really cool sponsor who loves the flat black and the black wheels and whatnot. He asked me last year at the end of the season if I won the lottery and got to have whatever car I wanted what would I paint it like, and I told him flat black with black wheels. I just think it looks really mean, and our plan is to carry that through, and I'm sure we'll run it next year as well. It will probably look even meaner on a Camaro.
Q: When you think about the Western Swing, what immediately comes to your mind? Do you enjoy the Western Swing?
Enders: Yeah. I mean, it's awesome to travel as much as we do. I guess the hardest part would be living out of a suitcase for three weeks; being a girl and trying to have to pack everything you're going to need for three weeks sucks. But I do look forward to going out West. I love Sonoma. That's probably one of my favorite racetracks on the circuit. I'm going to stay the week after and spend a little time there, as well. But Denver is tough. We have to have a completely different setup, like I said from the previous question, but probably like between $30,000 and $40,000 of extra parts, like rear gears and transmission ratios that we never run anywhere else in the entire country that we just have to carry for that weekend. It takes a lot of testing and figuring things out. And then there's Seattle, which I enjoy going up there, too. It's a beautiful part of the country.
Q: When you go into Denver and early in the day it's hot, later in the afternoon, it's known for some cloud cover and cooling the track off, what does that present to you as a driver, and what do you have to change in the way you approach the starting line?
Enders: Well, the crew chiefs do all the track reading, and we have a meeting before every round what we're going to have our setup be. We monitor the track in weather conditions on a graph in our race trailer, computer room, or whatever, so we're able to predict at what time we'll run and what the conditions will be and the track temperature will be, so we're able to have the best setup that we can have. As a driver, just knowing how they're setting up the car I think enables me to be a better driver, do a better job. At Denver, it's so different from tracks without altitude because like just even the clutch setup, like what I'm feeling in the car, and when the gear changes come, it's so different than anywhere else. Normally, it takes between 600 and 800 pounds of pressure to [push in] the clutch pedal.
In Denver, it feels like a street car, just the easiest clutch pedal in the world, and going from something that's so hard to something that's so easy actually makes it a little bit more challenging to drive not challenging, but a lot different, and then the gear changes come at such different times. It's still done off of rpm, but they come differently time-wise into the run, so you can throw everything you know about driving out the window when you go to Denver, and you just have to really focus on doing the best job you can with all the crazy crap that's going on around you.
Q: Do you know when you run in low altitude and the engine revs real quick and then you go to Denver, does it seem like it takes forever to get to the shift point?
Enders: Yes. It's a lot different. A lot of drivers will go up, and I'm included in this, and just because there's such a routine and time and sound and feel to when you're normally supposed to shift, and then it doesn't come, and you're like, "What the heck is going on?" and you've just really got to focus on the shift light and the feeling in your butt for what the race car is doing. But yeah, the first run, I guarantee you, nine out of 10 drivers out there will pull it out of low pretty early.
Q: I mentioned your name to Danica Patrick because I mentioned your wonderful win over here in NHRA, and I wondered if she had prepared herself for a win. Did you have any expectations with really getting that first win, and beyond that, do you expect increased fans or an increased impact going forward?
Enders: Yes and yes. I expected the win; I mean, it's hard to predict in our sport what can happen because there are so many great teams and so many tremendous drivers out there, just being able to get a win is a feat in itself. But honestly, we expected as a team to win a couple times last year, and just like looking at the sheets and the numbers, there's no reason why we shouldn't have had three, four, five wins last year with the way our car was running and the way that I was driving. We just had some unlucky breaks.
You know, this year, the season started off a little bit on the wrong foot, and we're trying to reel things back in here. I believe we're sixth in points right now, which is where we finished last year. So our goals are high, and we do expect a lot. I look forward to the rest of the season with my team. They're amazing, and we do have a good race car right now. We didn't really show that in Norwalk coming off of our win in Chicago, but that's all right, we'll regroup and head out West. I'm excited for the Swing. And then as far as accumulating more fans, just on social-media stuff since the win in Chicago and all the media attention it got with being the first female NHRA Pro Stock winner, it was a huge, huge increase on number of Likes on our fan page on Facebook, and Twitter, we were like in the top 10 Twitter trending deals behind Jamie Foxx and BET's awards. Quite an honor and good publicity not just for us but for our sport of NHRA Drag Racing. I was really excited about that.
Q: What would be your advice to Danica upon her first win?
Enders: I know nothing about turning left, so I don't think I can offer her any advice. But I have done a couple of media events with her, and she's just as passionate and driven about what she does as I am about what I do. I wish her all the luck in the world, and I think that when she finally does win one in NASCAR that it'll be great for the sport and great for all the younger females who look up to her and me as positive role models.