From an attention-grabbing Jr. Dragster debut chronicled in the Disney movie Right On Track and an early career in NHRA Sportsman racing, it’s been a long road to the top for Erica Enders, whose Pro Stock victory at the Texas NHRA FallNationals made her the winningest female racer not just in NHRA history with 47 career wins, but all of motorsports.
Enders’ victory in Dallas broke her tie with Pro Stock Motorcycle standout Angelle Sampey to give her sole ownership of the impressive title that Sampey had owned for more than 22 years since passing female pioneer Shirley Muldowney in the summer of 2001.
Muldowney had already scored her 18th and final Top Fuel win 15 years before Enders captured her first Wally, in Super Gas at her hometown Houston Raceway Park, in early 2004. At the time of Enders’ first win, Sampey, a three-time world champion, already had accumulated 31 wins in Pro Stock Motorcycle, starting with her first win in 1996.
It would be eight more years before Enders collected her second career victory and her first in the Pro Stock class, where she’s now a five-time world champion. Enders struggled mightily after her move to the Pro ranks in 2005 and even failed to qualify in her debut at the NHRA Winternationals and DNQ’d at nine of her first 12 events in Victor Cagnazzi’s Cavalier. In her 20th career start, at the Route 66 NHRA Nationals in Chicago, she reached her first Pro Stock final but lost there to Jason Line.
She spent three tough years (2008-10) at the wheel of Jim Cunningham's underpowered Ford Mustang, where she failed to qualify in 27 of 30 races and didn't win a round in the other three. She didn’t get a lot of success, but she got a lot of wheel time that no doubt helped turn her into the champion she became. It would be a fair guess that her years behind the wheel of less-powerful cars honed her the hair-trigger reflexes that have carried her to so many accomplishments.
She rejoined the Cagnazzi team from 2011 through 2013 and finished in the Top 10 all three seasons, with a best of fourth in 2012.
By the time Enders won her second Wally, her first in Pro Stock, in Chicago in 2012, Angelle had won eight more times and held a sizeable 41-2 lead that has consistently dwindled from there over the years.
Sampey sat out five seasons (2009-13), which helped Enders make up the ground quickly as she scored six more wins in that span, but the best was still ahead. She joined Elite Performance in 2014, where she earned her first points lead early in the season en route to her first of five championships. Since 2014, she has scored 40 wins in her vaunted red Camaro and tied Sampey's 46 career wins with her victory at the Menards NHRA Nationals in Topeka, and it took her just six more races to get the tie-breaking win.
"As a little kid growing up, Angelle was one of my idols, one of my heroes," Enders said. "We had our T-shirts and our autographs and whatnot, and then to come full circle ... I remember like it was yesterday tying Shirley Muldowney at 18 wins when we won the U.S. Nationals in 2015, and here we are [with] 47. So, it's pretty crazy. And to not just have it be for drag racing, to be for motorsports worldwide. it's pretty substantial. While, yes, I want to be just viewed as a driver, it is totally badass to be the winningest female racer.
"I always thought, like, I'm not gonna race that long to get that many wins, yet here we are, we're not done yet. It's been a long journey, but it's been really fun, and it goes to show you that if you don't ever give up, great things can happen."
ALL-TIME FEMALE WINNERS CHRONOLOGY
Shirley Shahan was the first female to win an NHRA national event, scoring in Top Stock at the 1966 Winternationals in Pomona. Judi Boertman was next, with a win in Stock at the 1971 Summernationals in New Jersey, and Judy Lilly tied them both with her breakthrough win in Super Stock at the 1972 Winternationals. [Read more: The big list of female firsts in NHRA Drag Racing history]
Lilly added career wins 2, 3, and 4 with a 1973 Springnationals victory in Ohio and two wins in 1975, at the Gatornationals in Florida and FallNationals in Seattle.
Muldowney scored her first career win in Top Fuel at the 1976 Springnationals and tied Lilly’s four victories with a win at the 1977 Summernationals. One race later, at Le Grandnational outside of Quebec, Muldowney’s fifth win made her the sport’s most successful female racer. On her crew at the time were her son, John, second from left, and future Top Fuel world champ Scott Kalitta, far left.
Muldowney remained unchallenged for decades and scored her 18th and final Top Fuel win at the NHRA FallNationals in Phoenix in 1989, five years after a near-career-ending accident at Le Grandnational in 1984.
Sampey, who won her first Pro Stock Motorcycle Wally at the 1996 Keystone Nationals, in Reading, took less than five years to tie Muldowney, collecting her 18th career win at the NHRA 50th Anniversary Nationals in Pomona in 2001.
Sampey ended Muldowney’s long reign later that season with her 19th victory at the Mile-High Nationals in Denver. Muldowney’s near-24-year record (Aug. 7, 1977, to July 22, 2001) spanned nearly 400 races.
Sampey scored her 46th and — to this point — last national event win at the NHRA Summit Racing Equipment Nationals in Norwalk, where, ironically, she shared the victory stage with Pro Stock winner Enders, remarkably the only time the two fierce competitors have shared the victory spotlight at the same event.
The win in Norwalk was Enders’ 39th, and she would add five more wins in 2022 en route to her fifth championship. In 2023, with Sampey back on the sidelines, Enders scored in Bristol and Topeka to tie Sampey’s mark.
Sampey’s reign lasted 549 races and more than 22 years (July 2001-October 2023), but with a semifinal finish in her class debut in Top Alcohol Dragster in Dallas, this lead could change hands again in the future, perhaps multiple times.
2015 Charlotte 2
2002 St. Louis
2019 St. Louis
2020 Las Vegas 2
WINNINGEST FEMALES IN NHRA RACING
Pro Stock (46), Super Gas (1)
All Pro Stock Motorcycle
All Top Fuel
Top Fuel (12), Factory Stock (3), Pro Mod (3)
All Top Fuel
All Funny Car
All Pro Stock Motorcycle
Top Fuel (4), Funny Car (1), 2 Pro Mod (2) Alcohol Dragster (2)
Funny Car (6), Alcohol Funny Car (1), Super Comp (1)
Top Fuel (4), Alcohol Dragster (1)
ERICA ENDERS FINAL-ROUND OPPONENTS DEFEATED
Jeg Coughlin Jr.
Troy Coughlin Jr.