Erica Enders wasn’t the only one holding her breath during Saturday’s final qualifying session in the E3 Pro Mod series. While Enders was gasping for air trying to climb out of her turbocharged Elite Performance Camaro when it was engulfed in flames, the Norwalk fans watching on the Sunoco Vision screen, and those watching at home on NHRA TV, were also starving for oxygen. Blinded by the smoke in the cockpit, and alarmed by the searing heat that was beginning to burn her back, Enders got out of the car on quickly with the help of the NHRA Safety Safari. She recalled the harrowing incident in an interview with Autoweek’s Mike Pryson.
“The cockpit started filling up with smoke,” she said. “My thought process was I need to get the car stopped as quickly as I can in the process of that to make sure I get my fire bottles. So I reached up to pull the fire pin and you don’t realize how bad you suck at holding your breath until you need air. I was running out of air pretty quick and it was getting really hot in that and at that point, I just needed to stop and the car got sideways on me because I needed to stop so quickly. At that point, I’m blind because of the smoke and the flames and I’m out of air and I just needed to get out.
“I hit my seatbelts once I was stopped and then my focus was to get my window net down, but without having vision and in a pressure situation was more challenging than one might suspect. That was the biggest issue I had; getting the window net down to get out. I knew the Safety Safari guys were there because I could hear them yelling.
“I just dove out of the car and I was on my stomach laying on the ground yelling, ‘My back is burning, my back it burning’ so they hosed me down with the fire extinguisher. At that point, it quit burning, but I had no air because and was choking and I just pushed myself up and got on my knees. I was choking for air. I guess I had inhaled so much smoke and carbon that it made me sick and I think I puked on the race track. I was coughing up all kinds of stuff. It was definitely not a pleasant situation.”
Less than an hour later, Enders was back behind the wheel of her bread-and-butter car, the Melling/Elite Camaro that has carried her to a pair of Pro Stock world titles. Cleared by NHRA’s medical staff, Enders shook the tires and shut off early, but that wasn’t the point. The bigger point is that she quickly got back to business after what was easily the most harrowing experience of her career.
Enders won’t be racing in Pro Mod for a while; the Hairston family-owned Camaro that she drives is cooked and in need of major repairs. She qualified for the quick Norwalk field with a strong 5.787 and re-set her own speed record at 261.22 mph but she’s going to surrender her qualifying spot to first alternate Eric Latino. Mercifully, the E3 Pro Mod series doesn’t return to NHRA competition until the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals, more than nine weeks away. That will allow the Elite team, and the rest of the Pro Mod racers who damaged equipment during the brutal three-week stretch that included Topeka, Bristol, and Norwalk races, enough time to regroup and rebuild.
Down to a single bullet, Enders is solely focused on her Pro Stock car on Sunday. She’ll begin her quest for her first win of the season with an intermural scrimmage against her Elite teammate, Jeg Coughlin Jr.
“It’s been a wild few weeks but like we always do, we learn from the things thrown our way,” said Enders. “I’ve had two of the sketchiest experiences in my almost three decades career in the last two races, but even that won’t stop us. I want to get out there and leave it behind us before we embark on ‘Wally Day’ for Pro Stock. I’m glad I get to focus on Pro Stock and see if I can kick their ass.”