She wasn't always good, and she readily admits it. Today, however, Erica Enders is one of the best drivers in one of the most competitive and difficult classes to master: NHRA Pro Stock. Her tremendous success was a slow-moving story, but Enders leaned into her father's "never quit" direction and has seen that guidance pay off in the form of multiple championships and a plethora of wins.
In just a handful of days, the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series tour will land at Houston Raceway Park for what has been told will be the last-ever national event to be held there. It will be an emotional event for Enders, as this particular facility has been host to many important moments in her career. To start, it was where she claimed her very first national event trophy.
"I grew up Jr. Drag Racing there, and to be able to win at home for the first time really meant a lot," said Houston native Enders, who scored the Super Gas title at Houston Raceway Park in 2004. She also reached her first national event final there, in Super Comp in 2000.
"I got to race my college roommate and best friend in that Super Gas final [Jonathan Johnson], and it was really neat. But leading up to that race, I had just completed my Alcohol Funny Car license at Frank Hawley's [Drag Racing School], and I was planning to go the nitro Funny Car route.
"For some reason, after we won the Super Gas race, I was asked what was next and what came out of my mouth was, 'I would really love to drive Pro Stock.' I don't know if that was God's intervention or something, but [team owner] Victor Cagnazzi heard it, and the next week I was flying to North Carolina to interview with him to drive a Pro Stock car."
If we cut the story here and pick up in 2012 when she won her first race — or better yet, in 2014, when the wins and championships really began to snowball — it would be such a pretty picture. But the truth is, Enders' ascension was anything but pretty.
In 2005, the year of her Pro Stock debut, she did not qualify for 10 of the 23 races she entered. The next year, again aiming at a full schedule, she missed the field eight times. In all, from 2005 to 2010, Enders was on the outside looking in 51 times. When she finally did become a consistent qualifier, it still took another couple of years before she was able to win a race.
How does one not throw in the towel after more than a couple of seemingly unfruitful years? How could one possibly see into the future and know that it would be worthwhile to continue?
"I'm too stupid to give up, I guess," she said behind an almost shy grin. "I don't really know what it was, but I can say that as a kid, my dad was a military guy and ran a pretty strict house. There were also no boundaries in that just because my sister and I were female, we weren't told there was a limit to what we could do. Gender played no role, and my dad was always great about that. He was also present for everything that was important to my sister and me, and that really great parenting definitely helped.
"He coached us along the way to have a positive mental attitude, and if we started something, we had to finish. Even if it was stupid and we didn't like it, if we started it, we had to finish. Having that mindset and never-quit attitude definitely helped."
She was also driven by the naysayers. Enders, then only the fifth female to enter the Pro Stock ranks (see the History of female racers in Pro Stock here), came under great scrutiny very early from fellow competitors and race fans alike.
"I had a goal to prove them wrong," she said. "They may have been right about a couple of things along the way, but I said to myself, 'I'm going to show these people.' Yeah, I sucked when I started. I crashed when I was testing. And maybe I didn't have what it took at first. But proving them wrong meant something to me.
"The first nine years sucked. They were grueling, and there were days I would put my head down on the desk and cry and think to myself, 'I've got an education, I can do something else.' But I wouldn't have been great at anything else because it wouldn't have been my passion. Those nine years are what made me the driver I am today, and every one of those life lessons was a stepping-stone that got me here. There were so many opportunities to quit, but it just goes to show that if you stick with it, anything is possible."
For Enders, that patience and tenacity finally paid off when she landed in a most unusual environment: the work hard, play harder-themed Elite Motorsports team. She now has four NHRA Pro Stock world championships and 35 national event wins in 63 final rounds.
"The sky is the limit with this group," she said. "It's a really unique atmosphere, and it's all family. I definitely feel like I'll finish my career here."
It's difficult to wrap your brain around the idea that an exceptionally competitive driver, still well in their prime, would think even slightly about the end of their career. Although Enders is respectfully considered a veteran in the class with championship rings for nearly every finger on her hand, the Houston native is still youthful and bright, and she remains a favorite — particularly amongst the youngest competitors in the sport.
"I don't really know how long I want to do this," she said. "Eighteen years on the road has been tough. I'm 38 now, and I think about having a normal life — whatever that means. I don't know what the future holds. Maybe one day I'll be in a position to be a team owner and give some other kid who didn't think they could do it a chance, but for right now, my goal is to make every race count."