The list of drivers who have won five or more NHRA Pro Stock championships is short, but it includes some of the best racers the sport has ever produced, including Bob Glidden, Warren Johnson, Greg Anderson, Jeg Coughlin Jr., and now Erica Enders.
Enders has enjoyed a lot of success in her career, and she entered the season with 33 wins and four prior championships, but nothing she’d done previously could hold a candle to her results in 2022. Ten wins in 19 races and a sterling 55-9 record in elimination rounds is about as good as it gets, especially when one considers the intense level of competition that defines modern-day Pro Stock racing.
Enders normally doesn’t lack motivation, but yielding the 2021 title to rival Greg Anderson provided the spark that she and her Elite Performance team needed to dominate the competition this year. Enders’ Melling/Elite Camaro was clearly quicker this year than last, and as a driver, she took a more aggressive stance that yielded positive results.
“We came out ready for battle this year because of the fashion in which we lost last year,” said Enders. “I grew up racing my whole life, and I knew once you put the helmet on, you’ve got to be cutthroat in order to be successful.
“You put your helmet on, shut the door, and hit the starter button, and you have no friends at that point,” Enders said. “You have to go up there and be mean. I made the joke at the beginning of the season, and it stuck, but as I’ve matured as a human and a driver, you try to learn how to separate those things, and you can go back to being friends afterward.”
It didn’t take long for Enders to make her first statement as she kicked off her season by winning the season opener in Pomona. It wasn’t just a victory but a dominant one that also included the No. 1 qualifying spot and a consistent string of 6.50s on race day. That sort of performance would be repeated many times during the season.
For all her successes, there were also a few hiccups, most notably an embarrassing holeshot loss in Gainesville. Enders made the quickest pass in the history of the class with a 6.450. It was the first time that a fuel-injected Pro Stock car had outrun the record for carbureted cars, but Enders lost to teammate Bo Butner’s slower 6.513. That loss seemed to light a fire under Enders, who went to the next five final rounds and banked four wins in Las Vegas, Houston, Epping, and Norwalk. By that point, the Elite team knew they were on the verge of accomplishing something special.
“I don’t know if we can put my finger on it, but I got really pissed off in Gainesville when we set the record and I lost first round on a holeshot,” Enders said. “It was embarrassing. I let my entire team down. I’m not sure If I’ve ever been 70-something [in reaction time], and I was in that round.
“I was pretty proud of the performance that I’ve had since then,” Enders said. “I’m not .00 all the time like I used to be, but I don’t have to be, so I wasn’t going to change the way that I race. Through the summer, we really felt like we had something special going. We had discovered something in the engine department that we were proud of, and we were going to keep moving forward.”
There were additional highlights and just a couple of low lights during the regular season. Enders won the sport’s first all-female Pro Stock final when she defeated rookie Camrie Caruso in the Houston final. That was also the final NHRA national event at Houston Raceway Park, the home track where she began her career in the NHRA Summit Racing Jr. Drag Racing League.
Enders was also well on her way to a win in Bristol when her Elite Camaro suffered a catastrophic engine failure in the final. The loss was tempered somewhat because it came against teammate Aaron Stanfield.
Additional wins followed in Nowalk and Sonoma, and Enders easily secured the top seed long before the regular season came to a conclusion in Indy. As impressive as they were during the regular season, the Elite team seemed to find another gear during the playoffs as Enders rolled through the Countdown to the Championship by winning Reading, St. Louis, and Dallas to go with a title-clinching victory in Las Vegas.
By the time she got to Las Vegas, the title was all but assured, but Enders had been around long enough to know that there is always room for an upset or a remarkable comeback. She wasn’t about to let that happen and slammed the door shut with a final-round victory against her teammate, Troy Coughlin Jr., who also had a breakthrough season with two wins.
“I felt different [in Las Vegas],” Enders said. “I’m not sure if it was nerves or that we had a big lead and we’re supposed to lock it up. I felt differently until we finally clinched it and got that monkey off our backs. It’s hard to put everything out of your mind and just make your stomach and your nerves calm and get your head right and think positive. But going up there, when you hit the starter button, somehow all of that disappears.”
While she wasn’t able to match Steve Torrence’s remarkable clean sweep of all six playoff races, four wins and a 21-2 record was more than enough for Enders to get the job done. By the time it was over, Enders had 10 wins, claiming victories at more than half of the Pro Stock events held in 2022.
“In the Countdown, being able to win the first couple of races was huge,” Enders said. “We started off in Reading on the right foot. We’d always sucked there before, quite honestly. In the summer, I thought we were doing well, but in the Countdown, I thought we really stomped on it.
“It’s easy to get lazy and just go through the motions, but you’ve got to get up and be hungry and fight tooth and nail every single week,” Enders said. “Honestly, at the beginning of the season, I wrote down my goals, and this year, my goal was to win at a couple of different tracks we hadn’t won at. Starting out, I think I said that five victories this year would be sufficient. That’s how competitive it is out here, but I wanted to go out and win five races. We exceeded five, and then in Dallas, we got to nine, and that was the most we’d ever had. At that point, I was like, ‘Hell, why not go for 10?’ ”
With championship No. 5 secured, Enders will rightfully take her place alongside Pro Stock’s greats, which suits her just fine. During her career, she developed a close relationship with 10-time champ Glidden, who was an early mentor while she also spent several years as a teammate to Jeg Coughlin Jr., who won five Pro Stock championships during his career and is generally regarded as one of NHRA’s best pure drivers, regardless of class.
“I was a kid with big dreams, and this makes me want to pinch myself,” Enders said. “We [the Elite team] have worked really hard to get there and sacrificed a lot; a lot of stuff on the road, in our business, financially, and, most of all, personally to get here, so it’s nice to see glimmers of hope that the sacrifices have paid off.
“To put our names next to the likes of Greg Anderson, Jeg Coughlin, and to be up there on the list next to Warren Johnson and Bob Glidden, these guys are legends, and I bought their T-shirts when I was a little kid, so it’s really neat to join those guys, and with [43 wins], I think we moved up on the list this year as well, passing Kurt Johnson was awesome. I’m just really thankful. I’m a blessed girl, and I don’t know how else to put it.”
The Elite team is led by Richard Freeman, who has assembled an all-star cast of engine builders, crew chiefs, and crewmembers. Enders also has an impressive roster of sponsors, including Melling Performance, Gallagher, Peoplelease, C-Tech, Mark Stockseth, and High Performance Lubricants, and it’s already been announced that next season, she’ll join teammate Bo Butner under the Johnson’s Horsepowered Garage banner.