Erica Enders celebrates Sunday at the Route 66 NHRA Nationals in Joliet, Ill. She will be competing in Norwalk, Ohio, this week.
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Erica Enders hasn't had a chance to come down from the euphoric high from last weekend.
Sunday at Route 66 Raceway in suburban Chicago, Enders became the first woman to win an NHRA Pro Stock race. Less than an hour after her historic drag-racing win, her boyfriend, Richie Stevens, Jr., proposed to her at the suburban Chicago track. And, yes, they've set a wedding date.
"My face hurts from smiling the past couple days," said Enders, who is the 12th female winner in a National Hot Rod Association pro category race. "What a big deal for me, for my team, for my family. I'm so proud of everyone."
Yet Enders won't let the elation cloud her drive as she prepares to compete in a 21-driver Pro Stock field this weekend at the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals at Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk. Competition begins Thursday, and qualifying for the Pro Stock field -- a 200-mph factory hot-rod category -- begins at 4 p.m. Friday.
"It's going to be just the same as I prepare for every weekend," Enders said. "It's really, really awesome that we won this past weekend in Chicago, but every week, you go to a new city and you start a new race. The guys I'm driving against are just as hungry as I am out there."
Drag racing is a process-of-elimination endeavor -- in a field of drivers, two vehicles line up at a time to compete in tournament-style eliminations until only two drivers are left to compete for the title. In a race where the fastest car ultimately wins, drivers can be disqualified for, among other things, leaving the starting line too soon.
NHRA fields four main professional categories of competitive drag racing (Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock, and Pro Stock Motorcycle), better known as the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series.
"Pro stock is the most competitive level," said Enders, a 2006 graduate of Texas A&M University who lives in New Orleans. "The 16-car field can be separated by one-hundredth of a second and the performance of every race car that qualifies for Sunday is so close to the performance of the next guy. Releasing the clutch, shifting on time, you have to be as perfect as possible.
"The challenge is that there are so many good drivers. Look at the rosters, and you'll see the names of guys who've won 20, 30, 50, or 90 titles. They're guys who were heroes of mine, and to have the chance to compete against them is unreal."
Enders, 28, is one of only six females to compete in the Pro Stock category and was originally drawn to drag racing in elementary school as her father, Gregg, also competed in drag racing. Drag racing, she explained, was of the highest priority, ahead of gymnastics, basketball, golf, and track and field, and she never had much of an interest in taking the traditional path of drivers with NASCAR aspirations.
"There are people who have the talent to get into any car and go," Enders said. "But my heart is in drag racing."
Enders is also expected be a part of Saturday's K&N Horsepower Challenge for Pro Stock racers, in which eight drivers will compete in a three-round competition for $50,000.
Of the eight drivers, the first seven are points leaders in the Pro Stock series, while the eighth is chosen by a fan vote. As of Tuesday, Enders is fifth in the points standings.
Leading the K&N Horsepower Challenge is Greg Anderson, the Pro Stock points leader -- and the driver whom Enders defeated Sunday at the O'Reilly Auto Parts Route 66 NHRA Nationals.
"I'm in the history book now for the wrong reason," Anderson told ESPN after the race. "But the bottom line is, this has been a long time coming for Erica. You knew she was going to win soon.
"I didn't want to be the guy on the other end, but I am now, and it's probably going to open the floodgates for her."
But because of the win, Enders understands that she and her team will enter competition at Norwalk surrounded by higher expectations.
"We've got a great race car, and we've tested hard," said Enders, who drives a Chevrolet Cobalt. "I think it's finally started to pay off. But I think we'll go into the weekend with a bull's eye on us, and I'm looking forward to that."
Contact Rachel Lenzi at: email@example.com, 419-724-6510 or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.
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