Who doesn't enjoy a mesmerizing magic trick?
For Erica Enders, driving a Pro Stock car in National Hot Rod Association competition was magical. Thrilling, enchanting, and dreamlike it was -- particularly Disney-esque for a young lady from the Houston suburbs whose Jr. Dragster story inspired the popular feature film "Right On Track" from the famous studio.
But part of many magic acts is something disappearing. And Enders' experience was no different. A wave of some economic hand and barely a "Poof!" and the aspiring racer disappeared from the scene for a while.
A halfhearted "Abracadabra -- " didn't restore her to the perfect situation, but she did work her way back into the Pro Stock class. And work is the key word.
"We have to go out and find the sponsors ourselves. Team owners won't talk to us unless we show up with at least $2 million. That was a feat in itself," Enders said, using all the marketing advice and direction she took from her university studies at Texas A&M.
And not by magic but by hard work and guidance from God, a faithful Enders -- faithful to The Lord and to her commitment to drive a Pro Stock car -- landed a job back with Victor Cagnazzi Racing, the organization with which she debuted.
This time, she and her hard-working crew (recognized officially as such at Charlotte and Chicago) are weaving their own magic, with record-book victories at Chicago and Seattle. But nothing is built on hocus-pocus.
"People are the most important part of the puzzle, and we certainly have the people. That's something that you cannot buy. They give me a great race car week in and week out," Enders said after winning the O'Reilly Northwest Nationals at Pacific Raceways. "They spend time away from their wives and kids to do this, to bring home a trophy on Sunday. I'm honored to be their driver."
She has said many times she's thankful just having the chance once again to drive a hot rod -- one she proved was strong enough to defeat the top three drivers in the standings: top qualifier and points leader Allen Johnson, who could do little wrong recently, especially during the Western Swing; current and two-time champion Jason Line; and four-time 2012 winner and four-time series champion Greg Anderson. She ruined close buddy Johnson's bid to sweep the Swing, leaving him to join Top Fuel's Antron Brown as sweep-less in Seattle. .
"Being back in Pro Stock in a competitive car means the world to me," the driver of the Cagnazzi Racing / GK Motorsports Chevy Cobalt said. “It's such a blessing, and I'm trying to enjoy every minute of it, because I know how quickly it can disappear."
But she hadn't gotten to enjoy every minute. The magic itself of the Chicago victory, which made Enders the first woman to win in the Pro Stock class, evaporated at Sonoma when Greg Anderson publicly, and for the first time to Enders' knowledge, lashed out at her verbally on the ESPN2 broadcast for a photo of her that, in cyberspeak, had "gone viral."
Anderson, also has been clearly hurt deeply by a rift with mentor Warren Johnson that baffled him when it began at Sonoma several years ago. Yet somehow in late July, at the same racetrack, he found himself the antagonist in a fight that Enders didn't want to pick.
Exuberant following her Chicago victory -- one that came after eight arduous years of trying and ended in the heady swirl of a first victory and engagement to longtime boyfriend Richie Stevens -- she tried to accommodate a sponsor request to pose for a photo with her trophy in front of Anderson's trailer.
The move drew widespread criticism for both. Rather than accept it as either a compliment or an opportunity for his sponsor to benefit with each viewing of the photo, Anderson publicly criticized Enders. He ended up apologizing in private and in public during the Seattle race, but the skirmish appeared to take its toll on both.
Even in victory, Enders had to address the situation, one she referred to at the top end of the racetrack following Seattle’s final round as "bullcrap."
She put the matter to rest by saying that Sunday at Pacific Raceways, "This is my job and no matter what, when you put that helmet on, everything else goes out the window. You've got a lot to focus on. It's a dangerous job that we do, and it's my job to do the best of my ability and perform perfectly on Sunday. It's not something fun to deal with. I don't mind the target on my back. I do mind the drama."
"I don't like drama or conflict at all. It's not something I dwell on. So when he caught me off-guard [with his remarks on the ESPN broadcast the previous weekend, at Sonoma], I was really blown away," Enders said. "I walked right over to him -- if I have an issue I'll go right to somebody about it -- and I went over to him and said, 'What's going on?' He wasn't really willing to talk right then, but he did call me on Tuesday and apologized for the way he acted. We both understand each other better now. I think he knows there was no disrespect meant by that, the photo.
"Just glad to put it behind us," she said, "because we've got a lot more important things to focus on than that. Going into the Countdown, that's not something we need weighing on our brains. I will tell you it was an extremely stressful week, dealing with all the crap. I had thousands of e-mails and Facebook messages, and fortunately a lot of them were backing us up and saying, 'Ignore it. Keep your head down and focus on what you have to do.' And I appreciate that. But that's not something I like to deal with."
Enders said her dad has "been helping me with the mental side of the game," encouraging "staying positive and focusing on what I want to happen and not dwelling on the negatives." She called "the head games" one of drag racing's biggest challenges." It can make or break you, she said.
Plenty has been thrown her way this year, but nothing is breaking her spirit. She has dealt with a broken car at the starting line in the final round, losing close races, red-lighting, and being tricked by malfunctioning electronics that said she won when she didn't, and that familiar enemy of all racers: the need for more sponsorship dollars. But the tide seems to be turning Enders' way.
"Of course that was like the first question everybody asked me in every interview: When are you going to finally get that win? And believe me, I would have done it a lot sooner if I could have. I'm a firm believer that there's a plan bigger than mine, and we were ready for it to happen," she said.
"It was such an awesome, emotional day. Such a huge weight was lifted off our shoulders. I think all of my guys cried. It was amazing, something that I'll never forget," she said.
"It's a little bit different this time around, certainly. I remember in Chicago when we won, it seemed like it took my guys an hour to get down to the finish line. I have nobody to celebrate with. I'm standing there by myself. I'm like, 'Where are my people?' But this week they came right away. It was just a really good time. And my crew chief [Dave Connolly] told me that the second one was just as sweet as the first, and he was absolutely right."
Will the third come without drama? Even without magic would be welcome, for magic hints at pixie dust and fairy-tale foo-foo - not performance and skill.
Beyond a third victory, Enders said she can envision a run at the Pro Stock title.
"It's definitely our goal, and for this season, absolutely. We've got the race car, we've got the team, and I've been driving really well. So I honestly, at the expense of sounding a little too positive, I think we can do it just as well as anybody else out there. And we're actually gaining momentum," Enders said.
"After our win in Chicago, and we've had such a consistent race car since then, been at the top of the page for incrementals and 60 foot and 330, and that's something that's a feat in itself to get a Pro Stock car off the starting line on a hot racetrack in the summer. So I'm trying to carry this momentum through," she said. "We've got two races left before the Countdown, and we're sitting sixth right now, less than one race out of fourth. I'm really optimistic about what's to come, and I'm going for it. I put my money on us on Sunday."
Right now, that's a pretty solid bet.
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