After 20 years of racing, eight years in the ultra-competitive Pro Stock class and six final-round appearances, KLR Group driver Erica Enders won the O'Reilly Auto Parts Route 66 NHRA Nationals at Route 66 Raceway on Sunday.
Enders beat nemesis Greg Anderson – who knocked off Enders in Chicago's final one year ago – to become the first women to win a Pro Stock national event in the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series.
"For pioneers like Shirley Muldowney and Shelly Anderson-Payne, they were my heroes growing up, and all the women who paved the way," Enders said. "There are a lot of little kids who look up to me. I'm blessed enough to be in the position to be a role model for them through the Disney movie. I hope that they see me win and know that no matter what, anything is possible. You've just got to set your mind to it and follow your dreams. With hard work, anything's possible."
To top the historic win off, longtime boyfriend Richie Stevens proposed Sunday night, and Enders accepted. A December wedding is in the works.
Enders began racing at the age of 8, after convincing her father, Gregg Enders, to buy her a Jr. Dragster to able to compete in the new class NHRA created for younger drivers. Enders moved up the ranks into NHRA Sportsman classes, winning a Super Gas national event in 2004. The next year, she moved to Pro Stock with Cagnazzi Racing, becoming the first woman to reach the final round in Chicago in 2005.
In 2011, after being reunited with the Victor Cagnazzi-owned team, Enders raced Anderson in the final round at Chicago in one of her three finals in 2011. But Anderson won that day, saying after the race that he didn't want to be the first driver to lose to Enders in a Pro Stock final.
Sunday, though, the tables were turned, as Enders left first and outran the four-time champion with a run of 6.627 seconds at 207.40 mph. Anderson came up short after a pass of 6.641 at 208.36 mph.
"It's awesome. I think if I could've planned it, I would've asked to run Greg in the finals," Enders said. "He made it clear that he didn't want to lose to me. He's a very competitive guy, and I love him, but I couldn't wait to beat him.
"I'm really glad it was here in Chicago. This is actually the place of my first final in Pro Stock in 2005, so it's nice to circle back around and get it done here."
Anderson was gracious in defeat.
"He grabbed my shoulder and said, 'Well deserved,'" Enders said. "That means a lot coming from an eight-hundred-billion-time champion and somebody I've been trying to beat for eight years since I first let the clutch out in one of these cars.
"To have him in the other lane when I got my first win is awesome. Steve Torrence had Tony Schumacher in the other lane when he got his first (Top Fuel) win. Two Texas kids who dreamed of doing this our entire lives, to be able to beat the best in the finals like that, I couldn't have asked for a better situation."
Like every successful athlete, Enders' career has had difficult moments. She raced part-time in 2007-2010 as she looked for sponsorship and the right situation. Finally, sponsor Gaston Kearby helped back an effort with Cagnazzi for the 2011 season, and Enders has emerged as one of the top talents in the sport.
"I'm a Christian, and I'm not shy to admit," Enders said. "I believe there's a plan bigger than mine. I always have faith that there's a reason that things happen. Am I disappointed when we lose six times in a row? Absolutely. But I thank God for the blessings and the safety and focus on the things He puts on front of me. I'm a firm believer that he doesn't give you what you can't handle. This is 20 years of racing and eight years in Pro Stock, and it finally came together. I said my prayer before the final round: 'If it's your will, Lord, it's my way. I can't wait.'"
Enders, who moved up to fifth in the Pro Stock points standings, now has one win, two final-round and four semifinal appearances this season. She's won at least one round in each of the last five races and has reached the semis in the last three.
"My guys back at the shop have been really working their butts off to get us power, and we've been trying some new R&D stuff that we've been trying to figure out for forever," Enders said. "We did a last-minute test at Rockingham last week with over 100-degree weather. I guess it was good that we went there and prepared for this hot mess.
"I'm so excited. The testing is really paying off. Pro Stock's tough. It'll humble you in an instant. You think you've got it figured out, and you go to Bristol and blow all your things up. I can't say enough for my guys. They're amazing, and I love them. I couldn't be more proud for them."
The victory was a popular one for the 28-year-old from Houston who now lives in New Orleans. Enders is one of the most liked figures in the sport, among fans and competitors alike.
"When I hit my chutes – I hit them before we crossed the finish line – I went straight from focusing on the end of the track to the wall where the win light is," Enders said. "When I saw that thing come on, I was like, 'Oh, my God.' My guys are screaming in my helmet. I'm like, 'Thank you guys so much.' They're the reason why I'm able to do what I do.
"When I came around the track, the guys who are turning us off are all pumping their fists - all the Safety Safari guys were lined up around the corner, and the NHRA employees.
"It was just like everything came together. I dreamed of this day my entire life. When I can't sleep at night, I think about winning and planning my speeches. It's so awesome that it finally came true."
Asked where the Wally trophy will go, Enders said she’ll give it to Gregg Enders.
"That one goes to my dad, who's been my rock and my best friend," Enders said. "He's the reason I am who I am and why I'm in this position."