Erica Enders got the chance to run in a new sportsman category for the first time in Gainesville. But it wasn’t exactly under the conditions anyone quite expected.
Enders’ will remember running in Competition Eliminator at the Gatornationals for far more than just making her debut in a ninth NHRA class, as it was also the weekend that racing stopped.
While she raced in the sportsman class through that Friday, all professional classes – including Pro Stock – was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic for that weekend and for at least a month. Without question, it turned into an unprecedented weekend, right as Enders was making her first runs in the Lee Sharp-owned ’08 Pontiac G5 Comp Eliminator car.
“We made three qualifying runs and it wasn’t until the final one where (NHRA) made the call to postpone the professional categories. It just kind of made it like, ‘Wow, this is real.’ It’s definitely a huge hit and it’s going to be hard times for everyone here for a little while,” Enders said.
While Enders, her Elite Motorsports team and the rest of the drag racing community continue to deal with those effects more than a week later, her runs in the sportsman category could represent some of her final passes for the foreseeable future.
NHRA will aim to resume racing on April 17-19 at Enders’ hometown track in Houston, making the reigning Pro Stock world champion hopeful the race takes place.
As for running in Comp Eliminator, Enders had nothing but positives regarding the experience.
Sharp is a longtime racer in the category and partner with Elite Motorsports team owner Richard Freeman, and had asked Enders late last year if she was interested in driving the new car. Always ready to drive anything, Enders jumped at the opportunity.
“It was fun. It’s a very different type of racing than I’m used to, but I’m intrigued by it because it’s a smaller, slower Pro Stock car,” Enders said. “It’s a five-speed Liberty with a clutch. You still have to hit your shift points and it’s just a fun car to drive.”
After competing in the Drag Illustrated World Doorslammer Nationals the previous week, Enders tested the car in Orlando on Monday. Her whirlwind week continued with a trip to Disney World on Tuesday, going to Universal Studios the next day as Jeg Coughlin Jr. revealed what was to be the special wrap for his Pro Stock car at the Gatornationals.
She arrived in Gainesville early the next day, pitted out of her Pro Stock spot in Gainesville and went to work. Teaming with Tim Freeman, as well as some of her Elite Motorsports teammates – including crew chief Mark Ingersoll and Chase Freeman – Enders put together a number of solid passes, qualifying in the No. 2 spot with an 8.301 on a 9.00 index.
“Right off the trailer, to make a good first run on a brand new car, it says a lot about the potential of everything,” Enders said. “I’m excited about it and something I’m going to dabble in through the season. It’s nice to have that escape and get back to my sportsman roots.”
Enders, who thrived in the Super Comp and Super Gas ranks early in her career, plans to race frequently in the car this year – as soon as racing resumes, of course. She fell in the opening round of eliminations at the Gatornationals, as Greg Kamplain tracked Enders down at the finish line to win by less than two feet.
That aspect of the class presents a new challenge for Enders, who went 8.449 at 137.54 mph on a 9.00 index.
“The biggest challenge coming from a pro tree is the full tree. It’s a lot different and you have to leave on the bottom bulb,” Enders said. “The whole starting line procedure is different, but I like the challenge. Going back to finish-line racing, it’s definitely another big challenge as well. It happens really fast.”
If anything, Enders is simply excited to race as much as possible. The way she figures, the more seat time the better, especially with the car having a number of similar aspects to her Pro Stock Camaro. There’s also the fact that Enders simply just loves to drive every chance she gets.
“I wanted to race something else and Lee was gracious enough to ask me to drive,” Enders said. “More seat time is always a bonus and this is just the beginning of everything. It’s going to be a really cool experience.”
Enders just hopes the next chance to drive any car comes sooner or later, especially coming off her third Pro Stock world championship in 2019 and an early-season win at the most recent race in Phoenix.
She’s the current points leader in the class, remaining hopefully optimistic that racing can go in next month in Houston. It’s always a special event for Enders, considering it’s the track where she grew up racing and it’s also close to the Elite Motorsports headquarters. But bringing race fans to Houston Raceway Park after a considerable amount of time off would undoubtedly create a memorable atmosphere.
Enders and her team are pushing towards that mid-April date, but are also well aware – both from a racing and business standpoint – that the racing season could be further disrupted.
“We’re prepared that Houston is going to happen and we’re planning for that,” Enders said. “We’re doing what needs to be done, and we’ll be prepared and ready to do. At the same time, we have to be cautious on what we do. Hopefully this all ends quickly.
“People are going to be so excited to go racing (in Houston) and I really hope that we’re able to get all this ironed before that.”