At the start of the 2019 Pro Stock season, Richard Freeman wasn’t afraid to admit to big expectations and goals for the year.
With a talented Elite Motorsports roster, the objective was to dominate, and by the time the year closed with Erica Enders winning the championship and Jeg Coughlin Jr. finishing second, it was clear the goal had been met.
But it didn’t start that way, as the team struggled to find wins early on. Freeman, though, has learned better than to doubt a team that has already accomplished so much and overcome some significant adversity along the way.
“This is a group of winners. They’re loyal and they know how to win, work and dig deep,” Freeman said. “There’s a difference between winning and being a winner. There’s a lot of people that win, but to be a winner it’s a different deal.
“Drag racing is tough. We’re professionals because we chose this class. It’s difficult, but the group I’ve surround myself with, it’s so unique it’s unbelievable.”
The team never cratered after some difficult seasons following Ender’s 2015 championship. There was the switch to EFI and the ill-fated move to Dodge in the midst of that, and it proved to be more than just a minor roadblock.
Still, the team battled through those lean years just working to get back to square one, and Freeman and company were finally ready to see it pay off in 2019.
“I believe it took us three years to get back to where we’re at,” Freeman said.
And even that didn’t seem like a done deal this year, as only Coughlin posted a victory in the season’s first nine races.
There were plenty of near-misses, as Alex Laughlin remained close to the points lead, but significant questions needed to be answered as the team went on the Western Swing.
Greg Anderson won the first two races, but Freeman started to see his team come together. Matt Hartford won in Seattle, and everybody seemed to right the ship as the postseason neared.
It wasn’t the exact way Freeman and his contingent of all-star talent drew it up, but nearly everyone managed to peak at the right time.
“I knew we were capable of doing that,” Freeman said. “Starting out the season, we went to a lot of finals and could never close the deal, and then we kind of fell off. We got to the Western Swing and we started working on some car stuff, and it really started paying off on Erica’s car.”
From Indy through the playoffs, the team was on another level, as they won four of the final seven races. Laughlin knocked off Enders in the finals at the U.S. Nationals, and then Enders and Coughlin came alive in the playoffs.
They combined for No. 1 qualifiers at five of the six events, with Enders taking dramatic wins in St. Louis and Vegas, and Coughlin following suit to close out the year in Pomona.
He started driving the car Freeman campaigned earlier in the year, which paid dividends down the stretch. In fact, it took Enders knocking off Greg Anderson in an emotionally-charged first round at Pomona, and Chris McGaha a round later to secure the title over her teammate.
To say both Enders and Coughlin were ready for the postseason would be an understatement. She started in fifth, while Coughlin was seventh, making up significant ground in what proved to be a thrilling fight to the finish.
“To say the least, as a team I was going to be very happy either way it ended up,” Freeman said. “In my opinion, it’s two of the best drivers in the class and the best group of people.
“It was a battle of two really good programs (Elite and KB Racing), and our guys did a good job of being prepared.”
Winning a third championship provided far different emotions than the first two with Enders, but it was certainly just as sweet. The previous three seasons provided ample challenges, which only made spending this year with the same group that experienced all those highs and lows that much more satisfying.
“Racing today is so much closer,” Freeman said. “This one is special to us because went through some severe growing pains. It was very difficult and this one’s special because of that. It’s the same group that did it and they performed in fine fashion.”
Coming up in Part II: Freeman discusses the state of Pro Stock after its resurgence in 2019, what he expects in 2020 and how Elite Motorsports will continue thriving in the Pro Stock world.