Interview in advance of the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals and the approaching milestone of 100 wins in the NHRA by a female racer.
The following are excerpts from a teleconference featuring Pro Stock racer Erica Enders-Stevens, Funny Car racer Alexis DeJoria, and Funny Car racer Courtney Force in advance of the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals and the approaching milestone of 100 wins in the NHRA by a female racer.
MODERATOR: Thank you for joining us today for our teleconference. Four races into the 2014 season and it's been a great season with tremendous competition. One thing we've seen with the series, which has long been known as one of the most diverse forms of motorsports, is proving that success can come to any racer. Three of our guests joining us today are not only dominating in their category but they're also part of our female. Currently the NHRA has had 98 wins in the history of the sport by females. This dates back to Shirley Muldowney's first win in Top Fuel on June 13th, 1976 in Columbus, Ohio. The three racers joining us today will be Courtney Force, Alexis DeJoria in Funny Car, and Erica Ender-Stevens in Pro Stock, who are not only following in the footsteps of Shirley, but blazing new paths on their own.
Erica has continued to rewrite history books so far this season. In Las Vegas she became the first woman to win the K&N Horsepower Challenge then went on to double-up and take home the national event, which was her first of the season in her second consecutive final round. In Gainesville she also set the national speed record at 214.69 miles an hour and also currently holds the Pro Stock points lead for the first time in her career. Let's start off with the season to date, Erica. Four races in with this new team, new combination, is this where you saw yourself being right now?
Talk about the female aspect of it. Look at Shirley Muldowney, what she accomplished as one of the main pioneers. This success, would any of that be happening without her and what she first did back in the '70s?
ERICA ENDERS-STEVENS: In my opinion, no. I mean, Shirley certainly paved the way for all of the females who have followed in her footsteps. She is certainly a hero of mine, a legend in our sport. She's an idol, she's awesome. I looked up to her and to Angelle (Sampey) and Shelly Anderson Payne. Those were my heroes when I was a little kid going to the racetrack. My dad drove in the sportsman classes. I'd run around and get autographs. Those are my three favorite women and I'm sure I stood at the back of their pits more than they wanted to see me. She's had a huge hand in us being able to accomplish the things we do now.
Erica, you've had a little bit of experience with winning now. What does that win and now the lead mean to you and your team? After you get good results like this, how long does that linger for you and your team?
ERICA ENDERS-STEVENS: Well, aside from my first win in Pro Stock back in 2012, what we accomplished in Gainesville, those two events to me are the most significant of my career, the only two that I've continued to think about for weeks after, weeks following those events. It's certainly been fresh on my mind and still makes me smile. It's like, Wow, I can't believe we've accomplished this. What happened last weekend in Vegas was huge. To set the speed record the week prior in Gainesville, we had the fastest car on the property there, make the final round there, it's huge. Then taking over the points lead in Pro Stock for the first time in my career, it means a ton to me knowing what we've been through and how many holes we've had to dig ourselves out of to get to this point over the past 10 years I've been trying to race Pro Stock.
Having said that, we're only four races into a very long season. There's a lot of racing left. But I've got all the confidence in the world in my team, my driving abilities. I think this year is going to be a really great year for the entire Elite Motorsports team.
The entire class in Pro Stock is so competitive. Do you take that into account when you come to a race?
ERICA ENDERS-STEVENS: Absolutely. I mean, the talent pool in Pro Stock is pretty awesome. There are a lot of guys racing that I've looked up to prior to my start in Pro Stock, then a couple young guns. It's so competitive. To have a 16-car field separated by only a couple hundredths of a second, every Sunday's anybody's race and it's just got to be your day. You've got to have the car to do it, the team behind you to get the job done. In Pro Stock, it's a very challenging car to drive. It's five gears. We have to shift four times. We're shifting at almost 1,100 rpms. There's little room for error. A lot of that pressure is on the driver's shoulders to be as perfect as possible. I like that aspect of it and I'm sure the other drivers do, as well. It's a very tough car to drive.
I know how big a deal it is to win the K&N Horsepower Challenge. To you personally how big a deal was it to beat your former crew chief?
ERICA ENDERS-STEVENS: There's a lot of history there. Dave (Connolly) and I were friends for the last 10 years. He was a groomsman at our wedding. There's a lot of off-track history there as well as him being my crew chief and helping tune me to six of my Pro Stock wins. I'm sure he felt the same way. We were up there wanting to cut each other's throats out. To be able to accomplish what we accomplished, the fashion we did it in, that win means more to me than a lot of them in my 22-year racing career.
Moving into the Four-Wides, how tough is it in that Pro Stock car trying to judge when to get on the throttle, the staging process? In the Fuel cars, they have their own challenges, but you leave at wide-open throttle. How tough is it for you to do that and how much more concentration do you have to have to race at that race?
ERICA ENDERS-STEVENS: It certainly takes a different mindset racing the Four-Wides as a Pro Stock driver. The Fuel drivers, both nitro classes, are a little more courteous to each other. Pro Stock, we have more staging duels than any other class out there. It certainly poses an interesting atmosphere up there. You've got two additional drivers up there. We're a little bit more courteous at the Four-Wides than we are at any other event. But I think drivers tend to get in a rush up there because the first two years we had the Four-Wides, there were a few drivers that got timed out. I think that's in the back of everybody's mind up there. Once all the top bulbs are lit, it's very rare that somebody goes in and double vaults at the Four-Wide event.
You have to wait to get on the throttle until everybody's bottom bulbs are lit, but you can't be late doing it or you leave last. You really have to have the right mindset going up there. If you go on the throttle too soon, we have a rev limiter set, so the engine rpms won't exceed what we have it set at unless there's some failure with the ignition, but when you deck it up there, the pressure kicking back on your clutch pedal is very significant. You don't want to be on it too long. It's very fine-tuned and you have to have the right mindset. It's a little bit more challenging at this event than others.
Are we back to ham and cheese sandwiches?
ERICA ENDERS-STEVENS: Gosh, my team owner, Richard Freeman, is a comedian, I swear. But we eat cold cuts at the racetrack. He always says, We're busted, we're broke. He jokes and now he says, ‘We're a hundred grand from broke in Vegas.’ We had cold cuts for lunch, but he did say he had a nice dinner planned for the whole team once we arrive in Charlotte. It's a fun atmosphere over there and I'm just blessed to be a part of it.
Erica, I know with winning the K&N Horsepower Challenge and winning your races, that has injected some new money into the team. How best will that help you? I know money is hard to come by. Your team is excelling already. How much will this move you forward?
ERICA ENDERS-STEVENS: Any little bit helps, that's for sure. I mean, sponsorship is the toughest piece of our puzzle, aside from being able to find the horsepower, which my engine department, Elite Performance, headed by Nick Ferri and Jake Hairston, they've done a great job with that. Money is the hardest part of this puzzle. To have $100,000 added to our program will only help us, will only benefit our team. We plan on running the entire year. We're still out there pushing, knocking down doors, making phone calls, just trying to get every little bit of sponsorship help that we can to continue this program for years to come. But it certainly will go a long way with our team.
How personally gratifying is this to you to be at this point in your career this season this early?
ERICA ENDERS-STEVENS: It's huge. I don't really know how to put it into words for people on the outside to understand how much time and effort and money goes into building a program like this. Like I mentioned earlier, Richard Freeman has given us all the tools we need to be successful. For the success we've had thus far this season, to happen so quickly, it's almost unheard of in Pro Stock. I couldn't be more proud. I want to reiterate how tough it is to be on top in Pro Stock. It certainly goes in cycles. Right now things are going our way. I'm so excited.
How difficult is that Four-Wide? What is the best lane to be in? You indicated you have to be sure the bottom bulbs are lit before you hit the throttle.
ERICA ENDERS-STEVENS: Yes, the staging procedure is definitely the most challenging in the Four-Wide event. Having said that, most of the racing occurs on lanes one and two year round at Charlotte. When we test there, it's in one of those lanes. They try to run some sportsman cars in three and four to get some rubber down. Lane choice usually goes to lanes one and two for first picks on Sunday. The good news is, each qualifying session we each get one run in every lane, so we're able to collect the data, see what our car needs come Sunday. It's definitely a little bit more challenging.
If you're in lanes two or three, you have to look left and right to check the bulbs. In one or four, you only have to look one way. Is that correct?
ERICA ENDERS-STEVENS: Yes. I guess I misunderstood your question. As far as staging is concerned, for drivers’ peace of mind, being on either outer lane so you only have to look at that last bulb, because some drivers in the past have gotten confused as to which pre-stage and stage bulbs are theirs and continue to roll in when they're actually already staged. It's very different up there. But lanes one and four, the two outer lanes, make it I think easier - that's my opinion as a driver - as far as controlling the situation and knowing which bulbs are yours.
Is there competition between you and your fellow female drivers to see who is going to record the hundredth female win in NHRA?
ERICA ENDERS-STEVENS: I didn't know we were actually so close to a hundred until Vegas when Lewis Bloom, the stat guy, from ESPN informed me of that and NHRA did some stuff with social media this week. It would be a huge honor to be the hundredth. But I'm friends with Courtney (Force), Alexis (DeJoria) and Brittany (Force). We're all working towards the same goal. It was awesome to share the first double women's winner's circle with Courtney in Seattle in 2012 and then again last week with Alexis in Vegas. So I think we're all rooting for each other, but of course we all secretly want to get that hundredth win for ourselves and our team. We'll see how it goes. I'm excited about it.
Erica, your dad raced in the sport so you've been around it a long time. Why have we seen the success of female racers in the NHRA where maybe other forms of motorsports you haven't seen people breaking through as we have in this series?
ERICA ENDERS-STEVENS: I think NHRA provides a great platform for girls, for any driver, to come in even as a spectator, like me growing up at the racetrack watching my dad drive. But all the different levels that are raced at every national event, you know, when you go there, you get to see the junior dragsters make exhibition runs, all of the sportsmen classes that the drivers step through to get to the professional ranks are all at the same facility. I think it gives us a great platform to take those steps to get to where we need to be. Of course, it's all based on opportunity. Some of its luck, being at the right place at the right time.
It's also years and years of hard work, trying to go out there and piece the sponsorship together, find a way to their dream, like my deal. I've always wanted to race Pro Stock. Nine years in junior dragsters, five years in Super Comp, Super Gas, getting my license in Alcohol Funny Car, then trying to make this Pro Stock deal work for the last 10 years, I've dedicated my whole life to get to this point. I know a lot of other racers and females alike have done the same thing. NHRA is just the best form of motorsports in the world.
ALEXIS DEJORIA: I still hesitate to talk about any kind of a championship focus right now. As far as I'm concerned, I mean, we're still far away from that. A second win so close to the first one is still pretty exciting. It does give us an extra boost of confidence. But at the same time we still have a ways to go. We're only four races in.
We were talking with Erica. She alluded to we're on the verge of a hundred wins by a woman in the NHRA. We talked about Shirley Muldowney, her paving the way. Do you think any of this would have been possible without Shirley and what she was able to accomplish when she was starting out in the late '70s?
ALEXIS DEJORIA: I mean, it's possible, but she's the first person I think we all kind of look to because she was the pioneer. She's the one who busted those doors down and did it in a very strong manner. I think all forms of motorsports have been integrated with women, but NHRA definitely takes the cake on that one.
It seems like forever to get the first win. After doing that, did you think the second win was going to come this quick?
ALEXIS DeJoria: I thought, you know, after experiencing that consistency in Phoenix, something we've been working towards for a while, I felt like we are on a roll. I was planning on going out to Gainesville and winning that race, too (laughter). I think once you've found that consistency, everything kind of comes together on your team, the crew chiefs, the crew, the driver. I mean, yeah, it is very possible to go out there and keep winning. We've had two first-round losses which kind of brought us down for a little bit, but evened it out with that second win in Vegas. We seem to be the best in the desert, so to speak.
How does it feel to have won 50% of the races so far this year?
ALEXIS DEJORIA: It's pretty good. But, like I said before, the other two races we went out first round, so... I don't know. It's 50/50 right now.
I asked Erica how hard it is and how much more concentration you have to have at the Four-Wides. How do you deal with it in the Funny Car?
ALEXIS DEJORIA: Just remember which lane I'm in when I'm going up to stage. It's very easy, especially if you're in the two middle lanes, to kind of get tossed up looking at all the lights. The outside lanes are definitely the best ones. It's just an exciting race because you're not just going out there and beating one car, you're beating three other cars to get to the finish line. That in itself is a great race. I think to win it would be very exciting for our team.
Funny Cars, the best way to define them to a fan, they're really beasts, have to be man-handled, especially at 300 miles an hour. We have you winning half the races this year. We have Courtney out there who is competitive also. Talk a little bit about that, what that means. You have to go against all these experienced drivers.
ALEXIS DEJORIA: We talk about man-handling these cars, but obviously I think if you just work on your upper body strength, like Courtney and I obviously have to do to handle these things. But generally it doesn't really matter. If a cylinder goes out, you'll see some of the best, strongest guys go right into the wall. So sometimes you can get a handle on it and other times it's just not your day. But I've been lucky pretty much throughout these last few seasons. I haven't really crossed over the center line. I had an incident with the wall in Phoenix two years ago, but that was kind of inevitable.
Even my old crew chief said the same thing. He said, When you smoke the tires and drop a cylinder, you're going in the wall, I don't care who you are. He said, I did the same thing one year in that same lane. You do your best out there. I had my hands full in Vegas with those side winds. It was pretty intense, especially when the parachutes open. You really got to be on your toes. But we've been doing a pretty good job. They've set up my car so it handles very well. We've been front halving it. Six months they've been working on that. It's handling much, much better.
For fans, how would you define a typical Funny Car ride?
ALEXIS DEJORIA: Oh, gosh. Intense, surreal, light speed.
One thing that makes you different from the other women who are currently racing is that you're also a mother. You're not only a role model to other little girls who want to do this but to your own daughter. What is it that you're hoping to teach her and the other little girls?
ALEXIS DEJORIA: Actually, Shirley Muldowney was a mother, too, when she started racing professionally. I think Shelly Payne is a mother. I think coming from that standpoint you want the best for your child, but at the same time I would never push her into drag racing just because it's what I do. I would want her to find her own passion in life. As long as she's not hurting herself or other people, I would definitely support it, of course. But honestly being one of the few females in a male-dominated sport, I feel it's very important to teach young women that anything is possible. Just stay focused, don't give up, and don't let the little things get to you.
What would it mean to you to get that hundredth victory?
ALEXIS DEJORIA: Oh, gosh, it would be a wonderful accomplishment. It would be great to go in the history books for something like that, for sure. If Erica gets it, I would be very happy for her. Same with Courtney, Brittany. I think we do support each other, but at the same time, like Erica said, we are racers at heart and very competitive. So we would love to get that for ourselves. If it goes to one of the other ones, I'd definitely be supporting that.
Thank you for joining us, Courtney. Courtney also continues to be one of the top competitors in the Funny Car category. She raced to a semifinal finish in Gainesville, qualified on the top half of the field at two of the events and was the number one qualifier in Las Vegas for the fourth time in her career. Courtney, we've kind of talked about the women in racing, where they stack up, the history of that. Looking at Shirley Muldowney, Angelle, some of the others. With what's going on now, would any of that be possible but for what Shirley and Angelle were able to accomplish through the years?
COURTNEY FORCE: As a female in the sport, we all look to Shirley Muldowney, Angelle. I got to take a look at that long list of wins by a female. It's pretty astounding. I mean, it is pretty amazing. But like I said before, Shirley really was the one that kind of paved the way for all the females in this male-dominated sport. She accomplished so much during the time she was racing, it's something that we all kind of look at as a female driver. You kind of strive to be. So to be a part of that list of one of the I guess 98 right now females to accomplish getting a win, it's pretty cool.
But, yeah, who knows if it would be possible or not. She really did pave the way for all of us. We all thank her for that. It's pretty amazing. If you really take a step back and look at it, look at all the other sports like baseball and football and basketball - basketball especially - they have men's basketball and they have women's basketball. In NHRA drag racing, we all get to come together and compete in a sport as an equal. I think it's pretty amazing that I get to be a part of a sport that's like that.
You mentioned football, baseball, but what about reporting where males dominate that area, too? What do you think about a female moving up and becoming a great analyst for a sport like NHRA?
COURTNEY FORCE: I don't see any reason why they couldn't. If you're passionate enough about something, like for me, this is my past, I grew up around it, I know not everything, but I know a lot about the sport. I've learned a lot from my dad, watching him, learning from him. He's taught me the ins-and-outs of driving one of these cars. I live it every day of my life.
If there's an analyst, why couldn't it be a female? I think it's a little ridiculous to think they couldn't be.
As far as going into that Four-Wide situation, you and your team, do you kind of approach it a little bit differently knowing it's going to be more of a challenging event?
It's definitely a challenge. It's just a little bit of a challenge for everybody on the team. It's a lot to take on. But it's exciting. I know it's definitely exciting for the fans as well as being behind the wheel and competing with three other Funny Cars out my window. It's pretty surreal. It's a lot of fun. You definitely do have to approach this race a lot differently than you would any other race on the circuit. You really got to focus on the Christmas tree. You're really kind of racing yourself in the Funny Car. You don't know what the guy is doing two, three lanes over. You can't be looking for him.
Normally if it's a side-by-side race, you can see the guy went up in smoke, you're trying to get around him. In a race like this where you're against three other cars, you just have to race with yourself because you have no idea what the guys are doing in the other lanes. You shouldn't be looking over there anyway. It's really a race with yourself. You just got to get your car down to the other end. That's what your main focus is. All the other cars could be up in smoke in the line. You'll see guys pedaling it all the way down sideways because they're just trying to get to the finish. You approach it differently as a driver and as a crew chief, as well.
Everybody is excited because Ashley (Force) has renewed her license. Is there any definitive plan she's coming back into racing, and if so when?
COURTNEY FORCE: Unfortunately there's not any plan right now. I wish I knew the answer to that. Believe me, I'm the one on the side being her biggest fan. I'm trying to push her to come back out here because I would love to race her. I'm sure my dad would, too. There's no definitive plan. She just went to get her license renewed. I think it was exciting for her to do. I could tell by the smile on her face how excited she was to get back in a Funny Car. Right now she doesn't have any plans of jumping back in. As a lot of people know, she does have two kids now. I think she loves having them out there. I think they loved watching her. It was exciting for everybody in the family. But she does not have any plan to come back as of right now.
What would it mean for you to get that hundredth victory?
COURTNEY FORCE: It would be huge. As a female in a male-dominated sport, it's funny that people can actually come up to you and be, Oh, there are females that race in the sport? You're competing against mainly guys. It seems surreal to them. Then they look at you, Oh, man, I can't believe this girl won. You want to show them the sheet of paper and go, We've been winning for a very long time starting with Shirley Muldowney, a bunch of other females. It's not just one and it wasn't just in one class. It's pretty cool to see my sister Ashley's name on that list, to see my name on that list.
But, man, to get the hundredth win for women, it would be amazing. I mean, definitely going to be my goal at this point. If I had a picture-perfect world, honestly it would be me getting 99 and Brittany getting a hundred all in this weekend. Obviously, Top Fuel runs after us. That would be a picture-perfect world. I definitely hope Brittany gets on that list, too. To get the hundredth, it goes down in the history books. Your name is not going to be coming off that list. It would really be a proud moment if you can have your name next to 100.