Erica Enders readily admits she couldn't have pressed the throttle of her Chevrolet Camaro Pro Stocker to the floor any harder in her first burnout of 2017.
Enders, a two-time NHRA Pro Stock champion, was in Nobile, Ok., participating in her first test session since what many would call a debacle of a season last year. After setting high standards with back-to-back titles, Enders and Elite Motorsports finished ninth in the championship point standings, losing in the first round 14 times in 2016.
The two championship seasons only netted a combined four first round losses.
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On the first day of testing for 2017, Enders spent the day doing burnouts and breaking in tires, which appeased her need to quickly put 2016 in the rear-view mirror.
"You get to do burnouts longer than you normally would, and that's my favorite part of the whole deal," admits Enders. "I enjoy it. I always volunteer to burn in tires for all our team cars."
Returning to familiar settings, Enders believes, is part of the healing process. Last year, Elite Motorsports and Enders inked a deal with Mopar removing her from her comfort zone of a Chevrolet Camaro and into a Dodge Avenger. Not only did her team have to adjust to the challenges of a new manufacturer, but also had to do so with new rules imposed by the NHRA -- requiring teams to abandon carburetors for electronic fuel injection.
While Enders rates herself high as a burnout queen, spinning the tires with EFI under the flat hood took some getting used to. In the old configuration, she isn't shy about ranking herself on a 1 - 10 scale.
"In carburetors, a freaking 12," Enders said emphatically. "With the EFI it's a little less consistent for everybody. I spent a lot of time watching last year unfortunately because we lost first round most of the time. Everyone seems to struggle with it. It gets away from you pretty quickly, and it doesn't do exactly what you tell it like the carburetor car does with your input and throttle because of how they have all the cells set in the EFI program, so it just depends on how your tune up is and where they've got it.
"You can give it more throttle and ultimately not do anything because of how it's setup in the laptop, so it's definitely come with a learning curve. I mean I still love burnouts and hope I'm the burnout queen."
A season like 2016 could leave even the most seasoned driver feeling the effects of burnout, but for Enders, watching her team never give up provided her the motivation to keep forging in a forward direction even though at times it appeared the team was headed backward.
"We never anticipated to have the type of year that we had," Enders said. "We knew it was definitely going to be a challenge and a struggle, but we didn't think we would struggle that deep into the season and ultimately end up struggling the whole year. It was a business decision. Richard Freeman and I are partners in this deal, and we have to do what we have to do. I've got 19 guys to take care of, and they have their families to feed so it was strictly a business decision.
"I have nothing bad to say about Mopar. They were awesome partners ND they had an engineering team at our disposal, we got to work with people from Mopar and SRT and from Dodge.
"Having said that, my guys didn't wake up stupid. There was something really wrong with what was going on, and it takes time to build an engine development program. It's not going to happen overnight. I'll have their backs til the day I die. They couldn't have worked any harder; we couldn't have spent any more money than we did and to not have that hard work show up on the scoreboard was very disheartening. It was part of the deal.
"Yeah it was a frustrating year, but I think it made us stronger. I think what we went through last year would have torn any team apart but it made our guys stronger. I couldn't be more proud to be with these guys at Elite Motorsports. I absolutely love them, they're my brothers, and we have a blast together. We had a blast last year even though we blew up everything we had every week and lost first round. It was a character-building year."
Enders admits switching to Mopar not only presented mechanical challenges, but immediately put her on the defensive against critics who questioned how a Bowtie Girl could move to a Mopar. The move, she admits, didn't win her many praises from the NHRA Pro Stock fans.
"Oh man I got a ton of hate mail," Enders admitted. "But I understand. People are very passionate about their brands. And being a car girl, I am as well. But, this is my job, and I don't go stand in their cubicle behind their rolling chair and criticize every move that they make when they're at their 9 to 5 so I've kind of taken on a different attitude about how I handle it, especially with the Freeman guys standing beside me throughout all of this.
"It's definitely hard because I think my passion comes across pretty well on tv and in print media. People have got to realize how passionate I am about what I do and how much I care about the people I get to race with. And to have them just rip you apart because of a business decision that you made, and you didn't make it by yourself.
"I'm just the driver here. I handle a lot of our marketing and I'm Richard's partner but ultimately decisions are made, and we do what we have to do to keep going. So it sucked for lack of a better term. But hopefully they'll welcome us back with open arms, and if they don't, we're still going to show up on Sunday and hopefully, make our way to a bunch of winner's circles and have fun doing it."
Enders says she's excited about being behind the wheel of a Camaro again, and while she praises NHRA President Peter Clifford for spending more time than usual in the Pro Stock pits last season, the impetus for changing the cars over of cost-efficiency and increasing participation have been as she described "fat failures."
At this point in the game, Enders cannot say what would have been the best stimulus package for Pro Stock, but she admits she supported the program because it was the right thing to do.
"I think if you asked every driver out there you'd get a different answer," Enders explained. "Everybody has an opinion and going through it personally and having to deal with what we've had to deal with, we were very vocal at first supporting NHRA's decision. You can support it and be positive about it and do the best you can with it or you can be negative and hate it. Either way, you have to do it anyway. So we chose to be positive and show support.
"I don't know if there is an answer to what is going to make Pro Stock better. My personal opinion is Pro Stock is not Pro Stock anymore. I'm a young gun; I'm not the youngest in the class anymore like I used to be and am getting older, but the way it was before and being a fan first, Pro Stock was so badass, and it's different.
"I understand that changes have to be made to move forward and EFI makes things more relative but I'm a carburetor girl and I'm a Pro Stock girl, and I don't think it's Pro Stock anymore. I would have the same exact opinion if I won all 24 races and the championship last year."
Regardless of how she feels about Pro Stock, Enders is confident her team can rebound from 2016. Elite Performance's Chevrolet, driven by Vincent Nobile finished fifth in the championship points with one win in three finals.
"Nice to be back in a familiar car that we've had a ton of success in," Enders said. "It's very exciting. Last night I actually had a bunch of canceled flights and delays, ended up spending the night in Houston. I was laying there in the hotel thinking about how excited I was to get back in the car. I went to warm up when I got here and just firing the car, it just makes you smile, sitting in the car smiling.
"[Team Owner Richard Freeman's] like 'what are you smiling at?"
"I responded, 'I'm excited!'"