CHARLOTTE (April 15) – Erica Enders thought she was on an episode of “Punk’d.” Unfortunately for Enders and her GK Motorsports team, Ashton Kutcher was nowhere to be found.
As Enders drove past the zMax Dragway finish line, the No. 1 flashed on her lane, indicating she had won the 4-Wide NHRA Nationals. It wasn’t flashing, as it usually does when showing the winner, but no other lanes had win lights on, either.
Alas, Greg Anderson had crossed the finish line first, so despite wild celebration from Enders’ crew and fans in the grandstands, he indeed had won.
“I thought it was our day,” Enders said. “To have it and then lose it, it’s definitely a roller coaster of emotions. But either way, win or not, I couldn’t be more proud of my guys. I’m really blessed to have them. Maybe God’s storing us one up for Houston.”
Enders, gunning to become the first female winner in Pro Stock history, had a stellar day at zMax. She was fastest in her first-round matchup against Mike Edwards, Grace Howell and Steve Kent, advancing to the semifinals with a pass of 6.598 seconds at 209.59 mph.
Racing Jason Line, Jeg Coughlin and Edwards in the semis, Enders left first with a .017-second reaction time and got to the line first to advance to her first final round of 2012.
There, she left first again with a .016 light. With Line’s red light, and Nobile’s tire shake, the race came down to Enders and Anderson, and Anderson ran her down with a pass of 6.540 seconds at 212.23 mph, edging Enders’ run of 6.608 at 210.93 mph. The margin of victory was about a half-car length, and a malfunction prevented Anderson’s win light from coming on.
“It was a really weird, confusing deal, but he did win,” Enders said. “He ran a great lap, and it was evident on the replay. Light malfunction or not, he won the race, and that’s all there is to it. It sucks that it was such a roller coaster of emotion for a team that’s worked so hard to make history. To think you have it, and have it taken away in an instant is difficult to swallow.”
Enders, in the far left lane, had .037 seconds in the bank on the Christmas Tree on the starting line.
“We got last lane choice, and I knew I had to get in the Tree and get after it,” Enders said. “I was .17 in the semis and .16 in the finals. You really can’t ask for much more than that. I knew I had to get all over it. I let the clutch out, and I was like, ‘I got this.’
“I see my win light on at the end of the race track on the wall, and all I hear in my helmet are my guys on the radio: ‘We freaking did it! We finally won! Good job! We love you!’ Everybody’s on the radio screaming, and I’m like, ‘Thank you, guys! I love y’all. You’re awesome!’”
Her Cagnazzi Racing crew members celebrated wildly for several moments, even high-fiving exuberant fans in the stands. Soon, though, NHRA officials confirmed Anderson had won, and the fans began booing.
At the top end, Enders was never told Anderson won, but she soon figured it out.
“We pull off the track, and everybody’s coming around my car,” Enders said. “I’m just stoked, and then two seconds later, I get out of the car, and everybody goes to Greg’s car.”
Enders’ crew members could only shake their heads afterward, and engine specialist Rich Saulino said he’d never seen anything like that in his 48 years of racing.
But like Enders, her crew members are encouraged by the performance of the Chevrolet Cobalt. Enders reached her fourth final round in the last 19 races and moved up to sixth in the Pro Stock points standings.
Plus, Enders has been spot-on at the starting line in the last two races. In addition to the .16 and .17 Sunday, she was .015, .026 and .027 in Las Vegas.
“She’s been driving great,” team owner Victor Cagnazzi said. “She was calm and consistent all weekend. She shifted well and hit the Tree well. Fabulous.”
Crew chiefs Dave Connolly and Tommy Utt continue to upgrade the performance of the car, so Enders’ first victory could come soon.
“We had a really good hot rod today,” Enders said. “This four-wide stuff is always interesting anyway, but I think we all did a helluva job. My guys work their butts off for me every week, and I think they want this just as bad as I do, if not more. The excitement that you saw on the starting line tonight shows that.
“Our spirits are definitely high. We’ll go to Houston, my home track, and hopefully got one for real this time.”
Houston native Enders races next in the 25th annual O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Spring Nationals, which take place April 27-29 in the Houston suburb of Baytown, Texas.