Reigning world champ Erica Enders has fond memories of Heartland Park Topeka

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TOPEKA, KS — Back before she was a champion, before setting multitudes of records, and before her regular visits to the Winner’s Circle, Elite Motorsports driver Erica Enders came to Heartland Park Topeka intent on proving herself in the cutthroat world of Pro Stock racing.

It was 2006 and Enders was racing for another team at the time. She would hear the rumblings that a woman didn’t belong in the class, including some jabs from other drivers in the category. Her self-confidence was high but she desperately wanted something to show for the team’s efforts, something that would quiet the critics.

“When someone asks me about Topeka, the first thing that jumps into my mind was 2006 when we got top qualifier,” Enders said. “It was the first time a woman had ever been No. 1 qualifier in Pro Stock, and it was just such a huge feeling of accomplishment for all of us. It was a Saturday night I’ll never forget; definitely some high-fives in the pit.”

Although Enders and Co. couldn’t parlay that qualifying performance into a win on race day, the accomplishment proved she truly belonged in the professional ranks of the sport.

Fast-forward to this year’s NHRA Kansas Nationals and Enders arrives as the reigning world champion with 15 national event titles to her credit, just three behind legend and idol Shirley Muldowney. Enders’ top qualifying effort in Topeka 10 years ago has since been replicated 14 times, and her 175-117 elimination-round record gives her one of the best winning ratios among her peers.

But despite her unquestioned racing abilities, Enders, the wife of fellow Pro Stock driver Richie Stevens, says not much has changed in her racing mindset.

“Ask me about Topeka right now and I’ll tell you the same thing I would have said 10 years ago: We go in there wanting to prove ourselves,” she said. “One of the best things about drag racing is every race is a fresh start. What you did in the past doesn’t help you at all. You constantly have to show what you’re capable of, and this team thrives on that challenge.”

The Elite Motorsports group hasn’t had any problems doing that this year, winning twice, finishing runner-up once, and posting a pair of semifinal results through the first seven races. Enders currently is ranked second, just a round and a half behind Jason Line.

“The thing about winning is it’s addictive,” Enders said. “We won in Las Vegas and Houston this year and then went to Atlanta last weekend and we went to the semi’s. It was kind of a bummer, which is crazy because 10 years ago that would have been huge.

“This team that Richard Freeman has put together, they work so hard. They’re champions, every single one of them. I’m the lucky one that gets to drive but they’re the reason we win.

“Hopefully, we can be No. 1 qualifier again this time through. Then I hope we can win the trophy and really make some more great memories at Heartland Park Topeka.”

The quest for another top qualifying honor begins with time trials at 3:45 and 6:15 p.m., Friday, followed by the final two sessions at 12:45 and 3:15 p.m., Saturday. Elimination racing begins at noon, Sunday. ESPN2 will carry all of the action.