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January 27, 2016

Erica Enders-Stevens

SCOTT SPEED: Ladies and gentlemen, we will go ahead and get started with our teleconference today. First off, thank you all for joining us. Hopefully everybody had a great holiday season and happy new year to all of you. This is our first teleconference of the year to preview the 2016 season, which begins February 11th true the 14th at the Circle K NHRA Winter Nationals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona.
The 2016 NHRA season is one that will see the NHRA shifting gears into a new era with many changes coming for this season, including our new FOX Sports TV coverage package that will debut new rules for Pro Stock and even a brand new series logo, which I'm sure many of you have seen.
Many of our nitro teams and teams across the country have been testing in the past couple days and many more will start to test as we get closer during the course of the event. The four personalities who are scheduled to join us today are Erica Enders in Pro Stock, Leah Pritchett in Top Fuel, Tony Pedregon, who is our new FOX Sports color commentator, and John Force in Funny Car.
We'll start with Erica. Thank you for joining us today.
ERICA ENDERS: Yes, sir. Thanks for having me.
SCOTT SPEED: Erica is the two‑time and defending Pro Stock world champion, and she enters the season again with Elite Motorsports so will have a different car manufacturer, and she will compete in a Dodge Dart for the coming season and be teamed with five‑time Pro Stock world champion Jeg Coughlin. She had 21 career victories and is second only to Angelle Sampey with 41 wins.
Erica, we'll start with the off‑season, and I say that in quotes. It's always a busy time of year, and with all the new changes to the rules and then the new manufacturer, I'm sure this has been even busier than normal. Where is your team right now in preparation for the first season opening event?
ERICA ENDERS: Yes, it's been a very hectic yet fun and exciting off‑season for us. The off‑season, as you said, in quotes, it's never an off‑season, it's more work than the regular season. But we just took delivery on two brand new Rick Jones‑built Dodge Darts for myself and for Jeg Coughlin, and we will begin testing the new Dodges this coming weekend following up with eight test sessions scheduled for Phoenix heading into the week of Pomona.
Things have been nuts. There have been a lot of rule changes for the class as a whole, so everybody is kind of starting from scratch, and there's a huge learning curve involved with all of the new rule changes, and then on top of that we built two new race cars, so it's been crazy.
SCOTT SPEED: Is it a good type of crazy, though, going into the year? Everybody loves that new‑car smell, I guess, but having a brand new car going into the season?
ERICA ENDERS: Yeah, absolutely. The past two years with Elite Motorsports I've started the year off with a brand new race car, and the guys that built the car, Rick and Ricky Jones, are also my crew chiefs, as well, so they seem to have a pretty good handle on the new cars. As far as driving them is concerned, every car has its own personality, and you have to get acquainted with it, but I enjoy it. I'm very excited. We're very optimistic at Elite Motorsports and Elite Performance, you know, with four entries this year, two Mopars with Jeg and I driving, and the other two with Drew Skillman and Vincent Nobile driving.
So we've got a lot going on under the Elite Motorsports banner, but we're very excited, and I think a lot of good things are to come.

Q. Erica, going for a third championship in front of a whole new television audience and new network, and hopefully fans or potential fans that aren't quite connected to the sport, as you go for three in a row, a three‑peat, to quote Pat Riley, what would you like these new fans to know about the sport, and if you are introducing the sport of NHRA Mello Yello drag racing to new fans, what is the primary objective that you want to get across to these people?
ERICA ENDERS: Well, if they're a new fan to NHRA drag racing, this year is certainly a crazy one to become a new fan, having no knowledge of the past of Pro Stock being carbureted and driving for a different manufacturer this year, you know, it's going to make it more relative to, I guess, your average motorsports fan, I guess. I mean, not having the hood scoop, not having carburetors, going over to fuel injection, it kind of brings it into‑‑ I guess we've kind of been racing in an archaic format, if you will, with the carburetors. My team owner always jokes you can barely buy a lawnmower with a carburetor on it. Hopefully we breathe a breath of fresh air into our class with tuning these cars with computers now instead of screwdrivers, and it should be an exciting year.
Following the fuel injection rule changes, the 10,500 rev limiter, shorter wheelie bars, and the no‑hood scoop deal, so it's definitely a season for change, and it should be an exciting one, especially if you're a new fan, and then of course the FOX coverage is going to be really unique in the aspect that they're going to spend a lot more time in the pits and at our race shops and getting introduced to the personalities of everybody on the teams out there, so it should be exciting.

Q. Quick follow‑up: People are talking about how the cars drive differently, the procedure in the cockpit might be different and require some adjustment. What have you heard? What are you anticipating as you get ready for your first test?
ERICA ENDERS: Well, I have not been in the race car since we switched over to fuel injection, so I've only talked to a couple of friends out there who have tested, Alan Johnson, of course, I've read Shane Gray's press release about the different procedures that go on in the cockpit, and driving Pro Stock, it's already extremely challenging in there with a lot of things going on. Anyway, the Pro Stock cockpit is always really busy. With the switch over to fuel injection, staging procedure and burnouts are going to change dramatically. You've kind of got to go back and erase everything that you have learned driving with a carburetor and learn it with fuel injection.
I was just with Alan Johnson this past weekend, and he was saying how frustrated he was a little bit just trying to learn the new procedure, so I'm going to try to go in there with a clear head and just figure it out as we go. My goal is to stage the car a whole bunch of times before we show up in Pomona because that's something I really pride myself on is the staging procedure, obviously being able to let the clutch pedal out on time, but doing a burnout with throttle control is going to be a challenge with the new fuel injection and throttle body, whatnot.
We'll see how it goes. Again, I'm optimistic, but change is always challenging, and we'll try to get ahead of the game.

Q. You talk about the changes, the challenges, and you're carrying over your momentum into this year. What do you expect from your competitors? They're going to be challenged, also. What do you expect most to see them having difficulty with all the changes?
ERICA ENDERS: Well, being that we're all dealt the same rule changes, I think everybody this off‑season has been just trying to figure out how to work with the new power band being at a lower RPM, and then of course implementing the fuel injection, where we used to pray to find three to five horsepower on the dyno, if you make a change with the fuel map on this new fuel injection stuff, you could stumble upon 10, 15, 20 horsepower at a time, so that's pretty significant in Pro Stock.
I think the team that gets the quickest handle on what's going on will be the one that starts the season the quickest, I guess, but at the same time, I mean, the learning curve is huge. Everybody, I'm sure, on separate teams feels that they have done everything in their power to do the best that they could in the off‑season. I know Richard Freeman and everybody at Elite Motorsports, we took the initiative to hire some fuel injection experts. Of course it costs a very pretty penny to switch everything over from carburetors to fuel injection, and let alone all the computer programming and all the guys that have the knowledge to do that.
We were fortunate enough to have Jake Harrison on board who is a pretty successful fuel injection guy. We feel that things are going to be okay, but given time we are going to get better. Everybody is going to get better out there, and again, without just the burst of confidence from me, from my guys, I feel like I have the best, smartest guys in the business, and we fully expect to be on top. Having said that, it will be a challenge. There are a lot of really smart, talented racers in Pro Stock, so we're just going to have to see what happens.
I think right now the KB guys have run the quickest with fuel injection, but there have only been three teams that I know have tested: KB, Alan Johnson and the Gray bunch, so we'll hopefully add some numbers to that this coming weekend and see where we stand.

Q. It sounds like the switching to a new car or to a new manufacturer really isn't much of a‑‑ in the play works at this time when you've got ultimately other things to deal with.
ERICA ENDERS: Yeah, there's definitely a lot to deal with, but we are super excited to be on board with Mopar and Dodge and it's a really exciting time for everyone at Elite Motorsports, to bring on a new teammate in Jeg Coughlin, obviously probably the best driver that the pro class has ever seen in the history of the sport, in my opinion, of course, but we have a lot of exciting things happening in our camp, and we're honored to be a part of the Mopar family now, and I think it's going to be a fun, successful season.

Q. Does the style of driving change because of this, and does that make it more exciting?
ERICA ENDERS: I think the style will definitely change significantly, just based upon what the people have tested the new fuel injection package have said. I personally have not experienced it yet. My first time in the car with fuel injection will be this coming Saturday, so I can let you know more when I do it, but as far as what people have said, it's changed significantly, so it'll be a whole new narrow program, a whole new procedure in the cockpit, but again, we pride ourselves on that, so I'm excited for the challenge.

Q. In what ways does that make it exciting for you? Obviously it's something totally different.
ERICA ENDERS: Well, changes is always tough, and I'm not a huge advocate for it, but having said that, if you're not changing, you're not moving forward. So I think these changes that have been implemented through Pro Stock and into NHRA, our sport as a whole, we're definitely moving in the right direction, and the challenge at hand are what make it exciting for me. That's why I chose Pro Stock. I mean, not taking away from any of the other classes, but we're the only class that uses a clutch and we have to shift the car manually, and there's a lot going on and a lot of the weight is on the driver's shoulders, and I absolutely expect there to be a lot more weight on my shoulders this coming year with the changes that have been made, and I'm hopeful that our team comes out on top and learns how to handle those changes and challenges first.

Q. I know a lot of changes going on, everyone is talking about them, you're changing even car manufacturer and everything, but one thing not changes is you're going into the season as the champion again. Does your mindset change now that you're a two‑time champion? The first time you know, okay, now I've got a target on my back. Do you feel at all different knowing that you've been the dominant driver last year, and just talk about where your mind is at going into this season.
ERICA ENDERS: Sure. My mindset, I try to always keep it the same. I feel like that's why we do so well as a team, that our first objective out there is to have fun, and our team owner Richard Freeman tells us all the time, it just doesn't matter, let's just go out there and have fun and we'll do our best and let God do the rest and we'll see what happens. That's the mindset that we carry week in and week out. It doesn't change being that we have the No.1 on our car again. It's obviously a huge honor, and I'm so proud that we have accomplished it twice in a row. There's not a lot of people that can say they've done that.
I'm excited. You know, the target definitely is on our back. It has been since I joined Elite Motorsports, and we like that aspect of it. It makes it more exciting and more fun for us.
You know, going into this season, our goal is always the same, to go out there and have fun and to win races for our great sponsors, and of course our new manufacturer Mopar.
I'm looking forward to the year. We've talked about the changes and the challenges ahead, and I don't want to beat those into the ground, but it's definitely going to be a different kind of racing this year, but I fully expect to do our best again and to win a lot of events this year. You know, the learning curve, again, is going to be huge and going to be hard, but we're up for the challenge.
The way that we run our program at Elite Motorsports is very unique. I've driven for a lot of different teams, and I've never had what I have there. I feel like that translates to our on‑track success, so I'm excited. We're optimistic.

Q. I was just going to ask you about the new TV package, too. I know they've said they're going to change it up a little, do a little more background on the drivers and stuff. Has anyone reached out to you yet? Have they filmed anything on you yet or arranged to do any background stuff with you so far?
ERICA ENDERS: I actually got an email from one of the FOX people yesterday trying to set up an interview for the Monday following this weekend, so hopefully they'll be able to come down to our shop. We just made a 6,000‑square‑foot addition to house two more rigs, mine and Jeg's, along with Drew's, as well. There's been a lot going on at Elite Motorsports, and I think it'll be really cool when everybody gets to see where our home base is what's going on behind the scenes. I think that makes it definitely more interesting for the fan. I know I enjoy that aspect of it, watching NASCAR on TV, that they go and show you the technical side of things and explain things as to what's going on. I enjoy that aspect of it, so hopefully we're able to teach the fans more and show them more about where we come from and what we're made of.

Q. With all the changes with the fuel injection and basically the aero package on the car, have you gotten any feedback from your engine builders and dyno operators as to what kind of power the new power plants make compared to the carbureted engine?
ERICA ENDERS: Yeah, across the board, dynos are kind of like bathroom scales. Every one you get on gives you a different readout. Based upon the data that we had with the carbureted stuff in comparison to what we have with the fuel injection stuff across the board, and that's just if other teams are telling the truth, everybody seems to be down between 40 and 60 horsepower. Maybe about a tenth to a tenth and a half, three mile per hour‑ish. But that's on the dyno, not on the racetrack. Everything translates differently.
We'll have to see how that data that we've collected on the dyno translates to the racetrack this coming weekend, but it'll definitely be slower to start with, I believe, but if you give all of these really smart guys a chance to catch up, I think that the sky is the limit with this new fuel injection stuff and being able to tune these race cars with the fuel map and the computers, it's definitely going to be different.
The longer we have with the new program as time goes on in the season, I definitely think that you'll see horsepower pick up significantly as well as increase in miles per hour.

Q. You've talked to Alan Johnson. Does he say the car handle differently without the scoop on it?
ERICA ENDERS: Well, yeah, it does handle differently, and I have the optimum opportunity to go to Detroit and visit the engineers at Mopar and spend some time in the wind tunnel and learning what they have learned from the data with comparing with the hood scoop and without the hood scoop, so downforce is definitely going to change significantly on the back of the car. It's creating a more loose feel, so I'm sure that everyone will compensate either with more wicker or running the cars differently completely.
We'll have to see what happens. AJ definitely said that they handle differently, but that's‑‑ every driver has a different way of handling things, so I'm hopeful that I know what to expect, but at the same time I'm not going to know until I get in the car myself.
Again, I'll just go in there with a clean head and try to figure it out as quickly as I can. It's definitely going to be a challenge.

Q. I think that anybody who's never been to the Winter Nationals needs to go this year, just to watch Pro Stock.
ERICA ENDERS: I agree with you.
SCOTT SPEED: Erica, thank you very much, as always, for your time and joining us. Good luck with the test session coming up, and we will see you in Pomona when we go racing in a couple weeks.
ERICA ENDERS: All right, thank you, guys.

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