Growing Up Fast
Amusing as it may be to their friends, grime definitely pays for Erica, who turns 15 on Oct. 8, and her sister Courtney, 11. Since Erica first put pedal to metal in 1992—Courtney followed two years later—the Enders sisters have each won two national drag-racing championships. They've won enough trophies to fill the game room of their spacious home in west Houston, gotten themselves sponsored by Pennzoil and earned enough scholarship money to put them both through college. "It's amazing—people line up to get their autographs just like any other driver," says top fuel dragster Tony Schumacher. "They're not only good racers but perfect for the sport." Beyond that, "I think it's pretty fun," offers the 4'11", 75-lb. Courtney. "None of my friends believe I can drive."
Although the sisters' track attack began when Erica, then 8, spotted an article announcing a new drag-racing program for 8-to 17-year-olds sponsored by the National Hot Rod Association, the girls were already primed to compete. As a toddler, Erica would eagerly accompany her father, Gregg, to watch monster truck competitions. At 6, she was learning about tools. "I could tell her, 'Give me a crescent wrench or a 5/8" socket,' and she knew what they were," says Gregg Enders, 44, a software company CEO and former drag racer who builds show cars as a hobby. "She had been sitting on my lap driving cars around the neighborhood since she was old enough to see over the wheel."
Since son Tom, now a 19-year-old sophomore at Arizona State, had preferred basketball, Gregg was only too happy to share his own childhood passion with his daughters. He started their training at a local go-cart track, then drilled them relentlessly on drag-racing terms and safety. "I couldn't wait to drive," recalls Erica, who notched her first victory three months later, in her second race. "It's really awesome to win—it's the best feeling in the world." And after helping her sister prepare, says Courtney, "I wanted to do it too, instead of just watching her." Before long, racing had become a way of life for the family, says the girls' mother, Janet Lee, 47, a homemaker who is a car buff herself.
From the start, the sisters encountered little friction on the junior drag circuit, where 35 to 40 percent of the 5,000 participants nationally are female. But "my friends thought that I was a total idiot and a crazy mother to let my kids do that," Janet Lee confesses. "I just told them that Courtney had broken an arm at a birthday party and Erica had broken her thumb riding a bicycle and that my kids were safe." Indeed, as the girls zoom down the 660-foot-long junior track in just over 8.9 seconds, at speeds of up to 80 miles an hour, "they have a five-layer fire suit, a roll cage designed to sustain a crash of 250 miles plus and a safety harness they're strapped in," says Gregg Enders. "You'd have to throw a javelin in the car to hurt them."
Despite the busy racing calendar—every Saturday and a few Sundays during the season, which runs from February to November—competition has helped make the sisters exemplary students. "I have to have straight A's to drive," explains Erica, who still finds time to play on the freshman volleyball team at Cypress Springs High School. Courtney, a sixth grader at Watkins Junior High, is also a competitive gymnast. "There isn't anything else I would prefer Erica to do; drag racing is all she ever thinks about," says Janet Lee of her older daughter, who eventually hopes to make it a career. "Now, Courtney, she loves it, but she's more relaxed about it."
Relaxed, maybe, but no less competitive. In the five times they've gone head to head this year, Courtney has won three races to Erica's two. Says Erica: "I feel like I need to win all the time or I'll never hear the end of it."
Michelle McCalope in Houston
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