Before Erica Enders-Stevens became the first female champion of the hyper-competitive NHRA Pro Stock class, she was featured in the Disney Channel's made-for-TV movie "Right on Track." Now the world of drag racing has the largest number of women participating out of any motorsport.
"Right on Track" was as adorable and heartwarming as Disney Channel movies can be. Released in 2003, when women in racing were even more of a rarity than they are today, the movie chronicles the tale of sisters Courtney and Erica Enders, who compete in the heavily male world of junior drag racing.
"Back in 1992, my sister and I were the only girls, at least at our home track," Enders-Stevens explained to NBC Sports. "Then we'd go to the national events and what-not, and there was just a small handful of us."
The sisters fight an uphill battle for respect as some of their male competition doesn't know how to handle competing against a woman. Although this need to prove themselves pushes the sisters to compete, Erica drops out for a while to focus on school and a social life.
Finally, Erica realizes that racing is what she really wants to do, joining Courtney to win the NHRA Junior Dragster championship.
The movie was made at a time when the Disney Channel and other media outlets were looking to encourage women who were interested in male-dominated activities to do 'em anyway. Enders-Stevens sums up the experience in remarks made to USA Today:
That was a point in time when they were doing movies on successful females in primarily male sports. It was very surreal to have our story portrayed in a movie. I've had so many younger fans come around because of the movie. It got the sport of drag racing in front of people who didn't necessarily go to the races.
Still to this day, kids will come up and say they saw the movie. It's so cool to hear we've inspired other kids to follow their dreams.
Of the two sisters, Erica turned pro at age 21. Courtney still works in the industry, working for Elite Motorsports as well as her sister's outfit, Erica Enders Racing.
Erica's road to a championship got considerably more difficult after the movie left off. In 2007, she lost funding and had to take a break from racing. She accepted whichever rides she could in 2009 and 2010, but they weren't in competitive cars.
After struggling to find a consistent ride, she want back to race for Victor Cagnazzi, who she raced for when she started her Pro Stock career in 2005. Sponsor ZaZa Energy, a oil and gas exploration company, also noticed Enders' talent. Enders explained the importance of finding the right sponsor at the right time to ESPN:
Had I not been in the uncompetitive car last year I wouldn't have been able to sell ZaZa on the deal. They never had been to a drag race and didn't even know what Pro Stock was. They came to the race in Dallas and fell in love with the sport and with me. They said, "What can we do to get you competitive?"
In 2012, Erica Enders became the first woman to win an NHRA Pro Stock event.
She moved to Elite Motorsports for the 2014 season, joining husband and fellow drag racer Richie Stevens, Jr., who also races for Elite. The smaller team had to skip two Nationals events in Seattle and Sonoma, California, citing cost as the reason, but both Erica and the car were competitive enough to stay in the running for the title up until last week's Auto Club Finals in Pomona, California.
Last weekend, Erica Enders-Stevens made history, scoring both her sixth win of the season as well as the Pro Stock Championship. She is the first woman to ever win the Pro Stock title.
Most Disney Channel movies are mere fairy tales—fantasies we enjoy as kids but accept as falsehoods later. This one proved to be different. Through hard work and determination, Enders-Stevens has made a name for herself in drag racing and won the respect from her competitors that she desired in her early days of racing.
Over 50 million people have seen the Disney movie since its release in 2003. She explained the movie's significance in the changing landscape of drag racing to ESPN:
So many good things came from the movie. I was told by [NHRA president] Tom Compton that it single-handedly changed the demographic of the sport. Now over 50 percent of all the Jr. Dragster competitors are female.
It's inspiring. Girls come to my trailer and say, "I saw your movie and I've been racing seven years because of you." That's awesome.
But the movie also brought a lot of pressure and expectations. You live life in a fishbowl. Everything you do is magnified. I've tried hard to be a good example, and if one kid gets to chase their dream because of the movie, it was worth it.
Enders isn't the only woman changing the landscape of drag racing. Courtney Force scored the 100th female NHRA victory at a race earlier this year in a funny car. Brittney Force and Alexis DeJoria are also top-level competitors in Funny Cars, and Hillary Will currently competes in the Top Fuel class. Road racer Shea Holbrook hopes join them soon in a jet dragster.
Drag racing has a long history of female participation, going all the way back to the days of Shirley Muldowney in the 1970s. Enders-Stevens explains to NBC Sports:
Shirley Muldowney, for sure, was my idol. As a kid growing up, I rooted for her. And when she retired, it was Shelley Anderson, who is Shelly Payne now, the Top Fuel dragster.
I always rooted for the girls, I guess, because I was a girl trying to compete with all the guys. … I certainly looked up to Shirley and she paved the way for us, people like me and Alexis DeJoria and other girls out here who are competing. I know what we have to put up with now in 2014. I can't imagine what it was like in the '70s. [Muldowney's] tough for a reason.
We're finally starting to see the sport embrace women as competitors, and it's becoming a more interesting and wonderful place as a result.
Disney, y'all should make more movies that aren't about finding Prince Charming more often. I'm just sayin'.
Photo credits: AP Images