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Three for the road: Women with diverse personalities help power NHRA

In the world of major-league drag racing, three top women in this weekend’s National Hot Rod Association event in Las Vegas have forged unique marketing strategies and branding images to compete both on the track and in the high-stakes off-speedway competition for sponsors and fans.

Erica Enders-Stevens, Courtney Force and Alexis DeJoria are among the high-speed competitors at the NHRA Toyota Nationals at Las Vegas Motor Speedway who have carved out their own business niches and identities that appeal to different demographic groups and potential sponsors being wooed to pay the racers’ multi-million-dollar bills.

Enders-Stevens, 30, from New Orleans is the girl next door, an unpretentious, religious and wholesome racer who swaps thoughts with the race circuit’s clergywoman right before she steps into her Pro Stock Chevy Camaro for her seven-second trip down the race strip. In 2012, she was the first woman to win a NHRA Pro Stock race.

Force, 25, from Yorba Linda, Calif., is the stunningly attractive 5-foot, 8-inch, 129-pound NHRA rookie of the year for 2012 who posed nude in ESPN The Magazine’s “Body” edition this year. Force, the daughter of NHRA legend John Force and driver of a Ford Mustang in the Funny Car category, uses her sex appeal to attract media attention and sponsors.

DeJoria, 36, from Venice, Calif., is the edgy, tattooed driver of a Toyoya Camry in the Funny Car category and counts Tequila Patrón as a main sponsor. She also is married to reality TV bad-boy Jesse James, chief executive of West Coast Choppers and former husband of actress Sandra Bullock.

DeJoria’s unconventional style on the drag race circuit is reflected in her initiative to invite women who are 40 and older to get free mammograms at a mobile unit at her garage Saturday and Sunday.

“They are three different personalities,” said John Force, 64, Courtney’s father, colorful drag racer and 15-time NHRA Funny Car champion. “They’re all different, and we need that for the sport.”

Enders-Stevens majored in marketing at Texas A&M, so she understands that she and her two rivals have to create distinct images for their racing brands in order to lure sponsors.

“If I had to describe myself, I would be the girl next door. I’m going to stay true to myself and market who I am,” Enders-Stevens said.

“Courtney, she’s the beautiful California girl, and it took a lot of guts (to pose nude in ESPN the Magazine),” Enders-Stevens said. “Alexis, she’s the bad ass, being so cool. She has that appearance on the outside, but she’s so sweet, humble and down-to-earth on the inside.”

She noted that the trio of women are friends. In fact, Enders-Stevens attended DeJoria’s wedding.

Sponsorship revenue is vital for race teams. For example, Husky Liners and Chevy are main sponsors of Enders-Stevens. Traxxas, Ford and Castrol are key sponsors for Force. DeJoria’s sponsors include Toyota and Mac Tools. Different companies are drawn to the three female drivers because of the women’s unique brands and images. The sponsorship values are closely guarded secrets.

The NHRA, drag racing’s sanctioning body, prides itself on the number of women and minority professional drivers. The Glendora, Calif.-based organization, founded in 1951, stages about 24 races a year, including two in Las Vegas.

Courtney Force said she originally rejected ESPN’s “Body” issue offer because she first wanted to establish herself as a competitive driver on the circuit. But after winning rookie of the year, she took off her clothes and was photographed.

“It opened a lot more doors and opened the eyes of a lot of people to our sport,” she said. “It opened the door to a lot of media outlets.” She noted she has since appeared on the cover of Auto Week and was featured in Self magazine.

“It was a big opportunity to show a lot of people the work I did on my body to drive a 10,000-horsepower, 300-mile-per-hour drag race car,” she said.

John Force, who also appeared in the annual ESPN “Body” edition several years ago, joked that his youngest daughter is just as much the girl next door as Enders-Stevens. Force supported his daughter’s appearance in the sports magazine because he liked the fact she decided to be photographed only after establishing herself as a credible drag racer.

Like Courtney Force, DeJoria has a famous father — billionaire businessman John Paul DeJoria, co-founder of the Paul Mitchell line of hair products.

“We all come from different backgrounds, and I bring something a little different to the table,” Alexis DeJoria said. “There are the tattoo fans who want to see my arms, and the single moms always tell me how awesome it is that I’m out there.”

Enders-Stevens said she and her two friends might offer different brands, but there’s one common denominator.

“We’re three big names with different personalities,” Enders-Stevens said, “but we all have the same drive.”

Contact Alan Snel at asnel@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5273. Follow @BicycleManSnel on Twitter

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