FORMER World Champion Tom Harris, who has taken over from Rob Speak in the National Points Shootout Championship-winning shale and Tarmac cars of Jamie Davidson, has had a hectic start to the year – and it is due to get even busier.
The Banbury star has a daunting schedule in front of him. As well as clashing bumpers and nerf rails with his main rivals throughout a nine-month season in BriSCA F1, he is also planning a full-on campaign in the States, including competing in a number of USAC events as well as more BriSCA F1 meetings in Holland.
It all began back in January when the 28-year-old competed against the best Midget racers in the US at the Chilli Bowl Midget Nationals in Tulsa for the third time. With 400 cars competing during four intense nights of racing in the indoor arena, Harris gained the respect of his fellow competitors by qualifying his Midget for the ‘B’ Final on Finals night. A flat tyre halted the potential prospect of an ‘A’ Final slot.
Less than a month later Harris was flying across to the other side of the world to compete in the New Zealand Superstock Teams Championships for the Gisborne Giants. He would eventually face up against Team GB’s British Lions team in the semi-final in which the Lions would go on to compete in the final.
Since then it has been non-stop work on refurbishing and building stock cars for the new BriSCA F1 season, which began last month.
I will be flying to America on Sundays, racing Monday through to Thursday and flying back Friday and racing BriSCA F1 on the Saturday…
“At the moment, we’ve got 85 meetings we’re doing!” says Harris. “The first few weeks of the season is just about getting everything organised because after that it is going to be a very busy time for me.
“I will be flying to America on Sundays, racing Monday through to Thursday and flying back Friday and racing BriSCA F1 on the Saturday…”
In the meantime, Harris has spent the close season building stock cars and preparing the Davidson machines – raced successfully by Speak for the past three years – for the new season. The shale car has been completely stripped back down to a bare chassis and rebuilt from the ground up.
Harris worked alongside car builder Stephen ‘Cecil’ Sayers to get the car ready for King’s Lynn. The finishing touches were added while Sayers was away on holiday in America for a couple of weeks.
“We’ve totally revamped it,” says Harris. “We’ve put different suspension on it, a fresh engine and we’re all geared up ready to go. It’s been stripped down to absolutely nothing. New axles – basically there are more new bits than old bits. The rear suspension is radically different.
“Cecil has got his own ideas and it has his input. We’ve worked together on the car but he has done all the work to be fair. He’s been away in America for the past couple of weeks but now the crew chief is back!”
Harris rolled the shale car out for the first time at King’s Lynn at the end of March, and after inevitable set-up issues, the car finished the night with a decent third place in the Grand National.
The focus of interest for many fans this season will be how he compares with Speak, who won a gold roof and two Shootout silver roofs in three successive seasons driving the Davidson cars. However, as far as Harris is concerned there is no pressure coming from his car owner.
“The only thing Jamie has told to do is try and win,” says Harris. “When we did the deal I said to him I was not really bothered if I raced all year or not because I enjoyed what I did last year.
If I’ve got the chance to win I’ve got the backing to take every chance to win that I get. If it doesn’t come off and I don’t finish, I don’t finish
“I wasn’t chasing any points or championships, but every time I went out on the track I raced to win and it worked for me. I won heats and four finals I had a good year in terms of points average per meeting. But I had no pressure, I just went there to do what I wanted to do and enjoy it and that’s what I’m going to do this year.
“If I’ve got the chance to win I’ve got the backing to take every chance to win that I get. If it doesn’t come off and I don’t finish, I don’t finish.
“Jamie knows what it takes to win a stock car race and he has got no expectations from me, whatsoever. So long as I go out there and give it my all, he will be happy.”
With all the racing commitments he is taking on this year, Harris is well aware of the logistics involved and the work that goes on behind the scenes to make it happen.
“A massive thanks has to go to everyone who has helped organise it all for me,” says Harris. “Because a lot of people are unaware just how much goes into racing in America. There’s the flights, transport, traveling to different places, being somewhere at a certain time, getting connecting flight to go here, another to go there… it’s a massive, massive ask of people.
“But that’s why I’ve made the commitment to race in America and why I sold my stock cars to be able to afford to do that. Plus, on top of that, obviously Jamie has been kind enough to ask me to race in Speaky’s stuff this year, so I’m going to do my best for my team over here and my team in America.
“It does take its toll,” he says. “When we fly from here to America you can be up for 24 hours and be up at two o’clock in the morning because of the time difference and also there’s the heat out there. It can get up to 100 degrees and it can really take it out of you.
“I want to succeed. I’m getting more respect after I had an awesome Chilli Bowl this year. I won my first race in a Sprint Car last year. It was only a heat but it was a massive achievement for me. We have about 200 F1 stock cars over here, but in America there’s about 5-6,000 Sprint Cars, including all the big teams out there. There are drivers who have been racing for 20 years and have never won a race, so to have achieved that and in the way I have been racing it’s pretty special to me.”
For all his hard work there is a team of people in the States who Harris has the most gratitude.
For all the people who make the effort, to make it happen, I want to give it my all every time I go out there to repay them
Harris races a Bob East chassis in America. East is one of most celebrated car builders and team managers in USAC racing. A multiple USAC National Midget Championship winner, he has won titles with Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman, Mike Bliss and Jason Leffler.
“I simply couldn’t do it without Bob and Janice East,” Harris says. “It would be impossible without the guys and girls out there who support us. They’re the ones who make it possible for me. It’s not cheap, by any means, but for all the people who make the effort, to make it happen, I want to give it my all every time I go out there to repay them.”
For Harris, rapid progress in the Chilli Bowl is just the start of the journey. On the back of his stellar performance in Tulsa he has been invited to race in Australia. It’s a wonder, therefore, he has any time to compete in BriSCA F1 during in 2017.
“It’s spiralling a bit out of control, really,” Harris admits. “I want to do the same as I did last year – quality rather than quantity. I could have raced more last year than I did but I didn’t really have time. I don’t want to put my business on the line by racing because my business, at the end of the day, is what pays the bills.”
The bills get paid with the dream of competing in something even bigger than a USAC Midget.
“World of Outlaws,” Harris says. “That has been my goal since I was a kid. I’ve always wanted to race a World of Outlaws Sprint Car.
“The money involved in that is way out of my league, and that is why we’re doing what we’re doing now – to gain track time and experience and basically to get my head around the speed factor. You’re doing over double the speed than you are in a stock car and if you make a mistake it’s not just a glance off a wall.
“I’m not saying I going win races or anything but I want to be able to race wheel-to-wheel with the guys out there and be competitive.
“The fact they see that I keep coming back for more means they realise I’m serious about it. Some people come over from Australia, for example, and make the commitment but end up jacking it in. But because I’m sticking at it I’m getting the respect.”
The World Of Outlaws is a dream of the future, but for now Harris has more immediate challenges in store in BriSCA F1.
I’ve been building the shale car for about 18 months – I’ve put a lot of time and effort into it
“I’ve got two new cars under construction when I’ve got time,” Harris reveals, “But that’s the trouble at the minute, because I’m doing all these things and all this traveling, it doesn’t give me any time to get on with my own stuff. I’ve been building the shale car for about 18 months – I’ve put a lot of time and effort into it.”
When it will make an appearance Harris is unable to say, but for this season it is the Davidson team cars he will be fighting for honours in, with the big events firmly in his sights. “Obviously Jamie has been kind enough to ask me to race in Speaky’s stuff this year,” he says. “So I’m going to do my absolute best for the team. Whenever I go out on the track I race to win.”
This season Harris sees the same protagonists fighting for honours.
“It should be the usual suspects really,” he says. “Frank, Dan Johnson, Lee Fairhurst, Mick Sworder. Stuart Smith Jnr didn’t make the Shootout last year so he will be gunning for it. He is obviously keen having done the opening Belle Vue.
“Nigel Green will be thereabouts. He can turn it on when it matters, like he did to win the World semi final and he had a good Shootout.”
Due to his good performances last year Harris believes, however, that Green will find it tougher to stay under the radar.
“I have never been left alone in the Shootout, nor has Frank, Dan Johnson or Speaky. I don’t think Nigel’s going be be left alone anymore. He’s made his mark and he will be classed as an superstar now. I never had any run-ins with him, so it’s a case of I’m clean with him if he’s clean with me.”
“Of the younger guys, I think Bradley Harrison could be a front-runner. He’s driving his dad’s Tarmac car this year, so if he does the meetings and puts the effort in, he’s got the equipment now to run at the top.”
“Ben Riley is coming on. He’s got good equipment now. He’s got the best you can get both on shale and Tarmac! They’ve got the finance to carry it on through the year.”
The Shootout is an objective, but is one championship the former owner of the silver roof has mixed feelings about. Noted for being outspoken on stock car racing issues, he has strong views on the subject.
“At the end of the day I don’t mind it,” Harris says. “It is good for the fans and without the fans the sport’s going nowhere, so I think it’s good in that sense.
“For a driver, week in and week out, doing every meeting throughout the year, missing family events, weddings, holidays, being in the garage every night every week, getting the car ready and spending no time with the family, and then win the season points and then get nothing for it? I just don’t agree with it.
“Going into Belle Vue for the Shootout Finale last year, I still had a chance of winning it. I was third in the points.
“I raced 12 times to get into the Shootout and I did nine rounds in the Shootout itself and I can win the silver roof? To me that’s not right. But it is going to take something like that to happen before anything will get done about it.
“Have the Shootout but for silver strips or another colour. To me, if you win the graded points your are the National Points champion. And if you win the Shootout you are the National Shootout champion.
“I’ve won three graded points titles, but I’ve also been lucky in the past as I won both in the same year.”
Of the other major titles, Harris has yet to win a British title, but has victories in the European Championship and won the gold roof after an emphatic win in the World Final at King’s Lynn in 2013.
He was one of the post-race favourites that night, but a simple error during the week leading up to the event very nearly cost him the race.
Starting from the outside front row behind Lee Fairhurst and Ryan Harrison, Harris managed to take second place early on, but didn’t look comfortable behind race leader Harrison, with the car pushing badly into the corners.
“I went to King’s Lynn during that week, actually,” Harris explains. “We went to practice and when we finished the session the track was really slick. I’d been busy the week before doing a Dutch car for the World Final and I made a silly mistake really, because I didn’t put the brake settings back to where they should have been for the start of a race.
I remember sitting in the car on the second corner and it started to run wide and I was thinking “Jesus! It didn’t do that the other day?”
“So, at the start of the World Final I was having to go in with the throttle to get the car to turn, and I was really struggling.
“During that week for practice I knew the car was quick, but it was frustrating . I remember sitting in the car on the second corner and it started to run wide and I was thinking “Jesus! It didn’t do that the other day?”
“And so I was throwing it into the corners harder, and the harder I was throwing it in, and because the brakes were all on the front, I couldn’t get the car to turn.
“So with that restart I got myself together, checked everything in the cab I could and then I realised the brakes were as I finished when the track was slick.
“Those yellow flags won me that World Final, because I was able to set my brakes to how they should have been and from then on it was a completely different car to how it started.”
Neil Randon 2017