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Daily Archives: April 13, 2010

Harris has a message: It can happen to you!

Brian Harris is shown at a 2001 NASCAR All-Star Series race in Harlan, Iowa. Phil Roberts Photo.

Dirt Late Model driver Brian Harris has a message for fellow competitors: Don’t take your safety for granted. Accidents will happen, and they can happen to you.

Harris knows. The Davenport, Iowa, native who now lives in Walcott, Iowa, was in a devastating crash Sept. 22, 2007, at the West Liberty (Iowa) Raceway.

He was leading the Liberty 100 on the dirt half-mile when tragedy struck on lap 68.

“We were lapping some cars, and the track was rubbered up, so everyone was kind of single file,” Harris recalls.

As he was coming up on lapped traffic for the fourth or fifth time, Harris says he got “tagged from behind.”

The impact spun his car around, and the driver’s side hit the concrete wall hard.

At the time, Harris Racing, which was owned by Brian Harris’ parents, Allen and Karen, had two cars. One had a full containment seat, which adds support for a driver’s shoulders, head and neck. The other did not.
The night of Harris’ crash, he was piloting the car without the state-of-the-art seat, and the left side of his helmeted head hit the roll bar when the car struck the wall.

In addition to the head trauma, Harris broke the C2 vertebra in his neck, which forms the pivot upon which the first cervical vertebra, which carries the head, rotates.

The head injury and broken neck, which could have ended Harris’ driving career – or worse, put him in the hospital for two weeks and abruptly ended his 2007 racing season, eliminating him from a possible World Dirt Racing League (WDRL) points title.

Following the sheet time, there were two months of rehabilitation. But Harris made a full recovery and has had no recurring problems from the head trauma and no paralysis from the broken neck.

“It could have been a lot worse than what it was,” Harris admits.

Harris, 31, began racing go-karts at the age of 10. When he was about 17, he moved to Legends cars for a season. Then he spent a season racing a Late Model on the asphalt at Hawkeye Downs in Cedar Rapids.

Dirt Late Model driving legend Gary Webb, a family friend with a wealth of racing knowledge and lots of contacts, “helped us get our first Dirt Late Model car,” says Harris.

“We got a car from a friend of his in Chicago, and he (Webb) helped us out the first year. It kind of took off from there,” Harris adds. “I kind of fell in love with the dirt racing.”

Harris raced an IMCA Late Model with a spec motor his first season on dirt. Then the team branched out with an open engine and competed in WDRL and other series, racing weekly when possible at the same time.
His biggest years, Harris says, were 2007 – despite the crash – and 2008.

“We had all the resources in line,” he says, including sponsor support. “We had the team behind us, and we had a lot of success.”

The success included a World of Outlaws win in 2007 and contention for the WDRL title until the wreck sidelined him.

His success in 2008 came ultimately with NASCAR. Harris says he started the season with WDRL but left about five races into it because the series had lost its title sponsor and had not yet announced its year-end point fund.

So he decided to run the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series, competing weekly at the tracks at Farley, West Liberty and Dubuque, Iowa.

He almost captured the series’ national championship.

“We went after that thing pretty hard, and we came up a few points short,” Harris says.

Harris ended up second, two points back (955 to 953), to the winner, Ruckersville, Va., driver Philip Morris.

Harris had 20 series wins, 35 top fives and 36 top 10s in 38 starts, winning track championships at Farley and West Liberty along the way.

“It was a very neat opportunity to race that deal,” he says.
One benefit, he adds, was seeing first hand how well NASCAR treats its champions and “meeting a lot of new, interesting people that you see on TV” at the series awards banquet that November in Las Vegas.

Says Harris: “It was a good time. It’s unbelievable.”

There were big changes for Harris Racing in the 2009 season. It closed up shop.

“We sold our cars because of the way the economy was,” Harris says.
His parents, the team owners, had operated a concrete construction company, he explains, but it had seen a downturn in business because of the recession. (Harris’ brother Jeff eventually bought his parents out and started his own firm, Concrete Central. Brian Harris, who had worked for his parents, now works for his brother.)

Harris wasn’t without a ride for long. He had driven the Ray Neltner-owned No. 75 car a little in 2008, he says.

A working relationship developed, and Harris drove the Late Model at Peoria Speedway and at some special events in eastern Iowa in 2009.
The weekly races in Peoria were a big change for a guy who grew up racing the big Iowa half miles at Davenport, West Liberty and Farley.

“Going down there to race at Peoria Speedway every Saturday was an eye-opening experience,” Harris recalls. “It’s a little bull ring, things happen real quick and I was learning to race with a different group of people.”

Though Harris no longer had to turn wrenches as he had done at the family racing operation, he did have to learn how to communicate with a new crew. But it was a good experience.

“They’ve been racing for 40 years as a team. There’s a lot of history there, and it was neat to be a part of it.”

He also says the season was rewarding.

“We won a few features and met a lot of new, good people.”

In addition to the 75 car, Harris drove a competitive Modified car out of Peoria once in a while in 2009 and won a feature in it at Farmer City, Ill., with it.

“That was neat. That was fun,” he says.

At press time, Harris is talking with various car owners, including Neltner, about the 2010 season but hasn’t yet made a driving commitment.

As an Iowa winter plays out, he also is reflecting on the support he received following his 2007 wreck. For a full six months after the crash, he received cards, calls and e-mails from well-wishers, many of whom he didn’t even know.

“I have a room in my house where I have a lot of my racing stuff,” he says. “And I go through that stuff. It meant a lot then, and it still means a lot today.

He notes that there often is a “lot of drama that follows the racing community and everybody has their favorite driver, but when someone gets hurt, they gather around him. That helps with the healing.”

Harris is also preaching racing safety.

“After an accident like that, you look at that safety stuff quite a bit differently,” he notes. “And you’ve got to just spread the word a little bit.

“Everybody in that pit area thinks that that stuff can’t happen to them, and I was one of those people. It can happen; some things are just out of your control. You’ve just got to be prepared for it.”

Copyright 2010 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises. This article was published in Late Model Illustrated magazine.

 
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Posted by on April 13, 2010 in Uncategorized

 

Honoring pioneer racers in the Quad-Cities

They still remember Shorty Bennett, left, 2007 Hall of Fame inductee, who signs autographs for a line of waiting fans on the rear deck of a replica of a Late Model he drove in the 1960s. Phil Roberts photo.

A 1968 photo of Jim Gerber in his Dodge Charger with the late flagman, Buzz Reed. From the Phil Roberts Collection.

Shane Davis following a 1987 IMCA Modified win in Princeton, Ill. Photo courtesy of Shane Davis.

Brian Stuart was just 3 years old when he attended his first race at Quad-City Raceway in East Moline, Ill. Now 34, Stuart has just concluded his third season promoting weekly races at the track. And one of his proudest accomplishments was starting the Quad-City Raceway Hall of Fame, held annually in September in conjunction with a Hall of Fame race at the quarter-mile dirt oval.

“It was something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, since before I became a promoter,” he said. “It needed to be done in the Quad-Cities.”
The Hall of Fame idea was on his mind when Stuart took over promotion of the track in 2007, and he quickly decided, “We’re hosting it. This is something we’re going to do.”

But he stresses the Hall of Fame is not just about those who’ve raced at Quad-City Raceway. It’s about racing history and those who made it in the Quad-Cities area of eastern Iowa and western Illinois.

“I love the history of racing around the Quad-Cities,” said Stuart, and he’s seen his share of it. His grandfather, Jack Stuart, turned wrenches on Terry Ryan’s cars and his father, Harry, later did the same thing.
Harry Stewart eventually covered racing at Quad-City Raceway for Hawkeye Racing News and the Milan (Ill.) Mirror newspaper, and Brian Stuart tagged along to the track with him. “My dad couldn’t go the races without me.”

Brian Stuart’s mother, Val, used her son’s love of racing to guarantee Brian’s good behavior. “If you sit still in church,” she’d tell him, “you can go to the races.”

Brian Stuart and I had breakfast one summer day in 2007 to talk about his Quad-City Raceway Hall of Fame idea, and we devised some pre-requisites for nomination to the Hall of Fame.

An inductee must possess one or more of these attributes:

* Success — Lots of wins or some big wins.
* Longevity — Ten or more seasons of racing competition or involvement.
* Notoriety — A Dale Earnhardt-type of guy.
* Congeniality — Great with fans no matter what the situation
* Racing ambassador — A model citizen and good with the media.
* Contribution to racing — An inventor, pioneer or risktaker.

The Hall of Fame, who inductees are selected based on the votes of a committee and racing fans, is not just about the number of driver wins, Stuart stresses.”It’s about drivers who stick around and sign autographs, too.”

The 2007 Hall of Fame inductees were current drivers Hershel Roberts and Gary Webb, retired drivers Shorty Bennett and Ray Guss Sr., deceased former drivers Benny Hofer and Ronnie Weedon and deceased racing sponsor Bob Eriksen.

In 2008, the class included deceased former drivers Dean Montgomery, who later flagged races, and Jerry Reinhart; and retired drivers Shane Davis, who later announced races, Jim Gerber, who later promoted races, Terry Ryan and Ernie Speth; and deceased contributor Doyle Bennett, who once drove but is best remembered for many years as a flagman.

The Hall of Fame inductees in 2009 were current driver Ray Guss Jr.; retired driver Duane Steffe; deceased drivers Tuffy Meyer, Charlie Moffit and Bill Starr; and longtime contributors Gene Freeman, a former crew chief for Ronnie Weedon, and Ken Reimers, a racing official.

Sometimes, Stuart said, racing people just don’t realize how much they are celebrities to racing fans.

He noted that two Hall of Fame drivers, Ray Guss Jr. and Hershel Roberts, recently stood under the grandstand after a night of races at Quad-City Raceway, to meet fans and sign autographs.

“They talked to everybody,” Stuart said. “They were there two hours straight. Drivers like this create their own fan base.”

So what has the response been to the Quad-City Raceway Hall of Fame? “It’s been very positive,” Stuart said, adding that he’s received lots of nice letters. Attendance at the ceremony is growing every year.

A 2007 inductee, Shorty Bennett, promised to return to the ceremony every year and has done so. Other inductees have, too.

“We’re just trying to pay respect to the racers who paved the way for competitors today,” said Stuart.

TWO QCR HALL OF FAME INDUCTEES IN THEIR OWN WORDS

By Jim Gerber, Davenport, Iowa, who has driven everything with wheels but is best known for driving Late Model stock cars.

I was very flattered and surprised that the induction committee thought of me to be inducted into the Quad City Raceway Hall of Fame. As time goes by, there are new race fans, and the drivers of the past are not a part of their racing memories.

I drove at East Moline from 1963 to 1999. Had a lot of fun times as well as some heartbreakers. But that all comes with being a racer.

In those days we built almost everything ourselves. Even down to the wheels. I remember spending many hours making wide rims by cutting two Buick rims apart and welding the wide halves together, then welding the wide bolt pattern Ford centers into them.

A funny thing happened one day when I was starting to weld the center onto a wheel. I would put a spindle with the hub in the vice, bolt the center onto it, then set the finished wheel on the center to make sure it was straight. The assembly was high enough that I would stand on our anvil to do the welding.

One day I got on the anvil, flipped the welding hood down and promptly fell off. The garage doors were open behind me. And I saw the reflection in the glass of the welding helmet, and when I moved my head it disoriented me.

I enjoyed my two years promoting races at Davenport Speedway. I really thought an open wheel show would be successful. We ran Midgets and IMCA-type Modified stock cars one week and the next it would be Sprint Cars and the IMCA-type cars. The racing was really close and exciting, but it was always the same 700 or so spectators every week. Not enough to pay the bills.

One of the things that used to aggravate me was to go to a track that was a big mud ball and spend at least a half an hour ironing it out. When I prepped the track, it was ready to hot lap on. Smooth and tacky. About three or four laps to warm the engine and then go for it. The water was deep under the surface. It didn’t look tacky, but many Midget guys got a surprise in time trials when they missed the setup and ended up on their head.

I kept reshaping the track each week to give it multiple grooves. I remember one night in the Modified stock car feature when they ran most of the race three abreast lap after lap. Really exiting.

I tried a lot of unconventional things to try to draw new fans. One was a motorcycle wheelie contest. One-hundred bucks to the rider who could ride the farthest on one wheel. Guess who won that? Kevin Doty (who later died in a 2005 Midget racing accident). He borrowed a bike from a fellow contestant, who as I remember had gone the farthest up until then, and rode almost the whole way around the quarter mile.

I lost a lot of money but would do it again because I love open wheel racing.

By Shane Davis, Rock Island, Ill., who has driven Late Models but achieved most of his success in Modified cars.

I grew up the son of a race car driver. Back in the day, they were easy to find. Just head down to your local filling station, and you were bound to find a stock car parked out in front. Your local racing hero probably worked at the station, as the whole staff typically supported their driver’s racing efforts, and crewed on the car.

I grew up in a time when racing was cool. But not very refined. The races we ran had better purses than today, when you compare the cost of racing vs. what you were paid to win.

What money was won went back into the car. We weren’t getting rich, but we sure had a lot of fun! Our routine consisted of working all day at our jobs. Around 5 p.m., the family would gather in the kitchen for supper. After a short rest, we would head out to the garage to work on the race car. We would work in to the wee hours of the morning, and get back up the next morning, and do it all over again.

My dad always told me if you work hard, you will be rewarded. We worked hard on that race car, and it converted to success on the track.
I learned a lot about life in my years of racing. How to have respect for your elders or people in authority. How to work in a team effort. How to manage money.

I developed determination and a solid work ethic. But what I cherish most are the great friendships that were developed in the garage and at the track. Many of those relationships remain today, along with the great racing memories.

Winning the 1987 IMCA Modified national championship will always hold a special place in my heart. My Modified racing team always told me I was the best. But I never had a chance to race against the best — Dean Montgomery, Jim Gerber, Gary Kerres, Ray Guss Sr. or Ronnie Weedon. The list is endless.

As time passed, I knew it was time to hang up the fire suit. I had always enjoyed listening to the golden voices of Paul Liebbe and, later, Phil Roberts on the “Around the Track” radio show and at the local speedways.

The good Lord blessed me with a nice voice, and in 1993 I got my first announcing gig at the old Hawkeye Raceway near Blue Grass, Iowa. I have had the pleasure of announcing at a lot of tracks in my post-driving years. I never had a day when I didn’t look forward to going to the track and getting behind the microphone.

In 2008, I was inducted in to the Quad-City Raceway Hall of
Fame. It was the icing on the cake. The good Lord commands us to “Do your work with passion. Do it with all of your might.”

I would like to be remembered for my love and passion for the sport of dirt track racing. As a driver, I always tried to get everything possible out of my car to bring success to the team, and to put on a show for the fans in the stands. I treasure all of my racing memories as a driver and announcer. I have been truly blessed.

Copyright 2010 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises. This story was published in Late Model Illustrated magazine.

 
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Posted by on April 13, 2010 in Uncategorized