Tom Harris tackles the USA
How the BRISCA F1 champion is turning heads on the other side of the pond. By Matt James
There are a number of drivers who have gone to America to seek fame and fortune. It is a tough trail to blaze, because racing in the USA is very cultural. Those from overseas are seen as brave warriors who are usually destined for a fall. BRISCA F1 World Final winner and two-time European F1 champion Tom Harris looks like he is going to buck that trend. The 27-year-old has decided to branch out and try and make a name for himself in the USA.
And, following his initial outings Stateside, he has already turned heads. He has already competed twice in the Chili Bowl event, which the Americans describe as the ‘Super Bowl of midget car racing’ in the States.
On his second appearance at the indoor Tulsa Arena, which fits over 40,000 spectators, Harris showed his prowess. He took third place in his heat and finished seventh in the B Final. That kind of form is usually seen by experienced hands in the sport and he now has a glimpse of racing Us-style. Harris has bought a non-winged sprint car, which is based in the States, and is eager to get more outings as the year progresses. “It was an incredible experience, and I certainly have a taste for it,” explains Harris, who lifted the European F1 title last season. “The atmosphere was simply amazing.”
Harris, who constructs and runs BRISCA F1 machines for customers in the UK, has had a long-held ambition to make his name in the States, but was persuaded by a friend to go and test a car on a dirt oval in Texas in 2014. “I wasn’t sure what to expect,” he says. “But I went and did the test, and the reaction of the crew running the car was one of amazement. I think they were a bit shocked. Usually, when they test rookies, they are expecting all kinds of problems and mistakes. By the end of my run, they were putting new tyres on the car and asking me to go for it. I think I completed 100 laps in all.”
Through a relationship with well-known US crew chief Smiley Sitton, word soon spread in America about this new star, and Harris made his way to the Chili Bowl in 2015 for his midget racing debut. He was thwarted by mechanical gremlins but his immediate speed won him a new raft of fans.
“It was interesting,” says Banburybased Harris. “When I first went out there, I kept myself to myself really. I kept my head down, but once I started showing my speed, people came up and introduced themselves to me. Rather than just being a curious guy from Europe, they were taking me seriously, which was a compliment.”
Harris has always harboured ambitions of becoming a professional in the States in Sprint Car racing, a discipline which has spawned hundreds of circuit racing stars including the likes of Mario Andretti and Tony Stewart.
Sprint cars have huge wings and north of 900 horsepower. Midget cars are a feeder formula to that, and have methanol-powered 400bhp motors without the huge amount of aero.
Even so they are vastly different to the BRISCA F1 cars that Harris is used to racing. The races are on shale on quarter-mile ovals, rather then the three-eights of a mile tracks that are mostly used in the United Kingdom.
There are other tricks to the racing too. Harris explains: “There are some significant changes to the racing. Firstly, it is non-contact. There is a bit of rubbing but the top guys get away with it.
“In the UK, we lap in 16s to 17s, but in the US, it is about 14s. The cars are less powerful, but they are light and fast.
“Also, because the tracks in the US are so wide, there are a variety of lines. You are always searching for the grip. In Britain, the ovals have just one line but over there, the line changes from lap to lap, so you are constantly seeking out where the grip is. I would say that the midgets are harder to drive than the BRISCA F1 machines and the skill set is quite different. You can use the basics of what you learn in an F1 machine, but that is about it.
“Racing on the ovals in the US, it is all about the momentum. In the UK, you can use the brakes and the bumper quite a lot. Over in the States that is the last thing you do. You need to concentrate on keeping the minimum speed up.”
Harris has plotted a number of races across the pond this year. He will take part in several events, including races in Florida, Pennsylvania and the Indiana Speed Week, which incorporates seven nights and eight days of sport.
Events like the Pennsylvania week draw week-long fans who follow the sport around and treat the festival as a holiday. The sport in the US draws a television audience and the successful drivers can quickly become household names.
“It is expensive to start a career in the States, so that means I have to pick and choose the events that I am able to take part in,” says Harris.
“I have a strong business in the United Kingdom building and operating F1 cars, and I will have to stick with that. That means that I will still be racing in BRISCA F1 this season, although I might not compete in a full season.
“This is not a case of me turning my back on racing in the UK. But I will take the chances to race in America as often as I can.”
And, given the form he has already shown, it could be the start of a colourful new chapter for the British short oval dominator. ■