Tom Har­ris tack­les the USA

How the BRISCA F1 cham­pion is turn­ing heads on the other side of the pond. By Matt James

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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. ■

Har­ris has adapted well to USA midget car rac­ing

Midget rac­ing is non-con­tact

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