Home track or not, Whitey Harris raced to win
By Bert Lehman
Editor, Full Throttle Magazine
Whether it was on asphalt or dirt, Whitey Harris was one of the top race car drivers in Wisconsin for parts of four generations.
Harris says he didn’t have any ambition to race cars, but through a friend, he got involved with a pit crew of a driver. At the time Harris was 23 years old.
“I worked with cars for about three years before I got a car of my own. I was 26 when I started driving,” Harris recalls.
Harris didn’t start out driving though — he played the role of car owner.
“I was always looking for a driver and didn’t have a steady driver because they were jumping around from car-to-car,” Harris says.
That changed one night in 1962 at the track in Wilmot. Harris says he had the car warmed up, sitting on the qualifying lane when someone he knew told him, “Whitey, why don’t you drive it yourself. You pay these guys to wreck your stuff and you fix it.”
Harris told the guy that he didn’t have a helmet. The guy came back with a helmet and Harris qualified the car.
“I made the feature my first night,” Harris says. “And they scared the devil out of me when we got to racing with other cars to start with, but the bottom line, at the end of the night I finished fourth in the feature. And I said, ‘I don’t need to be paying anybody to wreck my stuff anymore. I’ll wreck it myself.”
The start of Harris’ racing career had begun.
At the time Harris raced Modified Stock Cars.
“They were homebuilt cars,” Harris says. “We’d go to the junkyard and cut some part off of some, anything we thought we could use we would adapt to our cars.”
Harris says he didn’t have the best equipment in the beginning. That didn’t stop him from winning his first track championship in 1965 at the track in Wilmot.
“As I could get enough money to improve my equipment, racing got better,” Harris says.
He says he raced the Modified Stock Car on both asphalt and dirt.
At least seven track championships were won in the Modified Stock Car.
“We were having a hard time getting race tracks to race at at that time so I switched over to run late Models,” Harris says. “I did some of both in the early 1970s. From then on I ran mostly dirt and some asphalt in the Late Models.”
Harris did plenty of traveling during his Late Model racing days, but he called Hales Corners Speedway, located in the Milwaukee area, his home track.
“If you could race at Hales Corners you could race at any track in the country,” he says. “The competition was very, very stiff there. That was a Saturday night track that paid reasonably well for purses for a weekly track. The show was always started with the fast qualifiers in the back. In fact, we got to winning so regularly there that they changed the rule where if you won or finished second the week before, you automatically started in the back of the feature the next week, no matter where you qualified.
“I was proud of the fact that I could race with any of them, the best of them. We didn’t spend a lot of money. We spent only as much as we needed to win. We had a lot of good sponsors, but we never had any big sponsor that paid the whole ticket.”
When Hales Corners Speedway closed for good at the end of the 2003 race season, it was one of many tracks Harris says he witnessed closing.
“Once you take racing and the noise, especially the tracks that were in little towns, once you take the noise away it’s pretty tough to get it back. We all know that,” Harris says.
Hales Corners Speedway holds many fond memories for Harris. He’s a five-time Late Model track champion there, winning the titles in 1980, 1981, 1983, 1984 and 1994. In 1979, the big three of Harris, Mike Melius and Al Schill won almost every feature at Hales Corners Speedway.
Racing at Hales Corners Speedway also helped determine what number Harris’ car would be the following year.
“I switched numbers every year,” Harris says. “Wherever I finished the season at Hales, I would run that number. A couple of times I ran a number for a sponsor. One of them was a radio station, they wanted 11. I’ve had all kinds of numbers. Typically I was a top two or three at Hales.”
He says the specials at the end of the year were fun to race at.
“One year you could put a wing on the top and we put a Sprint Car wing on the top of a Late Model and we ran off and stole the show,” Harris says. “Those wings change everything.”
He also remembers that a contingent of drivers from northeast Wisconsin would travel down to Hales Corners Speedway for the year-end specials. He recalls one battle he had with M.J. McBride.
“He came down to Hales Corners at the end of the year for one of the open shows down there and he led the feature for awhile,” Harris says. “I finally got up to him and I finally was able to pass him. He pushed me hard for four or five laps and then I drove away from him. But that’s kind of expected. That was kind of my home track.”
Harris also battled the northeast Wisconsin drivers on their own turf.
“Wherever we went to race I was always welcomed,” Harris says. “The local boys always accepted me and raced fair. And I raced everybody like I wanted to be raced.”
Being able to be competitive and win at unfamiliar tracks is something Harris took pride in. Shawano Speedway wasn’t one of those tracks for Harris.
“For me Shawano was one of the tougher tracks to get around,” Harris says. “I never did real well there. I think fourth is about as high as I finished there. It’s a track that I can’t remember getting a real good cushion where we could run outside on a cushion. It had reasonably fast corners. I never really got a handle on that place.
“It was tough. When I was running there, J.J. Smith and McBride and those guys, they had that place figured out really well because it was home base for them.”
Harris will be 77 years old this year, but his age hasn’t stopped him from participating in the annual Hales Corners Reunion race. That race was held at Manitowoc County Expo last year. Harris finished third last year, and won it the year before.
“I think I’m done doing that,” Harris says. “I’ll be 77 in a few months. I always worry about messing up somebody else’s equipment.”
That is only one of a couple of races he attends each year.
“If I go there much more than that I’ll be back racing,” Harris says, “and I don’t want to go there.”
(This article first appeared in the July 2014 issue of Full Throttle Magazine.)