Interview with Tom Harris (#84) – 2013 BriSCA F1 World Champion

Somewhere deep in the heart of rural Warwickshire lie the headquarters of Tom Harris Motorsport, and with so many drivers using THM technology to improve their results on track, F1StockCars.com thought it was about time we paid Tom a visit to see just what it takes to produce a string of race winning cars.

So Tom, we are here at the workshops. Tell me, is this now a full time job?

Yes I moved back home from Lancashire about four years ago and I started out intending to repair trucks and skips and do some general fabrication work and build my own cars, but then Gary Maynard gave me an order for a car and it’s just never stopped since then, all of my working day is spent on customer cars.

So it’s fair to say it just evolved, rather than part of some grand plan for short oval domination?

Well I did buy an Aerofoil business from Mark Taylor when he emigrated and it was going to be that plus the trucks but the work never stopped coming so it’s just been stock cars all day every day, I can hardly find time to keep my own cars maintained.

So what are you able to offer? Can a driver have a car built to any specification?

Customer is always right so they can have exactly what they want, but 90% of people say they want a car the same as mine so that’s what they get. I do everything and anything, chassis repairs, axles, bodywork right through to a complete ready to race car, everything is done in house except paint which is done by Car Body in Banbury.

What about engines? Do you maintain and rebuild them?

No that’s far too complicated and has more financial risk, I don’t even do my own engines. Big Ron does the engine in my shale car and the tarmac car has a Gaerte engine from America. I can fit engines but I wouldn’t want to start stripping them down it’s not my thing.

So customers want a car built just like yours, but is your car not more of a prototype for trying out your latest innovations?

Yes and no, my current tarmac car which I have just sold isn’t as good as the car I have done for Ryan Harrison, and because customers cars always have to come first then sometimes my cars tend to get neglected. It took me over a season to get shale car where I wanted it but now it’s got a Gold roof so I must be doing some things right.

What did you do for Ryan? That was an existing car and was already pretty quick.

It came here and its had all new engine mountings, undercarriage, axles, new suspension, and I included some latest ideas that I had tried on my tar car but it’s always easier to build these things in from scratch and its worked really well so my new tarmac car will be very similar.

So currently, the 197 tar car is a step ahead of yours?

Yes it is, and the car I did for Dave Riley is also a step ahead. I have tried some of these improvements on my car but finding the time to put proper permanent upgrades on my car is a problem with so much work coming in and customer cars will always have to come first.

If a driver wants perhaps something built to a tighter budget, or wants a more basic car while gaining experience, are you able to produce something more basic?

Yes I have built cars which are used on the field tracks in Holland with just single link suspension and not so many of the bells and whistles, so it’s down to what people want to spend.

How does a new car start? Is it drawings, or do you just start with a pile of steel?

I have computer based drawings for my cars and chassis jigs for shale and tarmac chassis, we have to adjust things for each driver, the Dutch tend to be taller than us but rather than just make the cab bigger we try to keep the car as small as we can and we move engine and pedal positions to accommodate larger or taller drivers.

Paul Tully's promotional graphic of the 2013 World Champion.

Paul Tully’s promotional graphic of the 2013 World Champion.

So drivers are coming to you for regular repairs and maintenance?

Yes like this car (this interview took place sat on the nerf rail of the Paul Harrison tar car) first came here in 2011, it had new front suspension, new rear axle and I moved the engine position, then it went on to win a semi-final at Skegness and then the World final at Northampton. It’s now back for major repairs after crashing at the Skegness shootout round. I think last winter I did 16 refurbs, bumpers, nerf rails and bodywork, I also did some V8s and Mini Stox.

And at the track, are you assisting customers or is the focus at track just on your own racing? I notice Mike James is usually parked alongside you when he is racing.

We look after Mike, his car also came here badly bent and we put new chassis legs in from rollcage to front bumper, and changed the set up to match my car but retained the original look of the car. I try not get too involved at the meetings, mostly what drivers want is spare parts and they are all kept in stock on the truck so it’s not a problem.

And how’s the order book looking for this winter?

It’s manic, never enough hours, I could do more but with going to New Zealand that takes a fair few weeks out, but I think it’s important to go over as World Champion and it’s something I have always wanted to do. I have lots of work booked mainly refurbs which is easier than new build as the bodywork, paint and finish is very time consuming.

Are orders mainly for the UK or the Netherlands?

Mostly Holland, someone over here will call me and order an axle but in Holland they order them in fives or even ten at a time. When they order cars they will often order complete sets of spares to go with them. There are several well-funded teams out there like Hoffman’s and Mofert who want to put a driver in the seat and go fast and win races

Tom celebrates victory in the 2013 Gold Cup at Venray.  (Photo: Andy Pratt)

Tom celebrates victory in the 2013 Gold Cup at Venray. (Photo: Andy Pratt)

Thanks for giving us some insight into what happens back here at home. I want to now look at things trackside and two particular highlights. First, the World Cup at Venray. In 2011 and 2012 you were very dominant on tarmac but 2013 was not quite as good and I would not have made you pre-race favourite, but you didn’t just win, you blew them all away.

The car was probably more dominant in 2011 and 2012 but then it’s like all sports the others catch up and some of that is down to what I have done for customers making them faster. Other drivers like Lee Fairhurst have also got quicker, so 2013 wasn’t as easy and it took some time to settle in with the new engine. After the damage I got at the Buxton semi we did a lot of work on the car prior to Venray, the car felt like a new car again and it all paid off. But as I say the competition keeps catching up so now it’s time to move on.

Thus a new tarmac car for 2014?

Well I could have sold this car 10 times over but I didn’t want to, I was going to give it a refurb and try one or two new things but Paul (Paul Ford 388) was very insistent on having it so I will be building a new car for tarmac.

Tom in the pits at King's Lynn on World Final night. (Photo: Marvin Hall)

Tom in the pits at King’s Lynn on World Final night. (Photo: Marvin Hall)

Moving on to the World Final. Based on your form at King’s Lynn I would not have made you pre-race favourite. Now, you have a bit of a skirmish with Ryan early on, and Craig was closing in the last few laps, but you were always in control and fans would call it an easy win. So where did all that pace come from? Had you done something different to the car?

All I have done all year is try things, because if you don’t try things, you don’t know, and if you don’t know then you won’t learn how to go faster. At every King’s Lynn meeting this year I have tried something different, at the meeting before the World Final I won heat and GN and felt I was getting close to the right set up. But even then I changed more things for the World Final. We changed it again for the October shootout round and had two more wins. You can never rest, even if your quick and winning somebody will be in the garage doing something to catch you and pass you.

So when sometimes I am on my way home from a meeting and my mate says “Harris was pants tonight, way off the pace”, then that’s often because you have tried something that did not work?

Apart from some of the shootout rounds every meeting, shale and tar, I have been trying something different on the car set up, and it doesn’t always work but even when it’s not quicker you learn and try again the next week

How much time do you spend on your own cars?

Every night of the week, plus weekends. If you don’t do the time in the garage then you won’t be winning much. Some just turn up at the track and chuck on whatever tyres they have but that’s not me. Hours are spent every week just sorting and matching wheels and tyres to get the right stagger, and that is just one element of what makes a car a winning car.

One big prize left now, the shootout for the silver roof. If back in April I had said to you that with one round to go, you would be second behind Dan Johnson or Craig Finnikin or even Frankie, then you would probably have believed me. But you’re second behind Ryan. Has he surprised you as much as he has surprised the fans?

Not really no, he has been the most consistent of all of us partly due to me doing the work on the tar car. I had a terrible meeting at the Coventry round, the dry sump belt snapped in the heat and then I had two more DNF in the Final and GN. I got stuck in a ditch on the infield at Stoke and didn’t score in the final at King’s Lynn when I got black flagged for a damaged rear bumper. So that’s about four finals I have failed to score, Ryan has scored well at pretty much every round and even when he has missed out in the final like at Birmingham he has still been winning his heats. This is the first year Ryan has had two top class cars to contest the shootout and he has been consistent and stood up to the pressure of leading so he deserves to be where he is. I don’t enjoy the shootout, the pressure leading or chasing, when I was leading last year I was worrying about points all the time. Everything you have done all season is thrown out and it’s just down to 10 meetings which I don’t think is quite right.

So how would you prefer to see the silver roof decided?

Well basically they changed it to stop Frankie (Frankie Wainman Jnr 515) winning the points but if he is the only one dedicated enough to do all the meetings then he should have the Silver roof. The winner should be based on all season points. Look at Frankie this year, he is third in the all season points, but he had one bad shootout round at Skegness, then had to miss the Coventry round because of an injury he got at Birmingham and that was the end of his chance of silver. I said when I came third and I said it last year when I won it, the shootout should not be for the Silver roof. It’s way too expensive to compete in every round and there is too much damage. Like Danny Wainman last week at the King’s Lynn round he was going wide on lap 1 and letting the rest of the shootout drivers go because he was fed up with being on the front and getting loads of damage.

Tom displays the World Championship trophy and his new gold roof at Coventry.

Tom displays the World Championship trophy and his new gold roof at Coventry.

I am a little surprised to find you feel the shootout is too aggressive.

Well everybody just seems to take their brains out and it becomes like demolition derby, and it doesn’t interest me. When I won it last year I was over the moon but the amount of money it cost in damage to win it, I had two new fuel tanks and three roll cage repairs. People are driving dirty, they would half spin you and then instead of going past they drive into your axle and cause more damage to stop you from scoring and that’s bangers not stock car racing.

Do you not find it ironic that someone who is often tagged “The Hitman” finds things are too rough?

Some people have said to me my style is quite like Andy Smith. I turn it on when I need to but I would sooner race fair with people. It’s like the number of times I have raced Frankie and he has parked me up. I would sooner race fair but if they want smashing to bits then I will do it. I have got some new sponsors for next year and if people want a war then for sure they can have one. Taking people out all the time is not stock car racing and this shootout is just damage.

Putting the damage to one side, are the rewards in the shootout enough to justify the investment in fuel and tyres?

It’s pretty much two new tyres every round and if you don’t have them the others will have the edge over you. So that’s £2400 just for tyres and then there is fuel and repairs. The winner gets about £4500 so nobody covers their costs not even the winner. It may be good for the crowd to watch but if they want destruction maybe they should be watching bangers.

Tom at full speed down the home straight at Belle Vue. (Photo: Vic Peake)

Tom at full speed down the home straight at Belle Vue. (Photo: Vic Peake)

So there’s only the final round at Sheffield to go now. Is there a plan or a strategy? Are you going for the points or will it be Mr Hitman for the day?

Up to now I have tried to race everybody fair, but after King’s Lynn and people doing the dirty on me then it’s going to be Mr Aggressive. I’ve been fair but at Lynn they were turning in on me halfway down the straight and at Northampton somebody tried to nerf me into the infield banking. So Mr Nice is out the window.

I would have thought that Sheffield, with it’s narrow track and nasty fence was a risky place to be dishing out lots of contact?

Well they should have thought of that before they started messing me around.

You go to Sheffield 35 points behind Ryan. Is that too much?

No, not with double points on offer. If he fails to finish even just one heat it could be pretty much level and then it will all be on the final.

Is Ryan proving to be a difficult target, with his tail-out, high-line driving style? At the King’s Lynn round you were on his tail for quite a few laps and the fans on the back straight were ready for the big hit, but it never happened.

Ryan has been fair with me in the shootout and in the World final, so I treat him the same and at Lynn I already had damage from where Mick (Sworder 150) had put me in so it wasn’t worth the risk.

Moving on from the Shootout and looking at the current state of racing in general. You are one of the major car builders and innovators. The rule book you work to is fairly stable, does the stability stifle innovation?

Yes I think it does and the committee really need to take a hard look at things and the AGM does need some heated discussion because things are getting really expensive now. We are only allowed to use Transit brake calipers and the ones we are allowed are hard to find so getting they are getting more expensive, also they are cast so break easily and can’t be repaired. You can buy a Wilwood racing brake caliper for the same money but it will last longer and can be repaired, the pads for the brakes are cheaper and they are designed for track use whereas what we use now are designed for the motorway. With tyres also changing and discussion of moving to a control shocker I think this AGM is going to be really important.

There are still quite a lot of drivers who are reluctant to move towards competition parts. Why do you think that is?

If you go to the AGM and use the word Aluminium everybody goes “woo that’s going to be expensive”, but because it’s what they use in America the parts are produced in volume and at a reasonable price. Aluminium shockers are available at better prices than the steel ones we use and deliver the same performance but we are not allowed to use them.

So how do you build cars for next season now if you don’t know what rules will change?

Well I have spoken to the committee and I don’t think anything will change on chassis or rollcage, just some improvements to fuel tanks and firewalls, the rest of the changes are more for bolt on parts like brakes and shocks so are a little easier to deal with, but two cars are due for delivery before the AGM so it’s not ideal.

Moving on to tyres. Our existing Goodyear rubber is nearing its end now. A number of top drivers, like Andy Smith, Mat Newson, and Mark Gilbank have been quite critical of Goodyear, but I have never heard anything negative from Team Harris. Have you been happy with them?

People don’t manage their tyres, so whatever brand they run they are not going to last. This stamp rule has actually made things harder for me, before the stamp rule you could use a new tyre in the final and GN, get one more final out of it then maybe a couple of heats. Now your using the best of your tyre in the heats and 16 laps is way too long to cure a tyre, if you want to cure a tyre properly it should just be brought up to full temperature over 5 or 6 laps then left unused until the next meeting.

Next season we move to a new tyre from American Racer. You tried them at the Coventry test session. Were you impressed?

I tried them at Coventry and went to the Birmingham test to help out. My view is I don’t think one tyre for both shale and tarmac is the way to go, and I doubt it will reduce the amount of tyres used, but the stamp rule will be no more because a new tyre does not seem to be any quicker than a used one. I don’t want to be using an old shale tyre for tarmac, I want to go fast. I have no gripes with the American Racer tyre and it does hold up well on tarmac but I would like to run wide sticky tyres and go fast but the promoters and some drivers want to slow us down.

The defending 2012 World Cup champion, just before travelling to Venray for the 2013 event - he won that too!

The defending 2012 World Cup champion, just before travelling to Venray for the 2013 event – he won that too!

So you would prefer to see lap times stay where they are now?

At the end of the day people build these cars to go fast. It’s supposed to be the top of oval motorsport, not slow and sliding about. They are supposed to be racing cars.

Do you think racing would be any less entertaining if everybody was going one second per lap slower?

Maybe not for the fans but from a drivers view, the reason we have the big engines and sticky tyres is to go fast, if you want to go slower then get a V8 or a Saloon. The top formula should be the fastest.

I think that’s sufficient on tyres. Back in July, your car appeared on the second day of the Skegness Speedweekend with some bubblewrap round the front bumper. Care to share with me what that was all about?

Hmmmmm, no comment, I was getting moaned at for hitting people too hard. I won’t say anything more or I will get in trouble

Is it sometimes difficult out on track, when you have all your particular mates and fans notice who tends to be parked up together, and then out on track some are friends and some are customers, so you may be more assertive with some drivers than others?

When I get on the track I have no friends at all, and if people give me a good hit they will get one back, often with interest. There are a few people I owe a couple of hits to and their time will come. But as for hitting people too hard and being called to see the Steward and all that rubbish, it is supposed to be stock cars. I have not complained about anybody, never.

So in your view, what is a fair level of contact?

At the end of the day if you put someone in the fence hard, as long as you don’t follow them in then to me that’s fair enough.

Some say the cars have so much grip now that the hits have to be harder to get your opponent off the racing line.

Yes and no, you know as a driver that you can hit someone to pass them and they won’t try to destroy you on the next bend, but there are others who you know if you don’t put them in the wall or get rid of them, then next bend they will take you out because they can’t stand you passing them.

So you may take a different approach if you are behind, say, Micky Randell, as opposed to being behind Scott Davids?

Yes as a driver you know who you can go past and who you can’t and those type of drivers have got to know that if they mess you around that you are going to get rid of them.

The new Danny Smidt car, one of Tom's exports to the Netherlands.

The new Danny Smidt car, one of Tom’s exports to the Netherlands.

I might find myself back on the M40 quite quickly after this question, but I have to ask. There have been many rumours and they keep coming back. So, electronic traction control. What’s the story?

At the end of the day it’s a load of sweetbreads [not the actual word used]. It started at the Skegness 2012 shootout round, they called me up to the box, and they said there is no way your car should be going round this track on those tyres and delivering those lap times so you must be cheating. So the car was on the scales and they said, we’re going to take your MSD box, and I said okay take it, so then they all got cold feet and nobody would put up the £150 protest fee. Then they phoned Neil Scothern (drivers assoc chairman) and said how can we test the MSD, and he responded that NASCAR with all their resources could not find a way to test them so how could the BSCDA do it. Rumours were then going round that I had a microchip sown into my overalls. But I have nothing to hide and if they want to strip the car they can do it, some of them are just sour losers and they need to work on their own cars instead of pointing fingers at mine

But you must appreciate that often your tar car exits the turn and puts the power down in a way that other cars are just not capable of doing.

Ryan Harrison’s car does exactly the same now, and the Hoffmans car in Holland, exactly the same, and like I say if they want to strip it and check it they can do it

Do you think anybody else may be using traction control?

I don’t know exactly how it works but there must be a sensor on the wheels or prop-shaft or something in the distributor so there would have to be some extra wires somewhere. So how can you hide it?

Winter and the off-season is almost upon us. Any plans you can share with us? Will you be going to New Zealand? Will you be doing the team championship?

Yes we will be going to NZ for the World 240ci championship and the NZ GP. I am not sure about the teams, depends who else is in it because it’s really tough going in the Team championship and the hits are massive so I need to be sure I have team-mates who will be watching my back.

So apart from your time in New Zealand, the rest of the winter will be spent in the workshop?

I want to do my new tarmac car before I go to NZ so that can be painted while I am away then I can do the other bits like seat and engine fitting when I get back. Somehow my cars always get left to one side and with this one I want to get it spot on before the season starts.

Will this new tarmac car be a repeat of this year’s, or are you going to try some new ideas?

A little bit different yes, but nothing to radical.

Have you seen anything on the new 152 and 105 cars which is worth taking on board?

Fair play to Mark Thornton (the builder of the 105 and 152 cars) he has tried something different and I hear Neil Scothern had a good weekend at the October Venray meeting and if he can get it to work then all credit to him. But I personally don’t think it’s the way to go, but you can’t knock the quality of the work.

Any particular ambitions or targets you have set yourself for 2014?

To be honest I just want to enjoy my year as World Champion as it may never happen again. I have had a few people say to me that I am the number one driver in the sport and that is a massive compliment so I just want to go out and prove it. Next year I think to be honest with you I think you will see a bit of a different me. I have some new sponsors coming on board and will be very focused on keeping my own cars on the pace for every meeting. So I want to take it to another level but it may depend on the tyres because that will be something we will need to learn to use.

Well, I think that’s me done, and I can only finish off by thanking you for your time today, and for all the hours that you and the team put in to entertain the fans on track, but if there is anything else you want to mention or get off your chest, then now is the time.

As you say it is a team effort so I would like to thank both my family and mechanics for all their support and hard work. Also my sponsors Lockhart Plant Hire, Paul Tully Photography, Neil Stutchbury Motors, Carbody Banbury Ltd, J Davidson Scrap Metal Processors, R&C Metal Recycling, and Simpson Race Exhausts. And finally those drivers who have become customers as without customers and sponsors I would not have been able to reach the top of the sport.

Tom was talking to Damian Noblett.
Some photos from the Team Harris page on Facebook, the rest by Paul Tully.

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