Tigard's Todd Harris keeps focus on family as he chases racing dreams and success at Portland International Raceway
PORTLAND - It's 17 long, slow miles up Interstate 5 from Todd Harris' home near Tigard High School to the Portland International Raceway.
The route is fraught with distracted drivers - cell phone yappers, en-route snackers, tailgaters and daydreamers.
'If you go into autopilot, that's when a lot of things happen,' Harris said.
Harris is more attuned to the follies of driver distraction than the rest of us. He sees things in slow motion, a side effect likely due to strapping himself to an 800-horsepower Corvette and zipping around the curves of a racetrack at breakneck speeds that top 170 mph.
Harris is co-owner of the Pro Drive Racing School located at the raceway, one title among many worn by the youthful 40-year-old Tigard man.
On Monday morning, following a red-eye flight home from Atlanta, Ga., where he channeled pro driving advice to a collection of Ferrari racing enthusiasts, Harris sat down with the The Times and offered an insider's glimpse into the fast-paced world of auto racing and, in general, the art of driving.
He also offered a snapshot into the man www.dadsworld.com named as its Dad of the Month for April.
For starters, the father of two sons - Calvin, 9, and Taylor, 5 - says he has no intention of steering them toward racing.
'As a family we'll talk about it and I'll fully support that, but I'm not going to be the one who drives them to racing,' Harris said.
'If it's something they want to explore, we will obviously support that,' said Harris' wife, Jennifer. 'It's in their blood.'
Beyond racing, Harris coaches youth soccer and track and field, the latter in particular he hopes to see his children participate in.
Jennifer said it can be tough for her and the children having a husband and dad who spends roughly three months out of the year on the road, working either as a driving coach or competing in an out-of-town event. When he returns, however, he devotes exclusive time to the family.
'He gets home and takes one-on-one time with the kids,' she said.
Having an extended family in the area helps, she added. And as far as their marriage is concerned, Harris knows when to keep his driving instruction to himself.
'He never says anything about my driving. I think I say more about his driving then he says about mine,' she said laughing. 'That's probably why we have such a great marriage.'
She also said she worries occasionally about the sport's dangers, though more so when Harris is test-driving vintage racers.
'There have been times when it's been a little nerve-racking,' she said.
For Harris, the allure of the racetrack never left him since he was first introduced to the sport as a kid while watching his father, Bill Harris, race in amateur class levels. Soon he had also entered the racing circuit, starting with go-karts.
As Harris grew older, he hung around at the fringe of the racing scene, at the same time embarking on and completing undergraduate degree's at Portland State University in sociology and marketing, two fields he frequently still calls upon today.
He kicked around in the retail sales market, including work for Disney, until landing steady employment working with mentally disabled adults at a group home.
But when the opportunity presented itself in 1997 to purchase the driving school, he dove on it.
Prior to Harris' ownership, the school catered more to teenagers and first-time drivers instead of racing aficionados.
He converted the business to match his dreams and locked into a partnership with Pro Drive Racing Schools. And while he still keeps the door open to fledgling drivers, his clientele is increasingly geared toward racing.
'I kind of had that go-for-it attitude to make a career of racing, something everybody said was impossible to do,' he said.
While the sport is open to everybody, a fact driven home with Danica Patrick's historic win of the Indy Japan series last weekend, it doesn't come cheap.
Harris estimates it takes around $45,000 to get fully involved, including driving lessons, purchase of a Spec Racer Ford car (at the lower expense scale), track time and miscellaneous costs. At the top end, he's seen racers spend upwards of $200,000 during a race season.
'It really ranges,' he said.
Harris' own racing ambitions hover most closely to the Spec Racer Ford series, the most competitive class within the Sportscar Club of America.
Spec Racer Ford's are a type of single-occupant, lightweight car that packs a 130-mph punch. At one point, Harris won 17 races in a row in that class. Last year he hit a pinnacle moment in his career, winning the 2007 Rose Cup in a GT1 Corvette at the raceway.
'It was a race I watched as a kid, and dreamt about,' he said. 'The highs can be really high when you have a big win.'