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Saturday, May 23, 2009

RACING's GREATEST NAMES PAY TRIBUTE to a GREAT MAN -- the AP's MIKE HARRIS

I first met Mike Harris in February 1980 at a pre-Daytona 500 media breakfast. He was at the start of his assignment as the Associated Press' motorsports writer and I was covering for the Philadelphia Daily News. We sat near each other and it became, for me, a valued friendship with Mike and his wife, Judy. And, as history documents, an important chapter in racing history as Mike went on to become one of the most prominent and respected motorsports' journalists in the world.

Mike's AP run ends with his July 1 retirement.

How best to honor this friendship and his career? To me, the answer was clear: With the help of some of Mike's many other friends, I collected tributes and personal stories from 40 of the sport's most important people. Mike's legacy with his colleagues in the press boxes and media centers is guaranteed to endure, but I think of greater weight is what the athletes and decision makers have to say. As you'll read, it can be summarized by one word: RESPECT.

This morning, at the annual AARWBA media breakfast prior to the Indianapolis 500, I gave Mike a printed copy of what you see below.

Thank you, Mike, for all you have done for me, professionally. More importantly, thank you for what you and Judy have done for me, personally. I hope you enjoy reading these words as much as I did in compiling them.

EDSEL B. FORD II (Great-grandson of Henry Ford; member, Ford Board of Directors): "Mike Harris has seen many of the greatest moments in racing history during his career and has reported on them for millions around the globe. He's been a friend to, and reported on, many of our Ford's top drivers over the years including the likes of Jackie Stewart, Mario Andretti, Bill Elliott and more. We at Ford wish him the best in his retirement and thank him for his contributions to motor racing."

ROGER PENSKE: “Mike Harris is one of the true gentlemen to report on the sport of auto racing. We appreciate all the coverage he has given to our teams over the years and we are certainly going to miss reading his stories. Mike has always brought a real passion and fairness to his reporting and he has been there to capture some of the greatest moments in racing history. Mike, it has been a real pleasure working with you. We wish you happiness in your retirement and we hope we get a chance to see you again at the racetrack soon.”

BRIAN FRANCE: “Mike Harris has been the primary source of NASCAR news for our growing fan base for decades. Mike’s reporting was instrumental in the establishment of NASCAR as a national sport. We’ll miss seeing Mike in the media center and will be thinking of him as he improves his golf handicap. Thank you for your service, Mike. All the best to you and Judy.”

RICK HENDRICK: “On behalf of everyone at Hendrick Motorsports, I congratulate Mike on a fantastic career and wish him well in this next phase of his life. Our sport has changed so much in his more than three decades as a journalist, and he’s been there to document all of it with great integrity. Mike has been in the garages, media centers and press boxes for my entire 25 years in NASCAR, and his presence is something we’re all going to miss.”

JEFF GORDON: "Mike has always been first class to work with. I've always respected him as a journalist, and I can't think of a time when I ever had any issues with what he wrote.

"His questions are always thought-provoking. You know when he begins to ask a question that you are going to need to think about your response -- and I love that because the question is usually unique. I'll always have a lot of respect for him because he's been one of the best to cover our sport."

JIMMIE JOHNSON: “I’ll hate to not see Mike. I see him in my head when we do conference calls, he always starts off: ‘Mike Harris, AP’. I’m definitely going to miss him. It’s great to have worked with him and see somebody who has truly been dedicated to the sport for so many years. I have a great respect that he chose this for so long.”

MARIO ANDRETTI: “Mike: I admire people who choose a career and then dedicate themselves to being the best at it. You have been at the top of your profession for as long as I can remember and I’m very happy that our paths ran together for so many years.

“You know what really stands out in my mind about you? Not so much that you were a dedicated member of the racing press for so many years. But the fact that you gave so much humanness to your work. That’s what separates you from the pack. You are a considerate, very intelligent, honest guy and you worked hard to earn the respect you get. You are a gentleman with a high degree of personal integrity. You know how to handle tough situations and write about them with fairness and clarity. You have the ability to deal with everyone all around the circuit and you know how to earn their respect.

“It has always been a pleasure to run into you at the track. I have to say – you are one of the really good guys. Everybody likes you. I hope the future brings you and Judy good health, security, joy and much satisfaction. I have this retired thing down now. So when you want to talk – retired-to-retired – call me. I’d like that.”

TONY GEORGE: “Mike Harris has had a long and successful career covering auto racing for the Associated Press. He has reported fairly during the era of racing’s greatest growth in America and at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Mike is known as a mentor for many younger reporters and is an excellent model for all reporters.”

JOHN FORCE: "Mike Harris was the man at the AP for all those years. I met him at a couple of AARWBA banquets and Densy (Dave Densmore) told me this was a guy that made things happen but that he didn’t do a lot of drag races. Well, when he came out last January for the AARWBA breakfast at our shop, we talked safety and the story he wrote, you could tell that this is a guy that gets it whether he comes to the races or not. So now we’re just getting to be pals and they tell me he’s gonna retire. Well, we’ll miss him but maybe now he’ll have time to come around and visit us at the races because I ain’t retiring until they pry my fingers off the wheel. Be a good guy to swap old Earnhardt stories with, I bet.”

KENNY BERNSTEIN: “Mike, we first met you after we had spent several years competing in the NHRA drag racing series. In quick succession, we jumped into NASCAR and CART, and that’s when our paths crossed. You embraced us as a friend, not a reporter. In fact, it took no time at all to feel completely comfortable with you. It seems we spent the greatest amount of time together during the month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. There were long days and besides press activities, we sometimes enjoyed lunches with you at our hospitality bus.

“After we left NASCAR and CART and continued along the NHRA path, you continued to be open to writing stories about us as you did again this year. We are happy to have called you ‘friend’ and we appreciate your sharing our journey these past couple of decades.

“Now instead of chasing race cars, we hope you and Judy are able to chase some of your dreams. God Speed.”

MIKE HELTON: “Mike has been a fixture in NASCAR media centers about as long as I can remember. He has covered the sport with dignity and fairness and has always been a pleasure to be around. Whether the subject was serious or lighthearted, Mike found just the right balance in his stories, which went out to the American people.”

RICHARD PETTY: “Mike is one of the guys that has been around the sport for such a long time that I think he kind of helped build what we have today. From drivers to fans to everyone who benefits from NASCAR – they owe Mike Harris and the writers like him an awful lot. He gave us coverage back in the days when there weren’t that many people willing to do so.”

RICK MEARS: “I wish Mike the best of luck in his retirement. We’re definitely going to miss him. Mike has always been one of the real ‘good guys’ in the sport. From my driving days through all of my experiences with Team Penske, Mike has always been great to work with and he has become a good friend over the years. I’m going to miss reading his motorsports coverage but if I know Mike, I’m sure he’ll still be involved in racing somehow.”

AL UNSER Jr.: “Michael Harris is THE writer in my entire career who I could go to talk to, tell the truth, and he would print the truth. He never sensationalized, nor asked detrimental questions. He would always ask the right questions to get to the truth. That made Mike Harris the best writer I ever spoke to in my career. He told the truth when I had my alcoholism problems and he told the truth when I got my life straightened out. He is the one writer who never sensationalized anything for his own gain. He spoke the truth.”

ARIE LUYENDYK: “I always found Mike to be a real pleasant guy. He was always very polite and really didn’t go after political issues. He was more interested in your racing and career, at least with me. Any interview I had with him, I looked forward to it, because it was respectful and done properly. He’s just a good guy.”

JOHNNY RUTHERFORD: “Our families have been close friends for many years, have partied together, and discussed the art of motorsports. The most important thing about Mike Harris has always been his fairness. He wrote about the sum of his information. He would inquire a lot of places to make sure he had the story right. He was always fair and told it like it was.

“Mike’s retirement leaves a real void in motorsports reporting. He is always welcome to visit because he truly loves the sport. Betty and I think the world of Mike and Judy and their family. We are going to miss him.”

DARIO FRANCHITTI: “I think the first time I met Mike, I was introduced to him by his ‘front man’ Lewis Franck. Since then I have enjoyed sitting down with the two of them (as they always seem to travel as a pair) and having a good chat, normally over lunch in the Honda tent!

“Mike is so easy going and relaxed that I sometimes forget what a great job he has done and continues to do for AP and, as such, probably reaches more people than anyone else in the sport. I'll miss him round the track as a friend as well as one of the old-school proper journalists covering Indy Car racing.”

JACK ROUSH: “Under my observation, Mike has brought civility and tranquility and maturity to his trade. He’s not been a person that chases the ambulance and he’s not been a person to look for the sensational story, which may or may not be true. He’s always checked his facts and has been even-handed in his reporting. Unlike a lot of writers and reporters, to the best of my knowledge, he could always go back and anybody that he ever did a story for or did a story about, he could always see them and be welcome to have another encounter.

“I’ve always admired Mike’s personality. He’s always smiling and he never got caught up in a lot of frenzy. There was not a lot of anxiety in dealing with Mike. He always made everybody feel very much at ease and he would look for things that would be newsworthy and not something that was unnecessarily offensive to the subject.”

SCOTT ATHERTON (Panoz Motor Sports Group/American Le Mans Series president/CEO): “Mike Harris is one of the few journalists whose mere presence in the media center of a venue or event provides a level of validation that is unmatched in the industry. If Mike Harris is covering your race – then there is no question, it matters. I can only think of a few peers in motorsports journalism (Chris Economaki and Shav Glick) who could be included on the same list. The American Le Mans Series has been fortunate to have Mike cover several of our events over the years and the impact of his reporting is consistently evidenced around the world. I can think of no other motorsports journalist who can make such an impact.

“I have had the pleasure of knowing Mike since 1985. Throughout the past 24 years I have admired his work, his work ethic and his commitment to reporting on a broad spectrum of the sport we all know and love. We have all benefited greatly from Mike’s professionalism and abilities, but more importantly, we have all benefited from knowing him as a person. He will be sorely missed, but I wish him only the best as he takes a much deserved rest and evolves into a life without deadlines . . . Mike, thank you for all that you have done for motorsports fans around the world.”

ADRIAN FERNANDEZ: “First of all, I would like to congratulate Mike on a tremendous career. I have known him for many years and consider him both a true professional and good friend. For me as a driver, he was one of the key people you looked for when you were in a press conference. For sure, his reach was undeniable but you always knew he would be getting the story out with the highest level of ethics and integrity. He has been an ambassador for our sport and we owe him a huge amount of thanks. I wish Mike and Judy all the best in his retirement, and hope they can begin to use some of those frequent flyer miles he has earned over all these years! Hopefully, a book is on the horizon so he can share the inside scoop.”

TOM ANDERSON (Lowe’s Fernandez Racing co-owner): “The entire motorsports community owes Mike a debt of gratitude for his contributions to our sport all these years. From the days when submitting a story meant a lot more than pushing the 'send' button on a computer, Mike’s passion for racing never waived. He put us in front of the masses and helped to not only strengthen, but broaden, our audience. For me personally, I have always enjoyed our chats at the racetrack while, at the same time, silently wondering how he managed to keep it all straight. His friendly demeanor has endeared him to many in the sport, and I’m sure if there were a contest for who had the most driver cell phone numbers, Mike would win. Mike, it has been a pleasure and I wish you all the best. Knowing you, something tells me that we will still see you at a race or two.”

THE CHILDREN OF JIM CHAPMAN (Sheryl Chapman Kammer, James P. Chapman Jr., Caprice Chapman Aerts, Randy K. Chapman): “As you know, to be invited on Jim Chapman's (PPG) race bus was rather like receiving an invitation from the Queen. Mike Harris spent a lot of time on that bus, compiling his various racing reports. In fact, he was not to be disturbed when writing by any of us 'kids.' Jim always welcomed him with a warm handshake and roughish grin. We all knew that Jim respected him tremendously, both professionally and as a friend. The best to you on your retirement.”

CARL A. HAAS: "The role Mike Harris has played in bringing our form of racing to the fans has been one of the most significant in the last three decades. Not only did he cover the news side, he was able to show the personalities of the many colorful people in our sport because of the relationships he built. In addition, his work was so respected it gave Mike access to the highest levels of our sport. It was an honor being covered by Mike over the years and all of us at Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing wish him the very best in his retirement."

SCOTT PRUETT: "There's not one story I have about Mike, it's about all of them put together. He's a class act, he's always there. He's one of those journalists who's always been supportive of everything we've done, but also very fair. He always digs deep to get the whole story, and it's been a privilege and honor to work with him over the years, because he's truly a class act."

ROGER EDMONDSON (Grand-Am Road Racing Association president): "Mike Harris' involvement in motorsports dates back long before Grand-Am Road Racing began competition with the 2000 Rolex 24 at Daytona. Mike was there for that race, and it's been a real pleasure to work with him over the years. He's made an impact on all forms of American motorsports, and we wish Mike and Judy the best in the future."

TONY KANAAN: “Since 1996, when I'm about to start a press conference, it's a huge privilege to see on the first row -- Mike Harris, a real journalist -- the best. I will miss you!”

GIL de FERRAN: “Good for every word . . . read, written or spoken! I will miss you Mike, best of luck my friend.”

JEFF BURTON: “Mike has been around our sport for a long time and he’s quite the class act. He’s methodical, professional and someone who I respect in the media. He’s done an amazing job covering our sport and getting information out to our fans. I always enjoyed talking to him and I wish him well on his retirement.”

RUSTY WALLACE: “Mike's not just someone who was hired to do a job. He understands the sport, the ups and downs of it, and what drivers go through. I've always enjoyed seeing Mike at functions away from the track and listening to his opinions. He gets it."

DALE JARRETT: "Mike was always very fair with me and just a solid person. We need more like him in the journalism profession."

EMERSON FITTIPALDI: “Mike was there for many special moments in my career. What he wrote brought that news to millions of people all around the world. I appreciate, so much, what Mike has done for me and motorsports.”

JIM HUNTER (NASCAR vice president of corporate communications): “It seems as though it was just yesterday that Mike and Judy joined Ann and I at a table for the first banquet in the ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. Mike Harris is one of those people who has never changed, always even-keeled, always the gentleman and always fair. His coverage of the sport for the Associated Press in the early days helped motorsports, all motorsports, develop a bigger fan base. His stories brought our drivers to life in homes throughout America in the same fashion as other great sports heroes, like Ted Williams and Johnny Unitas. He very likely has more contacts in the American motorsports industry than anyone alive, both past and present. The best thing anyone can say about Mike is, ‘He's a great human being.’ He loves to play golf but hasn't had time to play a lot. Mike hopes Hank Haney will take him on as a project when he finishes with Charles Barkley. Mike would certainly be an easier fix.”

FRED J. NATION (Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Indy Racing League executive vice president, communications): “Thirteen years ago, I joined the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indy Racing League. My racing background was limited, almost entirely to being a long time fan of the Indy 500. Included in my job was to help tell the story about the formation of the Indy Racing League, which proceeded my coming on the scene, and to help prepare the way for the eventual unification of the sport, which took much longer than anticipated. Coming from a political background, I was used to combat and also to the cynicism of reporters. It did not prepare me adequately for the ferocity of feelings and opinions in open wheel racing media centers across the country. That is where I met Mike Harris, his wife Judy, and Lewis Franck, good friend of Mike’s. Mike was patient with me and helped me gain a greater understanding of the emotions and opinions that swirled around IRL and CART, as well as the personalities, traditions and history of the sport. He always did so in a straightforward way. He was not without opinions, but in the grand tradition of the Associated Press, he was a straight shooter when it came to what he wrote. We always wanted Mike at a race, because his byline meant that more papers would run the preview and race day stories that Mike would write. In another grand journalistic tradition, Mike and Lewis would sometimes allow me to treat them to dinner. Mike knew most of the best spots on the circuit and was happy to give menu advice. These evenings were always entertaining, sometimes enlightening, and usually delicious. I have and will always appreciate Mike’s Midwestern common sense, love of the Indy 500 and his ability to report and engage with some of the most fascinating athletes on the planet. Thank you Mike Harris for all you have contributed.”

AL SPEYER (Firestone Racing executive director): "Firestone Racing would like to congratulate Mike Harris on his successful journalistic career and now his well-earned retirement. We truly appreciate his dedication and contributions to the sport of auto racing through the years. To me, the thing that stands out most about Mike is his commitment to fully researching his stories and making sure he has all of the facts straight. His dedication to quality and accuracy truly shines through his work. I have thoroughly enjoyed his writing and will miss his friendly demeanor and smile. What really disappoints me, however, is that Mike has beaten me to retirement -- he gets to take it easy while I have to keep working! Mike, all the best!"

STU GRANT (Goodyear Racing global race tires general manager): "Mike is retiring as a very well-respected journalist. From a personal standpoint, whenever I was involved in a press conference I was always happy to field a question from Mike Harris, because his questions were always right on the point. He gave me the impression that he was actually trying to help me get the correct story out, because his questions always allowed me to clarify something or emphasize something important. He wasn't confrontational or adversarial -- he just wanted the facts for his story."

TERRY DOLAN (Chevrolet racing manager): “Mike Harris has made a tremendous contribution to auto racing worldwide with his insight, attention to detail and fairness of reporting as a premier motorsports journalist for the Associated Press. On behalf of General Motors and Chevrolet, I congratulate Mike and extend our best wishes as he retires after so many years of distinguished service."

KURT ANTONIUS (Honda public relations assistant vice president): "To say that Mike Harris 'will be missed' at racetrack media centers and interview rooms across the country is an understatement. It doesn't begin to describe the enormous impact Mike has had for decades on the sport that all of us at Honda love.

"Throughout his long career, Mike has helped introduce auto racing to a broad, mainstream audience. In so doing, he was invaluable in the graduation of racing from a niche, minor-league activity into a major, mainstream sport. And he accomplished all of this while maintaining the AP's high standards of 'fair and balanced' coverage, long before that term became a popular catchphrase.

"Through Mike, readers across the nation first experienced the many different ways a racing driver seeks success: The passion of Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt's thirst for victory, the class of Dan Gurney and Rick Mears, the exuberance of Alex Zanardi and the determination of Dan Wheldon. He also was able to bring home to his readers the true depth of Honda's commitment to motorsports, something for which we always will be grateful.

"Our best wishes to you, Judy, and your entire family for a long and pleasurable retirement, and our sincere thanks for the outstanding service you provided the racing community through the years."

LES UNGER (Toyota Motor Sales national motorsports marketing manager): "Mike will be sorely missed by all constituents within the racing community -- fans, sponsors, teams, drivers, sanctioning bodies, and most of all his readers. The reason is quite simple, yet worthy of mention. His career was consistently based on factual writing, diligent research, honesty, and passion for the sport he covered in such an exemplary fashion. Without being egotistical, just courteous, and fair -- adjectives in short demand in today's media world."

ANDY SCHUPACK (Porsche Cars North America motorsports public relations): “I met Mike during the ’86 Miami Grand Prix, and I pitched him on covering my driver – a 17-year-old karting champion named Scott Pruett – who was running only his second sports car race. Mike listened to my pitch attentively, and proceeded to tell me that, while he really wasn’t covering the GTU race, he would watch with interest. As it turned out, Pruett ran a great race, but just couldn’t get past Jack Baldwin on the last lap, and had to settle for second place. Mike came over to me, patted me on the shoulder, and said, ‘Your guy looks fast – I’ll remember his name.’ He made me feel like I had accomplished something even though he didn’t write about my client. He has always treated PR people with respect – even when they have tried to pitch him on ridiculous stories – and his friendship to the families of some of our recently-departed colleagues, Bob Carlson and Mike Hollander, has shown what this man and his wife Judy have meant to all of us.”

DEAN CASE (MAZDASPEED communications officer): “I knew Mike Harris as a ‘byline’ for many years before I had the opportunity to actually meet him. I think the best compliment I can give him is to say that he was a fair and thorough reporter. In today’s world, both qualities are in short supply. Mike’s support of the profession, via his service to AARWBA, is another reason I’ve admired Mike. His AP replacement has big shoes to fill.”

[ Review of Racing's Most Important Day of the Year next Tuesday . . . ]