At the age of 19, Harris got his first opportunity to be a race announcer at the MO-ARK Speedway and Drag Strip on north Highway 63 in West Plains which was owned by Lafe Kennedy.
"I was always hanging around the pits because my brother, Larry Piper, had a race car he drove," Harris said. "I started helping out by counting the laps. Maury Brown was the long-time announcer for races in the area and he wanted a break from it. I told Lafe I'd like to give the announcing a try and he let me. I loved it and have been lucky enough to do it off and on ever since."
Through the years, Harris has been a guest announcer at speedways in Memphis, Harrisburg, Pocahontas, Batesville, Yellville/Flippin and Cauruthersville, Mo.
He became the announcer at the West Plains Speedway in 1985 when it was owned by Bill and Marvin Ball. After Don and Billie Gibson purchased the speedway and renamed it the West Plains Motor Speedway, Harris continued as the announcer for several years before taking a few years break. He returned as the announcer at West Plains about six years ago.
"It's an enjoyable part-time job or hobby, I guess you could call it," Harris said. "It's thrilling watching the races and being able to share that excitement with the audience."
The first race Harris ever saw was at West Plains when he watched his brother, Larry Piper, take to the tracks in a 1950 Ford.
"Larry had just got out of the Navy, 1968-69, and this was his first race," he said. "The track was owned by Ed Lyons and was on K Highway in West Plains. Larry must have enjoyed it, because he continued to race for 35 years. That first race was called a "C" class and had 6 cylinder cars in it. Some of the cars on that track were 1930 model cars with straight axles and John Deere tractor steering where you sat in the middle of the seat. A man called Poor Old Earl had a liquor store in West Plains and he owned an "A" model car he wanted Larry to drive, so he moved up to "A" class. The "A" models had V-8s with four-barrels and big tires. The "B" models were V-8s with two-barrels. Suspension and stuff weren't exactly high-tech in those days."
Harris said that after watching his brother for several years, he, along with his cousin, Jim Bennett, and friend, Mike Sexton, decided they needed to build their own race car. It was a 1963 Chevy II Nova. "We named that car 73rds, which in CB lingo means, 'everything is just fine,'" Harris said.
"We didn't have any expectations when it came to winning any races," Harris laughed. "Jimmy and Mike were the drivers and I basically did the announcing to make enough money to fix it every week after they crashed it. It lasted about 12 races."
Even without a car, the Harris, Bennett, Sexton Racing Team didn't give up on driving in a few weekly races.
"My brother also had an extra car that I got to race a time or two," Harris said. "It was a really sophisticated car -- the car number was 456 which got selected because that was three letters in a stencil we could hold against the car and spray paint on. But, it was fun and the car actually saw several races. My brother went to Shelbyville, Ill., to a race one weekend and he let us take that old spare car, 456, to the track using his wrecker. I raced it in the heat race and didn't come in last. But, cousin Jimmie raced it in the feature and rolled it five times. The car flew so high in the air when it was rolling end-over-end that it took out the stop and go lights over the track. It didn't hurt Jimmie but it sure tore that car to pieces. When Larry got home on Monday and saw that car, or rather, the wadded-up crumpled mess in his front yard, he thought somebody had got killed. I didn't do much driving after that. I stuck to the announcing, it paid better."
Harris said his most memorable event in racing was the very first Show-Me 100 at the West Plains Motor Speedway. "It was and is still such a great event," he said. "I got to help with the marketing of the event and produced the first program for it. The excitement of meeting all the professional drivers and watching them race is pretty amazing. The whole experience was just unbelievable. There were over 100 Late Model cars and they came from all over the United States. Racers you had only had the chance to read about were there. I had seen a 50 lap race but never a 100 lap race and I thought that was just amazing. This year is the 17th Show-Me 100 and it really has gotten bigger and better every year and has a great impact on the economy in the area."
Harris said when the Gibson's bought the speedway they made a lot of improvements that turned it into a top premier racing facility.
"They took out the old wooden benches which would seat about 4,000 people and replaced them with stadium seating and bleachers. They moved the pit area to the back side of the track and added walls all around the track," Harris said. "Traditionally, speedways aren't known for their bathrooms. I'll never forget this story. At the first Show-Me 100 the Southern Gentleman, Freddie Smith, was racing and his wife came with him. She went into the bathroom and it was clean and decorated and she came out almost crying thinking about all the awful places she had been while her husband followed his racing career. Some tracks, especially in the pit area, had one bathroom for everyone with an open top, troughs around the walls and one toilet sitting in the middle of the room. The West Plains facility was quite a change to most veteran drivers and actually set the standard for other race tracks to follow."
Harris said as a race announcer he's had the opportunity to meet a lot of famous racers. "I've never been to a NASCAR race, but I've met and interviewed Kenny Wallace and Carl Edwards. Some of these guys got their start on the dirt track. Before Edwards got into the NASCAR circuit he had a business card he handed out that said, 'I'm Carl Edwards. If you need a driver -- I'm your man.' I've also met Mark Martin many times and knew his dad and mom. I've met Kenny Schrader and of course Billy Moyer, Freddy Smith, Scott Bloomquist, Larry Phillips and so many more. I even got thrown out of Larry Phillips' shop one time for talking on the phone," Harris laughed.
Harris said probably the best part of his involvement with racing has been watching his brother Larry, Larry's son Chris, and Chris' son Ben, all race and win championships at speedways. "I think after Larry started racing, it became a disease in our family," he laughed. "My mother has been amazing. She has sat through race after race after race through the years. She kinda had the philosophy I read on a T-shirt once. It said, 'I didn't come to see you wreck, I just wanted to be there if you did.' She was the biggest race fan of all."
One race season, Harris said he had so many "kin-folks" racing it was hard to keep track of them all. "I had three nephews, a brother-in-law and a brother all racing," he said. "But, none of my three sons ever wanted to race and that was probably a good thing. When the boys were growing up, we produced and sold weekly race programs and took pictures and we did it as a family. It was a good experience for them and they got to meet a lot of racers and see a lot of races."
Harris said he enjoys the racers, fans and the overall experience of being a race announcer. "I enjoy this and I'd like to keep doing this as long as possible," he said. "I guess I'll keep doing it until I can't climb up the steps to the tower anymore."
This year's Show-Me 100 is set for May 21-23 at the speedway in West Plains. Harris said some of the drivers expected to be there include previous champions Scott Bloomquist (Tennessee), Billy Moyer (Arkansas), Freddy Smith (Tennessee), Wendell Wallace (Arkansas), Terry Phillips (Missouri), and Ray Cook (North Carolina).
Other early entries include Earl Pearson Jr. (Florida), Jack Sullivan (Arkansas), Jon Blankenship (West Virginia), Brad Neat (Kentucky), Bub McCool (Mississippi), Eric Jacobsen (Florida), Jeep Van Wormer (Michigan), Scott James (Indiana), Jimmy Owens (Tennessee), Brandon Kinzer (Kentucky), Kyle Beard (Arkansas), Dan Schlieper (Wisconsin), Dale McDowell (Georgia), Jeff Floyd (Arkansas), Jason Cliburn (Mississippi), Chris Wall (Louisiana), Bill Frye (Arkansas), Skip Arp (Tennessee), Steve Rushin (Missouri), Steve Casebolt (Indiana), Will Vaught (Missouri), Ray Moore (Louisiana) and many more.
"If you've never seen this type of racing, this is the event you want to go to," Harris said. "You're going to have a great time and we even have guest announcers come in for the Show-Me 100 so you won't have to listen to me the entire time. If you need to, you can get more information about the race by calling West Plains Motor Speedway or by going online to their Web site."
Harris writes a weekly blog for The News' Web site which can be found at www.areawidenews.com. He is also co-host of a weekly radio show, Real Country Racing, which airs on KHOM Radio at 9 a.m. each Monday.
This article is dedicated to the memory of Tom's brother, Larry Piper, who died suddenly on Monday, May 18, 2009.