NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Bowles-Eye View: NASCAR Lessons Learned From Harry Davis

On Sunday, 19-year-old Marc Davis finished third in the Freestate 500 in South Africa. That put him on the podium behind John Mickel and Toni McCray, standing proudly amongst the top three in a race dedicated to his late father.

Monday, he’ll fly back to bury him.

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The first time Harry Davis contacted me was out of the blue – literally. I woke up one morning in August, 2008 to two one-line emails in my inbox. The first asked to talk about driver development; the second was his cell phone number.

Hmph. Considering I wasn’t doing a story on driver development at the time, and while I knew who Harry was, I’d never spoken a word to the man, you can understand why I wound up scratching my head. Why would he contact a random reporter? When he picked up on the other end that afternoon, my voice had more than a hint of curiosity attached.

“So, what exactly do you need?” I said shortly after exchanging pleasantries.

“Well, Tom,” Harry said. “What I’m really looking for is advice.”

What followed was a 90-minute conversation straight out of left field. Marc had just turned 18, and Harry didn’t feel Joe Gibbs was getting him in a car quick enough. So he was looking at a two-year old truck to put Marc in for New Hampshire in September, hoping to make a big splash for his son in NASCAR’s top-three series. There was just one problem; in my opinion, it wouldn’t be much more than a ripple. The motor, equipment, everything was barely good enough to qualify, let alone give Marc a chance to finish in the top 20.

But Harry wanted some advice from someone in the business to tell him exactly that – and he was told I was a person who could be trusted. It was a surreal moment for me, one of the first times in my career I realized important people actually care about things I have to say. I took a deep breath, and gave him my take: I thought it was a waste for his son to debut and finish 30th in Trucks, and he was better off waiting for a better deal with a good team to come along. He thanked me, took the advice, and wouldn’t you know it, Randy Moss called that same month. By September, Marc was making his debut at Gateway with good equipment, finishing 16th in the No. 81 – his best performance in any of the top-three NASCAR series to date.

It was one of those make-or-break moments that started up a fast friendship, and for the last 18 months I was proud to call Harry a friend. He was the type of guy you could call about any story, and if he didn’t have a quote he’d work to find out an answer for you or someone that could help. On a personal level, it’s still hard for me to grasp that he’s gone. His number still sits planted in my cell phone, and I’m saddened by the realization he’ll never again pick up on that other line.

But this story isn’t about me. It’s about a man so passionate over his son’s future, he was willing to call anyone at anytime if it meant putting Marc in position for success. If you were a sponsor showing interest, the words were barely out of your mouth before Harry was pulling the sales job of a lifetime. Some marketers give flow charts; some talk about performance mixed with future potential. Harry?

He talked about love. Love for his son, and a belief in his ability that could get anyone to sign on the dotted line that listened. That passion kept him going at the end of 2008, when the aforementioned Joe Gibbs Racing released Marc from their development program. At one time, both he and Joey Logano were looked at as drivers with tremendous upside potential. But while Logano got the breaks (first Nationwide, then Cup), it was Marc on the outside looking in after just one Nationwide start for JGR (23rd at Memphis that fall). Logano had millions in marketing dollars lining up his future; Marc had a pink slip before he was ever even given a chance.

Let’s put ourselves in the Davis’s shoes for a second. Wouldn’t you be bitter over the way things shook out? Mention Logano is white, Davis is black, and Al Sharpton could have been sniffing around under the right circumstances. But Harry wasn’t looking for a handout. Instead of getting bitter, he put in back-breaking work to help set Marc up as the youngest team owner in NASCAR history. They were supposed to run 16 races; a sponsor bailed, leaving the final number at four. Harry tried the Trucks, to no avail; limited funding left Marc with a best run of 18th at Martinsville.

But through it all, Harry never stopped believing. And even when he couldn’t avoid race as an issue – when Brendan Gaughan’s crew chief was suspended for racist remarks following a crash between Gaughan and Marc this June – Harry refused to put it front and center, focused instead on putting the conflict behind them and getting his son back to full-time competition with a sponsor – not a pity party. “I want Marc to be known as a great driver,” he told me many times. “Not a great African-American driver.” For after all, how does the color of one’s skin change how fast you put your foot down on the gas pedal?

During the tumultuous times with which we start 2010, I think we can all take a lesson from Harry’s passion. This sport was built on people like him, blue-collar men with hefty goals who never stopped working towards their dream. It was built on teams who raced for the love of the sport, not how it padded their bank account or boosted the sales of their sponsor Monday morning.

Most of all, the sport was founded by families whose passion for racing matched their passion for each other. Harry was a doting, caring father, but not the type whose love for his son crossed the line of overprotective. While Marc’s the calm, quiet type, Dad never forced his son to be someone he’s not, or put the pressure of success on him for his own benefit. The only thing Harry was guilty of was loving Marc with all he was worth.

In light of such a tragic death, there was question whether Marc would even go and race in South Africa. But in true Davis fashion, conviction never gave him much of a second thought.

“He really put a lot into this deal, and we went back and forth with our team of whether or not to come here,” Marc said Friday. “He would have been heartbroken if we didn’t come. So we just have to tough it out and go out there and win the race.”

The other story that sticks out from Harry is just after his hip replacement surgery in December. I called him in recovery, and reminded him I was doing a story on driver development – the very thing he asked to talk to me about all those years ago. With nurses milling in and out, it was the last possible time or place for any sort of interview. But Harry wouldn’t let me get off the phone until he’d said his piece; 45 minutes later, I had 5-6 quotes that formed the crux of a cover story at Athlon Sports.

Once again, determination won the day, forming a nice bowtie on a friendship that should have been so much longer. But Harry Davis, despite his short time inside this sport, leaves a legacy behind, a glimpse into the heart of what NASCAR used to be.

As we charge into 2010, I hope it’s what this sport can still become.

Godspeed, Harry.

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