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MOTOR RACING / VINCE KOWALICK : Harper Fights Bumpy Ride on Southwest Tour

September 11, 1993|VINCE KOWALICK

Three years ago, Will Harper was a star at Saugus Speedway, with championship rings on two fingers to prove it. Then Harper hit the road with the NASCAR Southwest Tour.

Only Harper never figured on the road hitting back.

For Harper, 38, the last driver to win consecutive Sportsman division titles at Saugus (1989-90), three seasons on the Southwest Tour have been filled with assorted breakdowns and just plain bad luck.

After 46 races, Harper, who many observers figured would speed to success away from Saugus, has yet to win and has only one top-five finish.

"The tour was the logical place to go from Saugus," said Harper, who lives in Tarzana. "But we've had a lot of bad luck. I've pretty much had to learn things the hard way. But it's like anything: If you keep with it, eventually things are going to turn around."

Harper has reason to be optimistic. His best performance on the tour came last weekend at Las Vegas Speedway Park, where he finished third despite navigating the final 50 laps after a mechanical breakdown left him with no power steering.

And tonight at 7, Harper will be back on his home track as the Southwest Tour makes the second of two visits this season to Saugus for a 100-lap main event.

"I always love coming to Saugus because of the good luck we've had there," Harper said. "I feel I know how to drive the track as well as anyone, and a lot of guys on the tour have trouble there."

Harper's return, however, likely will be overshadowed by those of at least three other former Saugus standouts.

Points leader Ron Hornaday Jr. of Palmdale, a former Saugus Modified division champion, has dominated the tour and appears certain to wrap up a second consecutive tour championship.

Lance Hooper of Palmdale, Saugus' Sportsman champion in 1991, and Keith Spangler of Northridge, who finished second to Harper by one point in 1989, are battling for rookie of the year honors.

All three have shined on the Southwest Tour, which makes stops at 12 tracks throughout California, Colorado, Arizona and Nevada from February to October. Surprisingly, Harper, who ranks 15th in points this season, has sputtered.

Harper almost has come to expect misfortune, which might explain his ability to rally at Las Vegas last weekend.

On Aug. 28 at Bakersfield's Mesa Marin Raceway, Harper was running third with two laps to go when a flat tire dropped him to 11th place.

Last May at Saugus, Harper charged from a dead-last start to eighth by the 50th lap before going belly up with a blown engine.

Last season at Las Vegas, Harper's car was rear-ended on the opening lap, forcing him to the pits for early repairs and taking him out of contention.

To make matters worse, Harper's pit crew gradually thinned this season because of attrition. Several members, Harper said, simply lost interest.

Harper put together a new crew he describes as extremely dedicated.

"I had a few bad years of bad luck at Saugus and then it looked like I could do no wrong," Harper said. "Hopefully, I'm beginning to be in tune and I should be OK."

For Harper, popularly known as Will the Thrill at Saugus, the thrill may not be gone.

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Add tour: Hornaday, who leads Doug George of Atwater by 159 points, will make a tour-record 100th consecutive appearance tonight while pursuing his sixth victory of the season. Hornaday won the 100-lap main event at Saugus in May.

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Miscellany: Mike Kiedrowski of Acton ranks fourth in the American Motorcyclist Assn. 500cc National Championship Motocross points standings after three of four events. He finished second Aug. 29 at Broome-Tioga Sports Center in Binghamton, N.Y.

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