Harris wins National Hare & Hound title

Jason Harris — seen here at a practice session last year — won five of the eight races he ran during the 2021 National Hare and Hound series. (HERALD PHOTO/Don Cogger)

Heading into the penultimate race of the 2021 AMA National Hare and Hound circuit last month, super-mini phenom Jason “Boogs” Harris — the points leader in the youth series since winning the first race of the season back In January — knew what was at stake.

“That race, I had to get my thoughts together, just make sure I was in the right mindset,” Harris said. “That race was a great race — I jumped out, got the hole shot and led the whole way. I didn’t have to push outside my comfort zone too much. It was just a very smooth race.”

Harris’ win at Lovelock, Nevada, on October 9th wrapped up the 13-year-old Lyman native’s first National Championship on the National Hare and Hound circuit, with one race left on the schedule. Perhaps even more impressive, however, was the grit and determination the young rider showed in the second half of the Hare and Hound season, riding his last three races with a fully-torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL).

“I tore my ACL on September 1st, and because I was able to wrap it up early, I was able to have surgery the Tuesday after the race,” Harris said. “That way, I can be back as soon as possible for next year.”

The National Hare and Hound season consists of nine races, beginning in January at Lucerne Valley, California, and running to late October. The circuit takes a break at the midway point of the season in May, and then picks back up in September.

Harris got off to a fast start, winning the first two races, and finishing runner-up in the third. In all, he ended the season with a podium finish (Top 3) in all eight races he competed in, including five wins.

“After I won the first race of the season, I had a mindset of, ‘Hey, I can do this,’” he said. “It was almost wrapped up with three races to go, but I had a bad race, and didn’t beat the people I needed to beat. I could have wrapped it up two races early, but we had to take it to the second-to-last round.”

Harris had accumulated enough points by the second-to-last race, that, if he could finish in the top spot, the title was his. It also gave him the opportunity to opt out of the final race of the season, which meant he could schedule the surgery for his torn ACL a couple of weeks earlier than planned.

“It was a really cool race, because I was pushed a little bit,” Harris said of the race that sealed his title. “I’d coast a little bit, then I’d see someone behind me, and I’d be like, ‘Alright, it’s time to pick up the pace.’ I put down a super-fast lap on the last one, and I was coming in, I was just super-happy that I was able to keep it together all year long.”

Harris’ father Shaun said watching Jason cross the finish line in that final race was a special moment for his family.

“It was a pretty emotional moment,” the elder Harris said. “More because we’ve watched him set goals, and, quite honestly, maybe too big of goals. But we watched him go at it with a determination that you don’t see with most kids. It was definitely a fun day for all of us.”

Overcoming adversity

As is the case with many of the riders on the National Hare and Hound circuit, Harris spent the midseason break of the series participating in other races around the region. He performed well in most of these events, including a fourth-place finish overall at the Lance Walker Memorial Desert Race, held outside of Lyman, and a first-place finish at a National Grand Prix Championship (NGPC) series race in Idaho.

With the start of the second half of the Hare and Hound series looming, Harris decided to enter a motocross race in Rock Springs. Chasing the leader in the final race of the day, Harris took a spill that nearly derailed the rest of his season.

“On the very last race on Saturday, I was pushing super-hard to catch up to the leader,” he explained. “I cut him off a little bit, but he was able to hold that No. 1 spot and pull ahead of me. I stayed close to his back tire, and coming over a bridge jump, it had kind of a lip to it, and it kicked me sideways. It took me over, and I crashed on the other side. My knee got twisted, and we found out later it was a full ACL tear.”

The extent of Harris’ injury was not known at the time, as he was able to pick himself up, dust himself off and ride off the track. He also competed the following weekend at Panaca, Nevada, the start of the second half of the Hare and Hound series, finishing first.

“It swelled up quite a bit, but I was able to stand up and walk it off,” Harris said. “I rode off the track, and didn’t think anything of it. The next weekend, we had a National race, and by that time we got the swelling down quite a bit. I took first that weekend, and I was feeling good.”

Following his win at Panaca, Harris took part in a training session with pro supercross rider Garrett Marchbanks. It was during this session that Harris began to realize something was amiss.

“During that training, my leg would give out — later, we found out that the bones were coming together,” Harris said. “So we decided then it was time to see what’s going on.”

Harris’ worst fears were realized, when an MRI showed a complete tear of the ACL. At that point, Team Harris had to weigh their options: Have surgery now, and miss the rest of the season, or go for the championship, and have the surgery then.

Asked if he thought his season was over at that point, Harris said he remained hopeful that he could continue, despite the tear.

“When we found out [about the tear], I had already raced a race on it, and won,” he said. “I hadn’t had any issues with it, so I knew that I could still perform. But I was definitely bummed that I was going to have to get surgery, and possibly miss this next season.”

Once the decision was made to move forward, Harris did his best to focus on the task at hand. But with surgery weighing heavily on his mind, he struggled to find his equilibrium.

“When Jason found out about the torn ACL, it became a mental game for him,” Shaun Harris said. “He was struggling with his [upcoming] surgery, he was struggling with dealing with the race and knowing that he could win that championship. But because of that, [the race following the diagnosis] was his worst race of the season.”

Harris still placed on the podium in the seventh race of the season, placing third. Had he finished first, however, he would have locked up the title with two races to go.

“I didn’t beat the two guys I needed to beat to win the title,” he said. “That meant I’d have to race at least one more race to win the whole thing.”

Harris won his eighth (and final) race, finishing nearly a minute ahead of the competition. The win sealed the championship, and solidified his status as the rider to beat going into next season. It also gave his sponsors something to celebrate.

“At my last race, one of my biggest sponsors, Husqvarna Motorcycles, printed out T-shirts for me,” Harris said. “That was a surprise, and that was super-cool, coming off the track and seeing people wearing them, and then having one handed to me. That was super-awesome. I’ve been on their bikes since 2018, and I don’t think I’m going to switch anytime soon.”

The road ahead

Harris had surgery two days after his final race in mid-October. Doctors estimate that he could be back racing in six to nine months, though Harris said he’s ahead of schedule.

“Therapy is going good,” Harris said. “I was off the heavy meds as soon as I could — I don’t like the way they make me feel. I started walking around at home with the brace on, and I was cleared off the brace a week later. I feel good as gold right now. At my first physical therapy session, the doctor told me that I’m almost two to three weeks ahead of where I should be, so that’s encouraging. The goal I’m shooting for — which may not be super-realistic — I’d like to be able to start racing in January.”

Shaun Harris said he’s cautiously optimistic about his son’s return to racing, though coming back too early is always a risk.

“It was definitely a lot of research — trying to figure out how quickly we could get him back,” he said. “Jason has gotten so much recognition from [sponsor] Husqvarna, they want him to defend the championship. There’s not a lot of kids that get that opportunity, because most of the time, when they win in super-mini, they’re about to age out. Jason is only 13, so he could potentially race three more years of this. He won really early.”

As for Jason, he doesn’t want his competitors to think they have an advantage because of his injury; a strong showing in January would go a long way in dispelling that notion.

“I don’t want to let the other racers think they can beat me, because that gives them confidence,” Harris said. “That’s one thing I trust myself in, because I’ve put in the hours. We do routine maintenance on my bike every single week. When I come back, I want to win. That way, other people don’t try and think they can beat me because I have a torn ACL.”

For now, Harris will continue to rehab the knee, and reassess at the end of the year. He’ll enjoy his championship, as well as the prospect of racing for a new team next season.

“I’m super-excited, because next year I’ll be racing on the Kilmartin/3Bros team,” Harris said. “I’ll be riding for their amateur team, and that’s another huge accomplishment. I was able to get my foot in the door with them, just by hanging around them, getting to know the team. I was able to go to California for three weeks at the end of summer, and spend time with the team owner, see if it would be a good fit. They’re such a good team, and I can’t wait to ride for them.”

Asked to sum up his season, Harris said winning the championship was the result of a lot of hard work and sacrifice.

“I think the biggest thing this year was just how we were able to stay consistent — there aren’t many riders, even among the top pros, that make it to the podium every single race,” he said. “That was a big accomplishment for me. Overall, I think we have a really good program, and I think we can keep it together.”

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