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School and Speedways: OSU student Rachel Harper doubles as a race car driver

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OSU student Rachel Harper dons the number 288 as part of her fast side gig: a race car driver.

Rachel Harper got her start racing cars by fighting an age-old battle.

Kids have been bothering their parents about things for millenniums, and Harper’s lifelong yearning to drive a race car was satisfied last year when her father, Rodney, asked her a couple of questions.

“I kind of was bothering him about it,” Harper said, “because it started out as a joke. Then we were going on a trip somewhere and he asked (me) ‘Do you really want a race car? Do you really want to do it?’”

Rodney wasn’t surprised that his daughter wanted to get behind the wheel because she had been attending races with her father since she was 5 years old, and by the time she was 10 she knew more about his cars than half the people who helped him.

Harper answered with an affirmative ‘Yes’ and her father bought a car the next week. Harper is a proud owner of her race car, a white Chevy Nova frame with a red number 288 emblazoned on the side and a Chevy LS motor under the hood.

Harper is also a senior at Oklahoma State University, double majoring in agriculture business and accounting at the Spears School of Business. Harper aims to be a CPA after she graduates, which is a pretty rare goal among young people racing cars.

“It’s not the norm for a Spears student to be a race car driver. I guess I’ve never met anyone that was a race car driver and also a spears student,” said Ryan Sparks, a junior at OSU majoring in management and marketing.

Norms regarding racing don’t really apply to the Harper family, which has racing in its blood.

“It’s a family thing,” Harper said. “I grew up at the racetrack, and my dad raced my entire life.”

A long history of family racing success didn’t help Harper driving her car for the first time in a trial run at Enid Speedway this past August. Harper was rushed getting onto the track because her trial run took place in the intermission of a larger event at the track. She didn’t have time to ask her dad all the questions she would have liked.

“He just told me not to crash, and I didn’t do that,” Harper said.

All of Harper’s questions and concerns vanished the instant she hit the gas pedal. Harper took her first lap slowly and was quickly passed by her dad who was driving a car of his own.

“My dad was full speed ahead, but it did kind of light a fire under me ‘Oh, he passed me’ so then I kind of got to going a little more. I wanted to follow him so I could kind of see the lines he ran but that didn’t last long,” Harper said.

The anxiety Harper felt before her trial run paled in comparison to the anxiety Harper felt in the week leading up to her first race—The Lone Star 600.

“You could tell I was nervous,” Harper said. “I wasn’t saying a lot or anything like that and everyone was like ‘Are you ok.’”

Rachel was not alone in her nervousness. Her father has a history of getting nervous watching his daughter race.

“I bought her a car when she was 5, a kid sprint, and I took her out and she ran it one time, Rodney said. “It scared me to death, and I said, ‘we’re done’ and sold the car.”

The Lone Star 600 is a two-night race held this past first weekend of October at Devil’s Bowl Speedway in Mesquite, Texas. The first person to complete 300 laps on either night is that night’s winner. There are 192 cars on the track at one time, and the only time the race is stopped is if a wreck blocks half of the track. It is reasonable to see why Harper was nervous, not to mention the $10,000 prize for the winner of each night.

Right before the race, Rodney sat his daughter down after the drivers meeting and told her it was ok to pull into the infield if the race was too much for her to handle.

But, as Rodney proudly said, “That didn’t happen.”

Harper raced moderately well in her debut, finishing 58th the first night. She said that the craziness of the race started when she had to use five straps to secure herself in her seat and continued when her transmission broke halfway through the race.

“I was supposed to be able to take off in second gear and go to third gear and just ignore first gear,” Harper said. “But it broke, and so half the time it wouldn’t go from second to third.”

Strapped into her seat, Harper tried her best to use her peripheral vision to figure out her position relative to other drivers.

“You have no idea who is behind you or anything like that,” Harper said. “I mean you know they are behind you if they smack the crap out of you, but you’re just trying to stay away from everyone else.”

Harper’s father didn’t fare quite as well on the first night of racing. On the 21st lap, his engine failed him, and he broke down. His role changed from his daughter’s competitor to ally. When Harper came to pit road for more fuel, her dad started giving her pointers on how to drive on a slick track because the track started to gather slight precipitation.

“Yes, I wanted to race as much as I could,” Rodney said, “but the good thing about it was I got to watch her. I was like ‘Where did this come from? She’s never been in a car.’ I really anticipated that she would be at a slower pace.”

Harper improved on the second night of racing, finishing 48th. Her top speed in the race was about 85 mph on the straightaways and her average speed for a lap was closer to 78 mph.

The second night of getting jostled around with other vehicles also cemented Harper with a nickname.

“They nicknamed me “Tire killer” if that tells you how many I killed,” Harper said. “I think it was four on Friday and on Saturday I was really trying to avoid it and I think I only killed like two.”

Even with six tires punctured, Harper called her racing debut a success. Her overall finishing place was 49th, and although she didn’t win any prize money, Harper still made history. 

She is the only female driver to have ever finished both nights of racing and is the highest female finisher in the event’s history.

The thrill of racing in The Lone Star 600 is enough to keep Harper coming back to the track for more, and it makes all the time she invested into the race worth it.

Harper generally works on her car with her dad from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m., with the odd hours due to dad preferring to work late because he has trouble sleeping.

The worlds of being a full-time student and part-time race car driver collided at the Lone Star 600. Harper had two tests to take, one a business communications test and the other an agriculture price & analysis test.

“We had a camper, so I just made (my family) all go. I just said ‘Y’all just go and look at the cars or something just don’t come in here…this is my testing area now.’”

As uncommon as it is to see a young female business student double as a race car driver, the two complement one another. 

“If I just sat around and had to do schoolwork all day, I think my brain would literally go crazy,” Harper said. “So, having something where I can go and get away (like) working on a race car… is a stress reliever for me.”

Andy Luse, an associate professor in the Spears School, said that Harper’s determination to race cars and do things outside of simply being a successful student will benefit her.

“It actually shows me that she is willing to be well-rounded outside of her studies, more like a well-rounded human being, well-rounded in life and that’s good,” Luse said.

The Harpers’ next race is in February at Centerville Speedway in Arkansas.

“I just printed off the entry forms for that one,” Rodney said, “so we are going to try and get the cars ready.” “I hope I (beat Rachel), but if she beats me that would be awesome too.”

Rachel doesn’t see herself stopping racing anytime soon and said that if her dad finally decides to retire, she will keep the Harper family name going on the track. She said that since races are generally held on Saturdays, she could balance taxes during the week and balance RPMs on the weekends.

“I think that is what gives a little fun to life,” said Spears School senior Micah Weston, “is the things where you can get out of (the daily grind) and just enjoy yourself.”