RONDA — Sitting on the front porch of Michael Harrell’s home in Ronda, Harrell seems like a man much at peace with his world.
And he should be at peace with the world. He’s got a lot of things going in a good direction.
He’s got his family; and his on again, off again relationship with racing is on again.
As a pre-teenager and a teenager, Harrell raced motocross. At age 10, his father would steady him on a Suzuki until he was on and rolling.
“I hurt my knee,” he said. “I said, ‘Daddy, let’s get us a race car’.”
Harrell, now 49, started racing in the Blunder Bust class at Bowman Gray Stadium when he was 15, moving up to street stocks and then limited sportman.
He grew up idolizing drivers like Al Hill and Ken Cheek of Jonesville; and the late Frank Baity of Elkin.
In 1989, they put a dirt body on his limited sportsman and headed to Friendship Motor Speedway where he was Rookie of the Year and named the Hard Charger.
Harrell ran another season at Friendship before taking the first of his two lengthy breaks. “It got too much like a job,” Harrell said.
He was back at it 1998. He was helping another driver with his open wheel modified at Bowman Gray. When an opportunity came up for him to slide into the seat of the backup car, Harrell drove again for the next year-and-a-half.
“Then I just totally quit,” he said.
Harrell said he was at his father’s shop one day when he felt his daughter Kayla, then 8, “tugging on my britches.” He realized his commitment to racing was taking him away from his family. He was missing his children growing up.
Harrell said his father replied, “Was wondering how long it was going to take you to wise up.”
He was working full-time during the day and then putting in until 2 a.m. on the race car. “Somewhere their childhood slipped away from me,” he said.
It was actually Harrell’s daughters - in particular Kayla - that got him back in a race car. All three of his daughters, Heather (now 28), Kayla (23), and Danielle (15) wanted to drive and Harrell was willing to see that they did.
“I never had a clue they’d want to [drive],” Harrell said.
So in 2011 Harrell bought a UCar. “They wanted me to drive it to see if it was all right,” he said. “I won the heat race and it hooked me again.”
‘A kid on Christmas morning’
Harrell said he chose the Renegades class because “it seemed like the most fun for what I could afford.”
He bought his first car before building the car he drives now before the 2013 season. “I struggled last year,” he said.
He went out five times and due to engine problems, didn’t finish a race.
After the 2013 season, Harrell was approached by what he called good friends. Tim Blevins, Rocky Lyons, C.J. Lyons, and Darren Barker “came to me and said they wanted to help me,” Harrell said. “I didn’t know if they felt sorry for me or liked me, but they wanted to put me up front this year.
“I was tickled to death. I was like a kid on Christmas morning.”
And the help has continued.
“They’ve helped me set the car up,” Harrell said. “I was an asphalt man. Dirt’s different.
“If something goes wrong at the track, they come down there. We talk it over every week.”
Something did go wrong June 21. Harrell had a visit with one of the concrete barriers that serve as a wall in turn four as the green flag came out for the feature.
He was put back to the rear of the field - giving up his No. 2 starting position. He worked his way back through the field and earned second. Three bolts were holding his rear end together, he said.
The car was still not repaired in time for this past Saturday night. “We just ran out of time,” Harrell said. “We’ll be ready this Saturday night.”
The 2014 season has been his best season. He’s won two features and been in the top three all but two weeks. “I don’t know how many seconds we’ve had,” Harrell said. “Quite a bunch.”
Harrell sits in third place in the Renegade point standhings, 46 points behind leader Shaun Robinson after missing Saturday night’s races.
A reunion every Saturday night
The daughters don’t just want to race or work on their own race cars. They’ll get right in there and work with their father.
“Heather and Kayla and Danielle, they’ll come out here and help me pull motors,” he said, indicating the garage area next to the house. “They don’t care how greasy they get.”
No family time is lost.
“Now it’s different,” he said. “They can help me and I can help them.”
Friendship seems to be the perfect fit for Harrell. “(Owners) Mike and Darlene (Brown) have done a heck of a job bringing Friendship Speedway back,” Harrell said. “They’ve drawn the crowd back in.
“They’re good people. If they’ve known you all their life or if you’re a new person, they’re going to help you.”
Saturday night’s at Friendship are a family affair. The daughters are there as is Harrell’s wife, Beth, and Harrell’s father William “Sweet Willie” Harrell.
“Saturday nights at the races are our reunions,” Harrell said. “I am fortunate.”
He didn’t hesitate to answer when asked what he enjoys about racing now. “Family and the need for speed,” he said. “The atmosphere; the smell of the fuel.”
Harrell is sponsored by Wagoner’s Welding in Hayes; Southeastern Used Cars in Ronda; Parigi’s Transportation in Ronda; and Winebarger’s Trucking in Jonesville.
Jim Fuller may be reached at 336-835-1513 or Twitter @elkinareasports.