If ever there was a motorcycle-racing version of a Johnny Cash song, Mike Harth would have to be it. A hard drinking, womanizing roughneck who emerged from the oilfields of Oklahoma, Harth was a fearless racer who could care less about political correctness. If a fellow rider was brave (or stupid) enough to make a risky pass on Harth, he knew he'd hear about it afterwards. On the track "Iron Mike" was able to overcome incredible obstacles and injuries, but in the end the one thing this fiercely independent rider found toughest to face was his own mortality.
Harth is perhaps best known for his Daytona 750 Supersport victory in 1992 on a junkyard Kawasaki, but he also won numerous national endurance and major club-racing events and championships during his 20-plus year racing career. He rode for some of the high-profile independent teams of the 1980s and '90s, teams like Team Suzuki Endurance, Dutchman Racing and Team Mad Dog.
Harth grew up in Oklahoma, and as a young man went into the Army and later worked the oilfields of his home state. His brothers bought an old Harley-Davidson Sprint flat tracker and they soon got Mike on the bike and he started racing local flat tracks. In 1980, Harth began club road racing. Although Harth was talented and put together a string of top-10 AMA Superbike finishes,
Harth battling Fritz Kling in the 1992 Daytona 750 Supersport race - Harth's lone Supersport win.
his bikes often didn't last the race and they were seriously down on horsepower.
Former Harth mechanic Larry Brown said that Harth knew he needed a stronger motor if he were to have any hope of winning a Superbike race. "He finally bit the bullet and got one of the HRC motors for his Interceptor," Brown said. "When he raced the thing he was still getting pulled by the factory and factory-support Hondas. He went to the Honda guys after the race and asked what the deal was. They hem and hawed around and told him that even though he'd spent 20 grand he needed more parts to be competitive. Well that just ticked him off and he vowed to never race Hondas again."
Harth's first paid ride came in 1987 when he signed with John Ulrich's Team Suzuki Endurance to race the WERA National Endurance Series. Harth, along with Thomas Stevens, helped the team win that year's WERA title. A few years later a tense relationship with Ulrich came to a head in one of the most infamous (or famous depending on your point of view) incidents in WERA history.
It was a low-key club race at Roebling Road in Savannah, Georgia. Suzuki contingency money was available and Harth borrowed a bike from a novice rider. In the race, Harth chased down and passed Ulrich's riders Kurt Hall and Mike Smith to win. Afterwards Harth's borrowed bike was protested ostensibly by Smith, but Harth suspected that it was Ulrich who ordered the protest. The novice rider who'd lent Harth his Suzuki was in a bind. He had to work the next morning and had to get
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on the road. That meant Harth lost the race and Suzuki money by default.
Harth was steamed, but that circumstance alone wasn't what set him off. What tripped his fuse was when his girlfriend, a pretty German he'd met while racing in Macau, approached Ulrich to find out why his team had protested her boyfriend. Ulrich finally frustrated with the language barrier said "He cheated!" With that the girlfriend went back and told Mike what had happened.
When Harth heard that Ulrich had called him a cheater, that was it. Blood was in his eyes as he walked down pit lane towards Ulrich. As Harth approached he yelled to Ulrich, "Prepared to defend yourself you four-eyed mother#@$%&," and he laid into Ulrich grabbing him around the neck, knocking him back over the pit wall and onto a bike stand. A group of bystanders grabbed Harth to hold him back and it took every one of them to keep him from continuing his assault.
In spite of his volatile personality, no one could stay mad at Harth for long. He always had a crew of friends who helped him and his bright smile apparently melted girl's hearts.
Harth's victory in the Daytona 750 Supersport in 1992 was unexpected. He'd paid $600 for a junkyard Kawasaki ZX-7R, rebuilt the bike himself, came to Daytona and scored the biggest win of his career. But shortly after his triumph things began going downhill. Less than two months later he suffered a serious head injury at Charlotte when the front tire blew on the Dutchman Racing Suzuki during the closing stages of the EBC Endurance race, sending him into the outside wall of NASCAR turn two at 120 mph. Remarkably, in spite of his head injury, Harth made a rapid recovery and only a week after the accident he checked himself out of the hospital. But things weren't right. Harth had excruciating headaches and neck pain and it was only later Harth found that he'd also broken his neck in the crash and it went undiagnosed.
Harth continued to race after the Charlotte crash, but he was in constant pain. In the early
2000s Harth, now in his early 40s, was at Daytona racing again when a rider crashed in front of him leaving him nowhere to go. This time he suffered more serious injuries, landing him in the hospital for three months. That was it for Harth. He came back and did a few local club races for fun, but his days of serious racing was over.
Harth's body had taken so much abuse that according to his son Dustin, he was close to being disabled because of pain. The number of pills progressively increased over the years as he tried to deal with the aches of his past injuries. "His body was starting to shut down unless he had some form of pain relief," Dustin recalls. "And, of course, everyday average pain relief could not begin to touch it. It unfortunately seemed to get the best of him the last couple of years."
One night in early January 2004, Mike and his brother Joe were at a bar watching a football game. He came home around midnight, said hello to his wife Jennifer and ate a bowl of cereal. Later Jennifer woke up and went into the kitchen to discover Mike's lifeless body on the floor. No one knew for sure what caused his death. According to Dustin, it was likely a lethal combination of alcohol and pain medication.
As WERA owner Evelyne Clark aptly put it, "Mike was his own man. When he smiled he beamed. He was an awesome rider and I'm happy to have known him when he was with us. His legacy lives on with those who knew him." CN
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