Before totally focusing on football, Auburn's Bryan Harsin dreamed of a drag racing career
Bryan Harsin always tells his players that he’s the fastest person on the field.
They never believe him, of course. Harsin is in great shape for a 44-year-old, but he’s dealing with elite athletes. His first meeting with Auburn football players included Shaun Shivers, who ran less than half a second slower than Anthony Schwartz in high school.
Harsin isn’t talking about the 100-meter dash, though. He’s talking about a run down the drag strip in a Funny Car. He once made the half-mile trip in 6.33 seconds, topping out at 233 mph.
That's right. Before Harsin began the rise through the college football coaching ranks that led him to the Plains, he gave serious consideration to devoting his life to drag racing – a sport that makes "Auburn Fast" look slow.
“You look at it from the football field, if you’re going to go from goalpost to goalpost, it’s about two seconds, right, to cover the field,” Harsin told Andy Burcham after being hired to lead the Tigers in December.
That was half a lifetime ago now. Harsin hasn’t raced since he was promoted to Boise State offensive coordinator in 2006 – the same year his son, Davis, was born. But there was a time when he thought he might one day be going toe-to-toe with John Force rather than Nick Saban.
“That’s something that it’s in my blood,” he said. “It’s part of who I am.”
Following his father's footsteps
Harsin started going to races with his father, Dale Harsin, when he was just 4 or 5 years old growing up in Boise, Idaho. Dale is a legend in those parts. He started racing at Firebird Raceway in Eagle, Idaho, in 1972. The Outlaw Dale Harsin Racing team will celebrate its 50th year next year. He quit driving a few years ago, but his granddaughter, Mali Greenfield, has kept the family tradition going.
Scott New, the general manager at Firebird, could sense Bryan’s interest in following his father’s footsteps even way back then. There was a stash of Hot Wheels cars in his office, and every time Dale brought his son there, all he wanted to do was race New and his brothers.
“We would battle it out even when he was literally in grade school,” New said. “He had a very competitive spirit.”
But it would be years before he got behind the wheel of his dad’s racecar. Greg Borgens, Dale’s longtime crew chief, suggested that Bryan needed to figure out how the racecar worked before he got to drive it. Plus, he needed the help – most teams had a four- or five-man crew along with the driver. Dale had Borgens and his son.
Developing Bryan into a crew member took some time. Dale remembers one instance where he could hear a pinging sound coming from a Vega he used to race but couldn’t figure out what it was. Young Bryan learned he could knock the headlights off it if he hit them hard enough with a hammer.
The switch finally flipped when Bryan was 13 or 14. Dale said they were at the Fox Hunt drag race in Salt Lake City, which featured women in bikinis acting as race promoters walking around among the cars.
“He said, ‘This might not be too bad,” Dale said, laughing.
A gift for mechanics and details
Working on Dale's car is where Bryan’s detail-oriented approach to coaching that Tigers players rave about came from.
Borgens described a normal day at a racetrack as eight or nine hours of waiting to make two or three six-second runs. Much of that time was spent getting the car ready – packing parachutes, adjusting the clutch, checking the weather gages, etc.
It required perfection. Funny Cars aren't something you can drive off the lot at a dealership. They have 8,000 horsepower, top out at more than 300 mph and can race a half mile in less than four seconds. Borgens likened them to a grenade – you pull the pin out at the start of the race and just hope you get to put it back in once the car crosses the finish line.
"I have yet to experience anything else in life that even comes close to what it’s like to drive a Funny Car," Greenfield said. "Once those lights drop and you mash the throttle, you’re going down that roller coaster drop. You can feel the g-forces pushing you into the seat."
So Bryan would go over the same pre-race checklist multiple times. Even if he knew he had already checked the spark plug wires four or five times, he’d go back for a sixth just to make sure. It takes only one 10-cent part to ruin $2,000 worth.
“My dad, he was a big influence with me and just how he carried himself when we were out there at the drag strip,” Bryan said. “I got to see details. I got to see the way you do things and the process. Because if you don’t do it right, then that’s a bad thing for you.”
'The most fun, scariest times I've ever had'
It was Dale’s idea to get Bryan licensed on the Funny Car. It made for the perfect high school graduation gift – he could tell his son was interested, and he had already proven his chops driving for the Capital High street car racing team.
That’s a big transition, though. Dale said Bryan got out of the Funny Car after his first run thinking he had gone 200 mph, but that was just because he wasn’t used to the noise, speed and power – he topped out at 65.
So that was kind of funny. But it was also nerve-racking for Dale. He had Borgens serve as Bryan’s crew chief because he was a calmer presence. Dale spent his son’s runs leaning left or right anytime the car got too close to a wall, as if he was trying to guide a bowling ball down a lane.
“That was probably one of the most fun, scariest times I’ve ever had in my life, seeing your kid go down the track at 200 mph,” Dale said. “His mother probably wasn’t too proud of me when I let him do that. But she got over it after a while.”
That’s in part because Bryan proved to be quite good at it. Dale said he ran faster than he ever did. They would go to 20-25 races a year between Bryan’s duties as a quarterback for the Broncos and, later, a graduate assistant and position coach, traveling everywhere from Colorado to California to Oregon and even to Canada.
“It’s exhilarating,” Bryan said. “It’s awesome to be in that by yourself and try to control something that’s uncontrollable and get down the track and do it safely.”
And just like it was when Bryan was a kid tagging along with his dad, it was a family affair. His wife, Kes Harsin, used to be the one who helped him back into position at the starting line.
“It was a lot more fun at the races when it was Bryan’s dad racing,” Kes told ESPN’s Longhorn Network in 2011. “I’d still get nervous, but it wasn’t the anxiety, nervous butterflies when Bryan started racing.”
Trading the racetrack for the football field
Kes and their three kids were ultimately the reason that Bryan stopped racing. It wasn’t for lack of drive or ability.
Memories of particular races Bryan ran are hard to come by 15-plus years later. But one thing everyone recalls was how competitive he was. He wanted to win every time he set foot on the track. He often did.
And if he could have made real money doing it, Bryan might have tried to join to join the NHRA’s drag racing series. Those close to him – Dale, Borgens and New – believe he had the skill to do so.
But becoming a professional racer is expensive. A top-of-the-line car costs between $300,000 to $500,000, and traveling with extra motors – at more than $120,000 a pop – in case one breaks down is a must. Those things are normally paid for by sponsors, but sponsors ready to pony up half a million dollars are hard to come by in Idaho.
Borgens considered a victory anytime they were able to put the car back in the trailer in one piece. If they had a check for $1,000 in their pocket, that was just a bonus.
So when Chris Petersen offered Bryan a chance to be his offensive coordinator at Boise State after three seasons as the team's tight ends coach, there wasn’t much debate.
“My wife and I decided that this was what we need to do,” Bryan said. “Football was the focus. We’re going to have to put the drag racing aside a little bit. She thought that would be a safer style of living than being out there in the car.”
A love for racing endures
Fifteen years later, it’s clear Bryan made the right decision. He signed a six-year contract with Auburn that will pay him an average of $5.25 million annually. The average NHRA driver makes less than $150,000 a year.
But that love for racing never went away. Bryan continued to attend his father’s races even after committing to football. He gets the itch to get back in the car every time race season rolls around in April.
“I know there was a time or two when I talked to him, I said, ‘Would you ever find yourself getting back into racing?’” New said. “And his eyes kind of twinkled and lit up, like ‘Boy, that would be fun.’”
Bryan still loves driving. Dale is in the process of building him a street-legal ’69 Mustang Fastback with Alltrack Suspension and a Rausch motor – modern amenities with an older body. All he has left to do is build the brake lines and take it to the paint shop (Bryan is thinking metallic charcoal rather than blue and orange). Once that’s done, Dale will ship it to Auburn.
He’s not ruling out the idea that his son might one day take it to the track.
“He might be up in his 60s or 70s and decide he wants to drive again,” Dale said. “Hopefully, I’m around and he can do it.”