WORLD CLASS PROMOTOR
It was a time period in stock car racing remembered by many in our area as possibly the very best time for short track stock car racing. It was an era that western Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma consistently drew the very best stock car drivers from Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, and Texas. And more often than not, the very best drivers that the United States had to offer. It was also a time that would later prove to be historical as it included the track championship seasons of two future NASCAR stars; Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin. And one man stood at the helm and guided Tri-State Speedway with the precision of Larry Phillips navigating lap traffic during a 50 lap feature. That man was Cecil Harlan.
Cecil Harlan was born in 1939 in El Paso, Texas. Later he graduated high school in Booneville, Arkansas in 1957. After marrying his wife of 55 years, Gail, they established a home in the Ft. Smith area, and raised a family consisting of both girls and boys.
While raising his family, Harlan settled into a job of twenty-one years with Dorney Media. Dorney Media was the parent company to the Southwest Times Record. It was during this time that Cecil developed an interest in stock car racing, and in the late 1960’s he began working with the Fort Smith Racing Association as a volunteer. Later in the 1970’s Cecil was promoted to promoter of Tri-State Speedway, before purchasing the facility, which he owned and promoted from 1980 until 2001.
Cecil Harlan had a special gift when it came to being a track owner and a promoter. He worked hard to keep stories about his races, and more especially his race car drivers in the sports pages of the Southwest Times. At the time, the Southwest Times was the largest daily newspaper based in western Arkansas. Also, it was not uncommon to see stories about Tri-State Speedway during the sports cast of the nightly news on KFSM Channel 5 and Channel 40 out of Fort Smith. If you turned your car radio on, regardless of the station it was hard not to hear a radio advertisement for Tri-State Speedway when music wasn’t playing.
Long time Ft. Smith racer Chuck Knight said of Harlan, “Cecil was first just a good person. He was a good friend of mine through the years. He did so much for promoting Tri-State Speedway and its drivers. Every week there was stories about us in the newspaper and the radio.”
Knight paused and laughed for a few seconds. “It was like a couple of us drivers would get into it out at the track. Now after the races were over Cecil would get us together and we would all talk about what had happen and it would all be forgotten. Then Cecil would say now don’t pay attention to the radio this week, cause this is over. Then on Thursday Cecil would be on the radio talking about how Chuck Knight got into it with so and so last Saturday night, and tell everyone to come out this Saturday and see if the feud was going to continue. He was always doing something like that to fill the grandstands.”
Not only was Cecil Harlan well respected at the race track, but he was also recognized and respected on the business side of the sport away from his speedway. He served as a board director for several racing organizations such as the National Championship Racing Association, International Motor Contest Association, and Mid-west Late Model Racing Association. He also received the coveted Life Time Achievement Award from the Ozark Vintage Racing Association for his thirty plus years of dedication to the sport of stock car racing in the states of Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Kansas. In 1994 Cecil Harlan was selected as “Person of the Week” by television station Channel 40 of Ft. Smith, Arkansas.
Then in 1999, in a ceremony at Texas Motor Speedway, Cecil Harlan received the Lanny Edwards Award. This award is presented each year by Texas Motor Speedway and is named after legendary racing promotor Lanny Edwards. Edwards was the promoter at both Lawton Speedway in Lawton Oklahoma, and the Devils Bowl Speedway in Mesquite, Texas. And was also co-promoter of the world famous indoor midget race held each year in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the Chili Bowl.
The Lanny Edwards Award is presented to a promoter each year for their accomplishments and advancements towards short track stock car racing. The award was presented to Harlan by then Texas Governor George W. Bush.
It was through Harlan’s promotional wisdom he was able to make local celebrities out of his race car drivers. Harlan liked the fact that when the drivers of Tri-State Speedway were seen out in the community, that they were often recognized and spoken to by the general public.
Because of this, and the fact that he ran a show that had great stock car racing, he was able to fill the grandstands every time he opened the gate. Each year at Christmas Cecil would lead his drivers around to the local hospitals where they visited with patients and passed out presents. Visiting the patients at the hospital during Christmas, especially the young children was one of the things in Cecil Harlan’s life that he looked the most forward to each year. He was also very involved with fund raising for St Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. Each year he held the annual St Jude’s Race for Life, a well-known area fund raiser for the children’s hospital. Once he even sent Chuck Knight and Mark Martin to the hospital on behalf of Tri-State Speedway to visit with patients and pass out gifts.
From a drivers point a view, regardless of the circumstances, it was hard not to like and come to terms with Harlan. His personality had a smoothness for bringing calm to the storm. When things got hot and out of control, as they sometimes do on the race track, Harlan had the ability to bring reason to those involved. In the end everyone would walk away from the incident, and felt better about returning to Tri-State Speedway the next weekend.
Fort Smith area racer Jim Philpot recalled what is was like racing for Cecil Harlan. “Cecil was a once in a lifetime promoter. He didn’t treat us like racecar drivers. He was always fair and treated each and every one of us like we were his family. He also liked to keep us busy with projects away from the race track out in the community. Things such as visiting the area hospitals at Christmas time. When Cecil called with an idea to help in the community, we all made time because of our respect for him.”
Cecil Harlan, who lived a very busy life as the owner and promoter of Tri-State Speedway, was also a family man. One of his daughters, Tamyra Hanna described Harlan as the best daddy in world. And it’s easy to tell while listening that she means it. Pride spills with each word as she describes and tells stories about her father.
“He lived for the race track. He was there seven days a week. He even went there on Sundays following a Saturday night weekly race to start getting ready for the next week.”
Tamyra Hanna went on to explain that as a family, they worked at the track with him. “I was out at the race track with daddy all the time. I spent a lot of hours walking the track and picking up rocks. He taught me to drive a standard transmission out there, by having me drive his old truck that he used out at the track. I also had several other jobs at the track. I just loved to be out there working with my dad.”
Another great memory that Tamyra held of her father was the time they would spend together at the track following the races. “We would sit in a space under the grandstands after everyone was gone. And we would talk for hours about the races and how great the races were.”
As Tamyra Hanna continued talking about her father, she recalled some of her favorite memories of her dad as a promoter. “There was a time at one of the bigger races during the season that it was a really good race and the first and second place cars were side by side for several laps. The race ended in almost a dea