Eugene experienced a typical Oregon summer during 1974, warm days, a few hot days sprinkled in and comfortable evenings were the norm. As warm as the evenings were prior to the dog days of summer and western Oregon’s beautiful Indian Summer, things were smoking hot where West 11th intersects with Oregon Route 569, better known as Beltline Road. That was the location of Eugene Speedway.
Saturday nights at the speedway was the source of the heat during the weeks leading up to mid-July. Don Harper, a short-track racing ace from Ashland had won three races in a row on the 3/8 mile paved oval, and fellow racers were getting hot under the collar that an out-of-towner was taking home the top prize money week after week.
Among the nearly 2.8 million births in the United States during 1942 was a baby born in Massachusetts who was christened Merrill Harper. The son of a lighting salesman, the Harper family, parents, Merrill, and two older sisters, moved nearly every two years. Promotions by the elder Harper’s employer resulted in relocating regularly to new sales territories. By the early 1950s the family had made its way west to Ashland.
At some point in his early life Merrill started going by Don, perhaps adopting his father’s middle name, or perhaps it was his own. His oldest sister recalls life in Ashland in the early 1950s in her memoirs which offered a brief preview of his interest in racing later in life. “Mom took Don and me to the Ashland roller rink several times a week. In the beginning, I skated around the rink, holding Don up until my arm ached. In a matter of months he was skating past me like a bullet. Don was as addicted to racing as much as I was to performing.”
His oldest sister has great memories of the years the family spent living in Ashland, as evidenced by this recollection: “… living in Ashland was wonderful – a small-town American idyll complete with a stately old library and a party line on the telephone; I was even a baton twirler on the school drill team. As usual, I made friends easily. Phyllis Knapp and her younger brother, Don, were very tight with me and my younger brother, Don. The boys were absolutely fascinated by cars and anything with an engine – a passion that my little brother would carry into adulthood.”
One of the characteristics of a successful race track promoter is the ability to recognize and take advantage of any situation that can put more fans in the stands and more cars on the track. Don Harper’s winning streak was one such opportunity. Promoter Don Heer added a few dollars to the purse; the extra money going to the race winner, along with a huge trophy that memorialized the night’s special purpose. That night of racing will forever be known as “Get Don Harper Night.”
An intense battle ensued on the track, with Creswell’s Jay Bugbee taking the win and the spoils of victory. Jay had tremendous success racing in the northwest for a number of years, primarily at Eugene Speedway and racing on the dirt at Riverside Speedway in Cottage Grove, now known as Cottage Grove Speedway. Jay was a multi-year track champion at Riverside Speedway. The trophy was prominently displayed on Jay’s trophy shelf for years. After he passed away in 1994 after a hard-fought battle with pancreatic cancer, his racing memorabilia was slowly passed on to his friends, pit crew members and racing competitors. Jason Kocks, a former Creswell resident and racer, was the recipient of the “Get Don Harper Night” trophy.
As an adult, Don Harper spent some time living in Palm Desert, California before returning to Ashland with his wife Diane to live and raise his family, children Val and Russ. Racing cars turned from a hobby to a profession for Don. Another sisterly recollection exposes a nmm side of Don that few ever saw as she recalled a visit she made to Don: “By now Don was a professional race car driver. He won so many trophies over the years (over two hundred) that Diane lined them up in rows in the attic. Val and Russ used to play hide and seek amongst them … I guess Mom had successfully drummed into us, ‘Don’t show off.'”
By the late 70s and into the early 80s it was common to see his name in the top three at any race in which he competed. He seemed to have a knack for winning races that paid a larger purse than normal as he won numerous big money races throughout California and Nevada. He was also known as one of the smoothest drivers on the circuit and, except for mechanical failures, was rarely involved in wrecks on the track.
Russell Leach, another creative and “think outside the box” race track promoter, was instrumental in allowing the next chapter of this story to be written. In 2003 Cottage Grove resident and racing aficionado Denny Deatherage created an event that he dubbed “Old Timer’s Night” to pay homage to the people who represent the history of Cottage Grove Speedway. That event morphed into “Historical Night at the Races” and has become a very successful and popular highlight of the racing season.
Bob Farwell of Salem bought the track in the late 2000s and offered up some opposition to continuing to hold “Historical Night” as he failed to see any value in it. After some cajoling he reluctantly agreed, and after witnessing the success of the event, he never uttered a word of resistance again.
In 2010 the stars were in perfect alignment to pull off an ultimate surprise gift giving. Thanks to former racer Robert Hand, Don Harper was persuaded to attend our “Historical Night” that August. Jason Kocks graciously donated the “Get Don Harper Night” trophy and it was presented to Don, allowing the trophy to go nearly full circle. The snapshot of Don with the trophy shows his joy in receiving it, and that image was used as his obituary photo when he passed away.
By the way, as I’m sure most of you either know or have figured out, Don’s sister is actress Valerie Harper, probably best known for the character Rhoda that she played on the Mary Tyler Moore Show and later in her own television series, simply called Rhoda. The quotations referenced throughout this piece are taken from her autobiography “I, Rhoda,” published by Simon & Schuster.
Sadly, Don Harper passed away in November of 2015 due to complications from diabetes, leaving a family and a whole legion of race fans behind with heavy hearts. Most of us wish to leave this world having made a difference in someone’s life. Through his talent, his willingness to share his racing knowledge, and more importantly his friendship, Don touched many lives and made the world a better place.