“SJ’s a remarkable woman, it’s hard to talk about her in the past tense,” Taylor, who managed Harris’s road racing career, told PEOPLE. “She just was fearless, and whatever she put her mind to she was going to achieve it. She loved motorcycles, she loved racing and she loved making an impact in the sport.”
Harris died Monday morning on the set of the superhero sequel in Vancouver. It was her first job as a stuntwoman. Witnesses told the Vancouver Sun that Harris lost control of her bike during a stunt, jumped a curb and crashed through a plate-glass window at Shaw Tower. Police said she died at the scene.
“We’re holding up okay, as well as can be expected,” Taylor said of Harris’s friends and family. “Our focus now is just getting her home so those who love her can say goodbye. Everyone has been super nice, we’re dealing with it.”
Taylor posted a photo of herself with Harris on Facebook Tuesday, writing, “Yesterday was a nightmare I was hoping to wake up from.”
While Harris was interested in stunt work, her main passion was road racing, a sport in which she was a true pioneer. “She started riding with one of her boyfriends and she didn’t like the way it felt to be on the back,” Taylor explained. “She wanted to be in control of her own ride, so she got her own bike and never looked back.”
Interested in learning some defensive driving skills to help her navigate the busy streets of her native Brooklyn, New York, Harris signed up for some classes on a racing track. “When she first rode on the tracks she fell in love with it, because it was a safer place to ride and you can really see what the machine can do on the track. As she learned to get better in technical riding, she developed a love for speed.”
The two women met in 2014, when Harris approached Taylor about getting some coverage in her motorcycle magazine, Black Girls Ride. “She wanted to know how she could be featured in my magazine, and I just knew right off she was destined for greatness,” she remembered.
“She was the first African American licensed road-racer, and that had an impact,” adds Taylor. Soon they started talking about setting up a website and finding sponsors for Harris. “And we became fast friends,” added Taylor. “She was just easy love.”
Road racing, for the uninformed, is the type of motorcycle racing done on closed tracks, where the drivers’ bodies are often seen nearly parallel to the pavement as they lean into sharp turns at break-neck speeds. “The thing to remember about road racing is that it’s gender neutral, meaning women race with men,” explained Taylor. “There’s no women’s races or men’s races, it’s just whatever a human can do with a machine.”
Still, the sport is dominated my men, “so to have her winning against guys primarily; it was always great to see,” added Taylor. “She was a consummate professional in every sense of the word.”
Harris documented her progress on social media, posting videos of her races and even her crashes. Recently, she posted a photo to Facebook showing her broken wrist. But no matter the fall, Harris never hesitated to get back on her bike. “She’s tenacious, she just doesn’t quit,” said Taylor. “She’s like that little scrappy dog that won’t give up the fight. That’s just in her.
“She’s been through a lot of adversity in her life and overcome a lot, so anytime she got knocked back down, she would learn a lesson and figure out how to do it better the next time,” she added. “But there was never any wavering about whether she was going to do it again. It was more like, ‘Let me find the money to fix this bike so I can get back on it again.’ “
Unlike many of her road racing peers, Harris’s dream was entirely self-funded. “To know what she’s been through in her life, and to know what it takes to be a road racer — the mental ability, the physical ability, the financial backing — it really is remarkable the way she succeeded.”
In addition to being a successful pioneer for women of color in her sport, Taylor said it was Harris’s “character” that made her special. “She was a woman of excellent character, always there ready to lend a helping hand. She loved to teach, she loved to encourage women to ride outside of their comfort zone, and to me, that’s what really makes a superhero.”
Taylor said Harris was interested in exploring stunt work because she was looking for “different ways to be involved in motor sports.” But her first job in the business ended up coming to her. “She didn’t audition or do any casting call; they were searching the world for an African American female stunt driver, and they found her,” explained Taylor.
“Doing stunt work for the first time on the biggest stage in the world, as a superhero no less, was absolutely the chance of a lifetime for her,” she added. “We don’t know where it was going to take her; this was just the beginning. Knowing her, I could imagine she would have had many more films under her belt. And she definitely planned to continue racing, to get better and to win. That was her goal.”
Moving forward, Taylor hopes Harris’s legacy will not be defined the accident that killed her. “She should be recognized and known as more than just the stunt driver who passed away. SJ is a remarkable person, and I want her legacy of being an inspiration to women who ride to continue for many more years to come.”
- Reporting by LINDSAY KIMBLE