It was only last week that Joi “S.J.” Harris got the call offering her a job on the set of “Deadpool 2.” The production had searched the globe looking for an African-American woman who could ride a motorcycle at high speeds, and they needed her to be in Vancouver right away.
“This was an opportunity of a lifetime for her,” says Porsche Taylor, her manager. “She was over the moon.”
Harris was an accomplished track racer — the first African-American woman licensed to compete alongside men in American Motorcyclist Association events. Her friends were stunned and heartbroken to hear on Monday morning that she had been killed while executing a stunt on the set of the film.
“She’s got fans all over the world that will miss her dearly,” says Taylor, the founder of Black Girls Ride magazine. “She was realizing her dream, and she died doing what she loved.”
Harris was no stranger to the risks of motorcycle riding. She had started out riding the streets of Brooklyn, but decided it would be safer to learn to ride on a closed track. Crashes are a fact of life in motorcycle racing, but friends say she always walked away and tried to learn how to avoid a mishap the next time.
“I don’t know the specifics of the stunt, but I know she would have been safe and prudent,” says Scott Diamond, the president of Moto-D Racing, which sponsored Harris. “She was a very responsible and mature person. She wasn’t wild and crazy.”
On her blog, Harris wrote about how to control her fear of crashing.
“I’ve learned to accept that I am not the greatest rider that exists and that there is always something to learn when on track and pushing limits,” she wrote. “Sometimes I’m going to eat it if I’m impatient. Everything takes time.”
In another post, she wrote that even the relative safety of a closed track does not eliminate all risks.
“It’s a hell of a risk no matter what,” she wrote, adding that she kept at it because “I loved speed.”
Harris was an athlete, and was very competitive, her friends say. In her 20s, she had a boyfriend who rode a motorcycle. At some point, she got tired of being a passenger and decided to take control. After moving to track racing, she trained with a coach and got her AMA license in 2013. The sport is dominated by men who typically get their start as teenagers. Racers often reach speeds of 150-175 mph, and execute hair-raising turns with their bikes tilted almost sideways. Despite being a late bloomer, Harris won a few races.
“She wouldn’t let anybody stand in her way,” says Lisa Jackson, a friend who organizes motorcycle events. “She was an inspiration for a lot of women.”
Harris paid for her gear herself, and was navigating the world of sponsorship and branding that goes along with being a professional rider.
“She was sweet and funny, but she also had that tenacity that says, ‘I will do this, and I will do this well,'” Jackson says.
Harris broke her wrist in a crash earlier this year, but it had healed and she was cleared to ride, Taylor says. The “Deadpool” shoot was her first job as a stunt rider.
According to local news reports, Harris was riding the bike down the steps of the Vancouver Convention Center. She executed the stunt four times without difficulty. But on the fifth try, she sped out of control, hit a post at 40 mph, and slammed into the glass wall of Shaw Tower. She died at the scene.
The crash is now under investigation.
“We have great faith in her ability as a rider,” Jackson says. “We have to know what happened.”