Retirement suits Gant just fine

By Jeff Birchfield
STAR STAFF
jbirchfield@starhq.com
JOHNSON CITY -- At age 64, Harry Gant has the appearance of a much younger man. Signing autographs at the VA Medical Center on Monday alongside Busch Series drivers Brad Teague and Mike Potter and local short track ace Larry Ledford, Gant looks like he could still wrestle a 3,400-pound stock car with ease.
"When are you going to come back racing?" is the most common question race fans ask the former driver of the No. 33 Skoal Bandit Oldsmobile.
The Bandit, however, is content these days working on his farm near Taylorsville, N.C. and doing occasional appearances for former race car sponsors.
He keeps a muscular build by dabbing in roofing and building fences for the Brangus cattle that he raises. The Brangus is a breed derived from Brahama and Angus known for their nasty disposition. Gant tames these temperamental beasts as easily as he once did race track hot heads.
Harry Gant has never been one to take the easy route. He didn't start racing until age 24 and it would be a 15 years later before he received the opportunity to race full-time in NASCAR's top series.
During that time, Gant made his reputation as one of the best short track racers in America. Hundreds of wins piled up as the driver nicknamed "Handsome Harry" proved a mastery of both dirt and asphalt surfaces. Familiar to fans was his orange-painted, yellow-lettered No. 77 race car.
"We ran that car for 12 years," Gant remembered. "We were real successful and I had a lot more fun racing it than I did in Winston Cup. One of the biggest things I remember is how it all got stolen one night at Nashville."
Three times Gant was runner-up in NASCAR's Late Model Sportsman series, the forerunner of today's Busch Series, and was that circuit's Most Popular Driver on two occasions. He also won Most Popular Driver honors on the Modified Tour in 1977 after winning that series' biggest race at Daytona.
Other tracks he visited often during those formative years were raceways here in the Tri-Cities area.
He was a regular at Sportsman Speedway in Johnson City, today the site of Leisure Lanes bowling alley. He was a frequent winner at Kingsport Speedway and scored a legendary Late Model Sportsman triumph at Bristol, where he finished the race with two blown tires.
"I kept hitting the wall," recalled Gant. "I was so dead racing that night. I went to Charlotte on Wednesday and qualified for Joe Frasson in his Winston Cup car. Then I went to Richmond and ran a Modified race. I went back to Charlotte and practiced the next day before I went to Columbia, South Carolina and ran another race."
"I went to Bristol and qualified for that race Friday afternoon. Friday night I came to Kingsport and ran a 250-lapper, where I started back in 36th but ended up lapping the field. Then I went to Asheville the next morning got an engine. That night I raced at Hickory and then raced the 600 miles the next day at Charlotte. I didn't think the car would last, but we ended up finishing sixth. It was after midnight by the time I got to Joe's house, where I stayed the night.
"The next morning we loaded up and ran that 300-lapper at Bristol on Monday. I hadn't slept much since Tuesday night the previous week. It's a miracle we won the race because I kept hitting the wall that night. I had run two sportsman races, two Modified races and one Cup race, plus made two trips to the engine shop in less than a week. Back then, I ran 90-some races a year."
After those barnstorming years, Gant made a long-awaited debut as a Winston Cup rookie in 1979. His first-year classmates included future series champs Dale Earnhardt and Terry Labonte. Despite their paths crossing frequently, Gant says he never developed a real close relationship with Earnhardt.
"You don't get to know anybody really good after Sportsman racing," Gant commented. "It's all so competitive in Winston Cup."
Gant's early years in the Cup Series gave him a new nickname: "Hard Luck Harry." He had several runner-up finishes before winning his first race in 1982. He went on to add 17 more Winston Cup victories, including a memorable stretch in 1991 when he won four straight.
That season, at the age of 51, he led the series with five victories and was named the National Motorsports Press Association Driver of the Year. One year later, Gant became the oldest winner in series history at age 52 by winning at Talladega. His record stands to this day, although there are a couple of drivers he feels could break the mark if they race long enough.
"It just depends what equipment they have, but in a good car I think Bill Elliott or Rusty (Wallace) could run until they are 60," said Gant. "Bill is still winning races and Rusty is still a competitive driver. If a driver quits racing like I have, he loses something, but if they continue doing it, I think they can race for a long time."
Gant's most successful season, from an overall standpoint, came in 1984, when he finished runner-up to Labonte in the battle for the Winston Cup championship by a margin of 64 points.
Gant also had incredible success in other series he raced part-time. He won 21 Busch Series races. Despite never committing to the series full-time, he led the tour in victories for two different seasons. His best known ride was the No. 7 fielded by Bristol car owner Ed Whitaker. Gant set a record as then oldest winner in the Busch Series with a 1994 victory at Atlanta while driving for Whitaker.
He also won the 1985 IROC Championship, when the series truly featured the best Indy car drivers going up against the best NASCAR had to offer.
He made cameo appearances in the two best known stock car racing films of recent years. Gant played himself in "Stroker Ace" that starred his then car owner Burt Reynolds. Six years later, Gant appeared in the movie "Days of Thunder" that featured Tom Cruise.
For years the most popular tourist stop in Taylorsville was Harry Gant's Steak House. He recently sold the business and is enjoying his semi-retirement from the spotlight.
"I still do some work for Manheim Auctions like I have for the last 10 years, and I've been with Skoal for 24 years," said Gant. "I still will make some appearances and go to a few race tracks for those folks, but the main thing I do nowadays is raise cattle."