Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Gant put the hammer down

Eternally youthful Gant put the hammer down


When Mark Martin won a pole earlier this year at Dover, he was asked if he wanted to break the Cup record for oldest winner.
“One, I wouldn’t want to beat Harry Gant’s record,” Martin, 53, said in a FOX News story. “He’s the man, in my eyes. On the other side of that, records are records. That’s why we do what we do. I’m neutral on that. I certainly respect to the hilt Harry Gant and really liked him and enjoyed racing with him and liked talking to him off the racetrack.”
Gant, nicknamed Handsome Harry, holds most of NASCAR’s “oldest” records, including the oldest driver to collect his first career Cup victory (42 years, 105 days) and the oldest driver to win a Cup race (52 years, 219 days). He is the second oldest driver to win a Busch (Nationwide) race behind Dick Trickle.
When the Taylorsville native was winning 18 Cup races between 1979 and 1994, he came off as a quiet, humble man. His post-victory press conferences featured answers about tires, sway bars and carburetors.
Certainly, he didn’t talk himself up or attack fellow competitors when media folk came his way.
Harry Phil Gant, born Jan. 10, 1940, was really good at two things, racing and carpentering. When he wasn’t around the racetrack or a race shop, he was probably fixing a roof or building something.
On track, Gant got his start on Hickory Motor Speedway’s dirt track.
In the winter of 1963, he and friends built a Hobby car and took turns driving. In 1965, Gant took over full time and won the track division championship. When the track was paved in 1967, Gant excelled on asphalt, ran Late Model and got his first Sportsman division win.
Gant was Hickory’s track champion in 1969 and ’73, and there’s a Harry Gant Grandstand at the track.
Up into the early ’70s, Gant raced his red No. 77 Chevy against Sportsman standouts like Jack Ingram, Morgan Shepherd, Tommy Houston, Bosco Lowe, Bob Pressley, Red Farmer, Sam Ard, Ned Setzer, L.D. Ottinger, Butch Lindley and more.
Ingram always has said that Gant was the one driver he felt comfortable, and safe, racing with.
One year in the early ’70s, Gant was racing at Columbia on Thursday nights, Kingsport or Asheville on Friday nights and at Hickory on Saturday nights. He ran 92 races, won 14 and finished second to Red Farmer in Late Model Sportsman points. And he found time for his home-building business.
Here are some other Harry highlights:
>>> Gant won more than 300 races in NASCAR’s Late Model Sportsman division (now called the Nationwide Series), claimed national championships in 1972, ’73 and ’74 and finished second in ’69, ’76 and ’77.
>>> Gant was 39 when he tried NASCAR Cup racing full-time in 1979. He picked a bad year to run for rookie of the year, since Dale Earnhardt and Terry Labonte (who combined for nine Cup titles) were also rookies, and Earnhardt won top rookie.
>>> Gant finished second 10 times before getting his first Cup win at Martinsville on April 25, 1982.
>>> He won 18 times in Cup, 21 in Busch. In 1984, he had his best season in Cup points, finishing second to Labonte.
>>> And who finished second at Daytona in 1984 when Richard Petty got win No. 200? Yep, Harry Gant.
>>> Gant’s one big-time championship came in the International Race of Champions (IROC) series in 1985. He tied Darrell Waltrip in points but won by finishing higher than DW in the final race of the year. He beat Labonte in a photo-finish at Michigan International Speedway. It was Gant’s only race victory in four years and 15 races in the all-star series.
>>> Gant became known as Mr. September in 1991 when he won all four September Cup races (Darlington, Richmond, Dover and Martinsville) and two Busch races (Richmond and Dover) at age 51. (His crew chief was another Hickory-area lad, Andy Petree.)
>>> His last Cup victory came Aug. 16, 1992 at Michigan when he was 52. He left Cup in 1994, returned for a few truck races in 1996 and then retired for good.
>>> And in 2006, he was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame. His presenter was Ned Jarrett, and one of his co-inductees was the late Dale Earnhardt, his rookie competition in 1979.
There were perks, of course. Movie folk Hal Needham (Smokey and the Bandit), Burt Reynolds and Paul Newman were originally involved in the Skoal Bandit team in 1981, and Gant often got to visit movie sites and make cameo appearances.
“I’d stay there three days, have a little stand-in part or something,” he said for a 2009 Sports Illustrated Q&A. “Being around it and seeing how it worked, being around people you never thought you'd be around your whole life, that was cool.”
Gant returned to Hickory for the 2011 Dwight Huffman Memorial race.
“It was great to have him back at the facility,” track promoter Kevin Piercy said. “He was an icon then, and he probably still is.”
One other thing, when Martin won that pole at age 53, that wasn’t the Cup record for oldest pole winner. In 1994, Gant won the Bristol pole at 54.
Tom Gillispie, the author of “Angel in Black: Remembering Dale Earnhardt Sr.”, writes about racing at Hickory Motor Speedway for HDR Sports. You can reach him at nc3022@yahoo.com or search Facebook for the HDR / The Inside Line page.

Contact: I can be reached at tgilli52@gmail.com or nc3022@yahoo.com. Also, my Twitter handle is EDITORatWORK.

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