Name: Harry Phil Gant
Born: January 10th, 1940
Hometown: Taylorsville, NC
Top 5s: 123
Top 10s: 208
Career Earnings: $8,544,840
Race car driver. Actor. Bridesmaid. Roofer. "Handsome" Harry Gant wore many hats in the midst of one of the greatest careers ever assembled in Cup. A mainstay on the NASCAR circuit through the 1980's and early 1990's, Gant drove one of the most iconic cars in racing history, the green and white No. 33 Skoal Bandit. Driving for two legendary and well-respected owners, Hal Needham and Leo Jackson, Gant drove the wheels off his car – literally. Before Michael Waltrip drove it on the high side, there was Gant, known for scraping the paint off his Goodyears by running his car right up against the outside retaining wall. High Groove Harry got it done, though, thriving to the tune of 18 Winston Cup victories spanning sixteen full-time seasons. As we head into Martinsville this weekend, it’s the perfect time to stop and reflect on Gant’s great career; not only was this one of Harry's best tracks, it was the site where an improbable record-tying streak of victories reached its peak in 1991.
Before that record gets its just due, let’s gather some background on how Handsome Harry even got to that point. Gant was born January 10th, 1940 in Taylorsville, NC. He began his racing career not far from there, competing in the hobby class at Hickory Motor Speedway by running a “limited schedule”; he exchanged driving duties in the No. 14 car with his friends who built the race car with him. After a couple of strong runs helped his friends realize who the “real’ wheelman was, Gant would take the wheel full-time, producing outstanding results. Harry won over 300 races on his way to winning three track titles in 1972, 1973, and 1974.
That success allowed him a chance for opportunities on other levels of racing, most notably the Sportsman Division, what is now the modern-day Busch Series. Even with both limited funding and equipment at times, Gant would still place second in the championship standings on three occasions: 1969, 1976, and 1977. Harry’s love for the series never died, even once he became a full-time driver in Cup, he would continue driving part-time, winning a total of 21 races in the Busch Series from 1982 through 1994.
It took awhile, but those continual strong runs in lower series finally paid off with Gant’s shot at the big time. After a few sporadic starts from 1973 to 1978, Harry made the jump full-time to the Cup series in 1979, cashing in on an opportunity to drive the No. 47 Chevrolets and Oldsmobiles for owner Jack Beebe. Gant picked a heck of a year run for top rookie honors; his main competition became Dale Earnhardt and Terry Labonte, men who would end up producing a combined nine Winston Cup championships between them. While Gant would not win a race that season, he did win the pole for the July race at Pocono en route to collecting five Top 10 finishes; his best effort was sixth at the Spring race at Martinsville.
While Harry lost out on the rookie trophy to Earnhardt, he continued to get up to speed in short order; after finishing his rookie season 29th in points, he finished 11th in 1980, then rose to 3rd in 1981. During that ’81 season, Gant made a change that would mold the rest of his Cup career; leaving the No. 47 Race Hill Farm Team, he went to the No. 33 car owned by Hal Needham and actor Burt Reynolds. Sponsored by Skoal Bandit, it would be the ride Gant would hold for the rest of his career, even when the team was sold to Leo Jackson following the 1988 season.
Aligned with his new team, Gant showed marked improvement, but as 1982 dawned he found himself still shut out of one very important aspect of Cup racing: Victory Lane. Always the bridesmaid but never the bride, Gant finished second an astounding ten times before winning his first Cup race at Martinsville in April 1982. Only one other driver, James Hylton, finished 2nd more times before getting that first victory, collecting twelve runner-up finishes.
After collecting the win, Gant used the victory to gain momentum, finishing 4th in the final standings that year while collecting a second win at Charlotte. After a dip to seventh in points in 1983, Gant would come oh-so close to winning the most coveted prize in motorsports the next year. At or near the top of the standings all season long, Gant finished the 1984 season runner-up to another member of that memorable rookie class of 1979, Terry Labonte. That was as close as Gant would get to the Cup title, although he did manage to win the title in the 1985 International Race of Champions (IROC) series.
Throughout the rest of the 80's, Gant’s performance gradually faded; winning just twice between 1986 and 1990, he finished no higher than seventh in the standings any of those years. But once Gant turned 50 years old in 1990, something changed. While other modern-day drivers have struggled upon reaching that age, Gant hit his Golden Years in better shape then ever before, in large part due to a unique workout regimen: performing roof repairs on houses. Whenever anyone would ask Harry what his secret was to staying in shape and being able to wrestle around an unwieldy race car for four hours, he would simply reply, "Roofin'!" That exercise paid off in full in 1991, when Harry would enjoy the best year of his career, launching the legend of “Mr. September.”
It was during that fateful month where the 51-year-old Gant went on a tear. The No. 33 made Victory Lane its permanent home in September, with Gant becoming one of five drivers to win four races in a row since 1972. He started his streak at the Southern 500 in Darlington, then followed it up with wins at Richmond, Dover, and Martinsville. It was an impressive set of performances; remember, this was back when Dover was 500 laps, not 400, and Gant also won Martinsville with half of the front end of his race car torn off, including the all important brake ducting.
The sudden success of the No. 33 team had everyone rallying around them; everyone seemed to become a Harry Gant fan overnight, holding up signs at the track that read, "Life Begins at 51!" Heading to North Wilkesboro, Gant’s streak had received national attention, and interest was reaching a crescendo as he prepared to try and break the record with his fifth straight win. For awhile, it looked like he would do just that, but after running up front most of the race, his brakes gave way late in the going, clearing the way for Dale Earnhardt to take the checkered flag. The streak was over, but the recognition was far from complete; Gant’s late season achievements won him the National Motorsports Press Association’s Driver Of The Year Award.
The next season would find Harry running well once again almost every week. He managed only three DNFs that season, two of which were engine failures not of his doing. He won at Dover and again at the August race at Michigan, making him the oldest driver ever to win a Winston Cup race at 52 years and 219 days old. He even went into the final race of the year at Atlanta with a legitimate shot to win the Winston Cup; but he fell a bit short, eventually placing fourth in points as he had the year before. While Gant would go winless in 1993 and 1994, his age finally catching up with him, that performance in the early ’90s would set the standard for any veteran wondering whether or not they could keep going past the age of 50 years old.
After retiring from Cup in 1994, the following year Gant was picked to be part of the Lowe's Motor Speedway Court of Legends. He was also inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2006. While Gant may not be racing anymore, he still remains active, participating in Kyle Petty's annual charity Ride this summer; July 14th through the 17th, from Bar Harbor, ME to Woodstock, VT.
So, as the race begins on Sunday and you’re ever wondering if drivers like Jarrett, Schrader, Rudd, and Petty can ever be overly competitive again…think of the legend of Harry Gant. When you realize the obstacles overcome by a man in the prime of his Golden Years, it makes it perfectly understandable why others will dare to hang on too long.
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