By TOM HIGGINS
No matter how great a winning streak some NASCAR driver might put together in the future, it'll have to be a lulu festooned with all kinds of special circumstances to rank up there with what Harry Gant achieved in the autumn of 1991.
Gant won four in a row, and except for the failure of a 10-cent O-ring in his car's braking system, he almost certainly would have made it five straight.
I know, I know. Several drivers have won four races in a row, including Jeff Gordon as recently as 1998.
And in 1967, Richard Petty strung together an incredible 10 straight victories en route to a 27-win season.
However, Gordon was only 27 at the time of his streak. Petty had just turned 30.
Harry Gant was 51 when he won four in a row! FIFTY-ONE! That's an age when most race drivers have long since retired--or should have.
Gant started his streak by winning the Southern 500, a race he had dreamed of taking since boyhood when he sat in the backstretch grandstand at Darlington Raceway with his dad. He won impressively, too, leading the final 70 laps and finishing 10.97 secnds ahead of runnerup Ernie Irvan.
The competition was a bit tougher the next weekend at Richmond Raceway. Gant grabbed the lead with only 19 laps remaining and managed to hold off a fast-closing Davey Allison by four car lengths.
"Hurryin' Harry" enjoyed a relative laugher the following week at Dover Downs in Delaware, leading 330 laps in the Peak 500. His Olds fielded by a Leo Jackson-led team was so strong that he rather easily lapped the field.
It was no laughing matter, however, on Sept. 22 of '91 at Virginia's Martinsville Speedway. Gant was sent spinning by Rusty Wallace when they collided while battling for the lead near the midpoint of the race. Gant went backward into the wall, and his car was then hit by two others. It appeared his streak was over.
However, Gant somehow managed to stay on the lead lap. During repeated pit stops during the ensuing seven-lap caution period his crew managed to get the fenders pulled away from the tires and get loose sheet metal duct-taped back into place.
Harry restarted in 12th position, and it was obvious he was a man on a mission. To the cheers of a crowd that seemingly was unanimous in support of him, Gant steadily picked off the drivers ahead of him. Finally, there was only one, Brett Bodine. Gant whipped around Bodine on the 454th lap and won by a second.
His green and white No. 33 olds looked like it had been in a demolition derby. Gant chuckled at the sight.
"It's pretty remarkable to win in a car this torn up," he said. "I didn't think about maybe winning again until we got back in the top five, then I noticed the cars in front of me weren't running any better than mine was."
Said Bodine, "We ran as good as we could against a guy who can do no wrong."
In Gant's hometown of Taylorsville, N.C., proud local fans of the personable driver had made a practice of flying a flag bearing his car number and team colors in front of City Hall for the week following each of his victories. Now, the flag had been rippling in the breeze in the foothills town for a month, and wags were joking about Harry winning so much the banner was becoming frayed around the edges.
Congratulations poured in for Harry from all over, including messages from other well-known veteran athletes. Among these was the legendary baseball pitcher, Nolan Ryan.
As Bodine had suggested, it certainly appeared that Gant and the Jackson team were unbeatable as NASCAR's top tour went to North Wilkesboro Speedway for the Tyson Holly Farms 400 on Sept. 29.
Harry won the pole and immediately surged ahead, leading the first 252 laps. On the 294th of the race's 400 laps he regained the lead and built an edge of about seven seconds.
On Lap 392, through, Gant slowed markedly, and Dale Earnhardt swept ahead to lead the rest of the way, snapping the streak that had gripped the sports world.
"The brake pedal went swoosh," said a resigned Gant. "I had zero brakes after the O-ring failed. I had to let Earnhardt go, because we would have wrecked if I had tried to race him. I don't do people like that."
Gant triumphed five times overall in 1991, and he won twice in '92. Among the latter triumphs was the Budweiser 500 at Dover, making Harry at age 52 the oldest driver ever to win a 500-mile race.
After winless seasons in 1993-94, he decided to retire, ending his career with 18 victories.
The wealth of "Harry Gant Stories" did not go into retirement with him, though. They're still told from time to time by fellows like former NASCAR champion Benny Parsons, once a nominal teammate of Gant under sponsorship of U.S. Tobacco Co. And by younger drivers such as Michael Waltrip, Sterling Marlin and others who enjoyed hanging out with Gant in the garage areas.
Parsons tells a classic:
"It was 1985 and Lou Bantle, the president of U.S. Tobacco, wanted to give Leo Jackson, then my car owner, a nice reward for us winning a 500-mile race at Atlanta. Leo likes to fish, so Lou decided a fishing trip would be the prize.
"The trip was to this great fishing lodge on the Wood River north of Dillingham, Alaska.
"Mr. Bantle decided that all the drivers his company sponsored--Harry, me and my brother Phil--should go along, too. None of us cared a thing about fishing, but we didn't dare tell Mr. Bantle that.
"We didn't even know how to cast, but we gave fishing a try. The third day of the trip our whole party is fishing in this wide, shallow river. Harry wades out to the middle about knee deep and starts casting. He immediately begins catching rainbow trout after rainbow trout that look about as long as your arm. He's releasing the fish after netting them.
"It gets so ridiculous that Harry starts counting, rubbing it in on the rest of us, who aren't having anywhere near that kind of luck.
"'Twelve trout in 12 casts,' Harry hollers. "'Thirteen trout in 13 casts!' and right on. He gets up to '18 in 18' and suddenly quits fishing. Harry then heads toward the bank, explaining that 'there ain't nothing to this.' Harry grinned and said, 'I'm gonna take me a nap.'
"As Harry wades along he's got his fishing rod over his shoulder. Somehow or another he disengages the push-button on his reel and the spinner he's using for a lure drops into the water. The line goes streaming out behind him in the current, unbeknownst to Harry.
"So help me, another trout grabs that spinner and the rod tip starts jerking down over Harry's shoulder. He spins around, sets the hook and starts yelling, 'Nineteen in a row! Nineteen in a row!'
"As Harry comes by me he winks and says, 'I've got to get out of this river. They're a-chasing me!'"
For several seasons Michael Waltrip, Marlin and fellow driver Rick Wilson inevitably gravitated to Gant's transporter in the various garage areas to be regaled with all sorts of anecdotes, complete with amusing sound effects, hilariously also provided by Harry.
Often, the three were targets of Gant practical jokes or needling.
Once, Wilson was hitching a ride back from a race on Gant's private plane. Gant had won that day, and he was carrying the trophy.
As they walked across the tarmac to the plane, Gant suddenly thrust the trophy into the hands of Wilson, who was destined to go winless in a career covering 200-plus starts.
"Here, carry this," said Gant, grinning with mischief. "You need to know what it feels like."
Someone once joked that Gant had attended comic Norman Crosby's School Of Malaprops.
Once describing the breed of dog one of his daughter's had bought, Gant's memory lapsed temporarily. "Aw, it's one of them little ol' long dogs," he said. "You know, it's a...it's a...it's a...It's a Datsun!"
Waltrip used to double over laughing when Gant described a piece of machinery he used on his farm near Taylorville.
Harry called the earth-moving equipment "A bullnozer."
"It's bulldozer, Harry," Waltrip repeatedly corrected.
"The thing pushes dirt with it's nose, so it's got to be a bullnozer," Gant always insisted.
Hmmm. Makes some sense to me.
This makes sense, too:
Nowadays, NASCAR sure could use a driver with Harry Gant's color and fan appeal. The driving talent and grit that enabled him to win four races in a row at age 51 would be a bonus.
September 15, 2005 in Sports | Permalink
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Another true gentleman and HOF member. For the HOF NASCAR also needs to get some of these driver momentos. Harry's Flag, Elliotts bell, the Petty towel. It wont be complete without them.
Posted by: Keith | Sep 16, 2005 6:27:36 AM
And well on to winning the 5th when he lost brakes late in the race. Of course they had a huge mechanical advantage with the cambered rearend but hey he still had to drive the thing. He is and was a great guy. Deserved more wins then he got. Many times he just had rotten luck. But always took it as a man.
Posted by: Scott | Sep 17, 2005 11:39:23 AM