Tony Stewart retired at 45. Jeff Gordon retired at 44, returned to help out Dale Earnhardt Jr., and retired again at 45.Jimmie Johnson, 41, says it’s unlikely he’ll be racing by the time he reaches 45. Don’t be surprised if 42-year-old Dale Earnhardt Jr. isn’t far behind his teammate.
Then there’s drivers like NASCAR icon Harry Gant. “Handsome Harry” retired from the NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series in 1994 at the age of 54, and then returned to drive 11 races in the Camping World Truck Series two years later at the age of 56.“My last win at Atlanta in a Busch car, I was 54,” he said, adding with a laugh, “Then I didn’t want to quit.”
He retired again at the end of the 1996 season and spent his “retirement” racing on short tracks across the country until he was 70 in 2010.
Now, the 77-year-old Gant is officially retired from all forms of racing, but he’s as busy as he was when he was behind the wheel. These days, Gant tends to a herd of 100 Black Angus cattle on his 300-acre Taylorsville, North Carolina ranch, rides his motorcycle around the country and is enjoying the good life.
He still follows NASCAR racing somewhat, but where the sport was the end-all and be-all for Gant for 30 years – from his first race as a sportsman driver at Hickory Motor Speedway in 1966 – now Gant is more of a casual observer.
“I watch the races on TV when I can,” he told NBC Sports. “I like to watch the Truck and (Xfinity) races. I don’t go out of my way, but if I’m not doing anything, I’ll watch it then.”
Then, he adds with a laugh, “Sometimes, I’ll go to sleep at night watching the night races.”
STILL A FAN FAVORITE
Since his last Truck race in 1996, Gant has only attended two NASCAR Cup races in person. One was a few years ago at Texas Motor Speedway, and the other was late last summer when he took part in the Throwback Weekend festivities at Darlington Raceway.
One of the biggest highlights of that weekend was when Gant swung back behind the wheel of his legendary Skoal Bandit car and took a parade lap, which drew huge applause.
It was apparent that even though he hadn’t raced in 20 years, Gant was still a fan favorite at the “Track Too Tough To Tame.” He received some of the loudest applause of the NASCAR greats that attended, and was swamped by fans welcoming him back as if he had never left.
Yet, Gant also noticed something. While he enjoyed the attention, Gant admitted that the NASCAR of his era is not the same NASCAR of today.
“It was very strange being there because I really didn’t know anybody there,” he said. “I didn’t know any of the crew guys, crew chiefs, drivers, didn’t know anybody except just a few older people I knew and older fans.
“It’s a somewhat different ballgame when I was racing. It’s hard to put your finger on anything, there’s just so many little things that were different back then.”
SHORT TRACK SUPERSTAR BEFORE HE CAME TO WINSTON CUP
While it was in NASCAR Cup and Xfinity races that Gant earned the most notoriety, he was a short track driver first and foremost.Sure, he earned 18 wins in the Cup Series and finished a career-best second in the season standings in 1984, and won another 21 races in the Xfinity ranks. But Gant earned more than 300 wins in the lower tiers of NASCAR racing, including the Sportsman championship in 1972-74. He also finished runner-up three times in what is today the Xfinity Series (1969, ’76 and ’77).
He paid his dues and served his racing apprenticeship before he cashed in with the then-Winston Cup Series.“Back in the day, you had David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Richard Petty – all them drivers – they started out not as young as they do now,” Gant said. “I started racing when I was 24 in a hobby car at Hickory.
“When I got to Winston Cup, I ran for Rookie of the Year in 1979 (at the age of 39 and competed against fellow rookies Dale Earnhardt and Terry Labonte), and when I first ran for (longtime sponsor) Skoal, I was 41 years old (1981).
“I was 42 before I won my first race in Cup (1982 Martinsville).”
TODAY’S YOUNG DRIVERS NOT PAYING ENOUGH DUES
Gant said that young drivers of today are jumping to the Cup Series much earlier than his era. In so doing, the young guns are not able to build the same type of large and loyal fan bases that drivers developed from their early days of Sportsman racing before moving up to Cup.
“We raced a lot of years, early years, with Sportsman cars, things like that,” he said. “Now, you see a guy who’s 20, racing in a Truck and then racing in NASCAR Cup, they haven’t….
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