When September appears on the calendar there is one driver who pops into my head – Harry Gant.
He will always be “Mr. September” to me for more reasons than the number of wins he earned during that month in 1991.
Gant began his career in NASCAR Winston Cup racing in his ‘40s and was competitive into his ‘50s, a time considered the autumn of one’s competitive life.
Gant’s driving career has always enthralled me because he became a rookie in the Cup series at the age of 39 in 1979 and raced for Rookie of the Year against the likes of Dale Earnhardt and Terry Labonte, men who were a decade or more younger.
He didn’t win that contest – Earnhardt did – and placed fourth while driving the No. 47 Race Hill Farm car for Jack Beebe.
In 1980, Gant’s sophomore year in Cup, he added a drive. He split his time between the No. 47 and the No. 75 for RahMoc Enterprises. Gant ran a few races with that organization, run by Bob Rahilly and Butch Mock, but his future lay elsewhere.
During the 1981 season, Gant eventually paired with Hal Needham and Burt Reynolds to drive the No. 33 Skoal Bandit Pontiac.
Needham was a Hollywood stuntman and director and Reynolds, of course, was a movie star. Needham and Reynolds were longtime friends and collaborators (“Smokey and the Bandit” and “Cannonball Run” among others) who entered NASCAR and created a successful team that put Gant in the cockpit of a winning car.
In their first year of competition together Gant placed third for the season behind Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison. He claimed no wins but earned three poles, 18 top-10s and 13 top-fives. In fact, Gant finished in second place a total of 10 times before his first victory at Martinsville Speedway came on April 25, 1982. He was 42 years old. Another win followed at Charlotte in October.
In his second year in the No. 33 car – 1982 – Gant finished fourth in points at season’s end. He was seventh in points for the 1983 season.
The 1984 season would prove to be Gant’s best in the No. 33 Skoal car. With 23 top-10s, 15 top-fives, and three wins, Gant finished second in points, 65 behind champion Labonte.
Gant followed that championship bid with another in 1985. His 19 top-10s, 14 top-fives, and three wins were enough to earn Gant third for the season behind Waltrip, who was collecting his third championship driving for Junior Johnson.
Second place, 101 points behind Waltrip, was Bill Elliot. Elliot had won the Winston Million that season and accrued a stunning 11 wins with the Harry Melling team but could not catch Waltrip. Gant was 259 points back from Waltrip.
The 1986-1990 seasons were OK for Gant and his team, but there were no more championship bids of which to speak. He placed 11th, 22nd, 27th, 7th, and 17th, respectively, in those years.
Arguably, Gant’s best and most notable season in Winston Cup came in 1991. He posted his first victory at Talladega Superspeedway for the Winston 500 run in May. It was a fuel mileage outcome that found Gant reportedly running out of gas directly after taking the checkered flag.
Gant wouldn’t score again until September. The Heinz Southern 500 was held on Sept 1st and saw Gant take top honors. He followed that with wins at Richmond on Sept 7th, Dover on Sept 15th, and Martinsville on Sept 22nd.
It seemed Gant was unstoppable. During the race at Martinsville he crashed on Lap 377 in Turn 3. Most thought Gant’s chances to win the race – his fourth in a row – were dashed.
Gant’s team remedied the situation the best they could and sent him back out to make up laps. Gant charged through the field and with 50 laps to go passed race leader Brett Bodine.
Gant won, earned the fourth consecutive victory and tied the modern era record for such a feat with Earnhardt.
Gant was well on his way to a fifth consecutive win when he won the pole for the Tyson Holly Farms 400 at North Wilkesboro Speedway on Sept 29th. Gant was leading the race when Earnhardt passed him with 12 laps remaining. Gant had to settle for second.
Gant’s winning streak ended at five for the season – four in a row plus the win in May at Talladega.
In addition to Gant’s hot streak in Sept in Cup, he also collected two great victories in the Busch Grand National Series (now Nationwide). Gant added wins at Richmond and Dover to make six the total number of “W’s” to put in his column for the spectacular month.
The next season Gant was strong again. He earned 15 top-10s, 10 top-fives, and two wins. The victories came at Dover in May and Michigan in Aug. The championship turned into an epic battle among Davey Allison, Bill Elliot, and Alan Kulwicki. Gant was fourth that season, and Kulwicki took the title.
That was to be Gant’s last great bid for the championship. The next two years saw Gant without any victories and finishing 11th and 25th respectively for the 1993 and 1994 seasons. He retired after the 1994 season at the age of 54 to spend more time with his family.
Gant was 51 years old in 1991. He was racing with men half of his age and was a strong contender. I admire him greatly for the way his career played out.
Gant reinvented himself in his ‘40s. He was a successful carpenter who owned his own construction business. Gant was known to say, “I’m a good race car driver, but a great carpenter.”
To follow his dreams of running in Cup Gant sold half of his construction business to finance his bid in 1979.
As a lifelong race fan and person who reinvented herself as 40 approached, I always identified with Gant. He dazzled, he sizzled, he won, and he did it at an age where drivers are now considered old-timers.
Thanks for putting yourself out there, “Mr. September.” And thanks for continuing to be a beacon for those of us who want to pursue their dreams after 40.