The smoke rolls heavy across the Brushy Mountains in western North Carolina, nestled halfway between Durham and Knoxville. It's moonshine country out here, Wilkes County shine, America's most wanted.
Fifty years ago these woods held two lanes to freedom for good ol' boys hauling lightning up and down Highway 16, as curvy as a centerfold and just as dangerous. The cars were modified, souped-up and bored-out with 400 unbridled horses, a trunkload of clear courage and a distinct lack of conscience.
Harry Gant and his buddies never hauled shine. But they hauled. They'd hang around downtown, near the Taylorsville red light, and wait. When a notable, sometimes notorious, shine runner rolled into view, Gant and the boys would roll out to the light. Pontiacs. Automatic transmissions. Slam it in park, mash the gas, puff 'er up to the whistles and admiration of the assembled.
When the light flashed red to green, they'd take off down the hill to the city limit sign, attitude like a Hal Ketchum song: Pedal to the metal 'fore they changed their minds. Folks always lined the streets. Shine runners were wheelmen. Outrunning the law was the job description.
Fail? Jail. Lose the load and the money and the opportunity for more of both.
They'd drag-race every night, 11 p.m. to sunup. The runs were a half-mile. Every single night. Sometimes it was a two-car race. Sometimes eight. Oncoming traffic was a challenge. Other times they'd get adventurous and take off through the country, six or seven miles across the mountain. Dirt roads. Rocks. Potholes. Getting out front was critical. Get caught in the pack and the rocks and debris would shatter headlights and crack windshields.
Regardless, you kept your foot in it.
Every now and again they'd race Highway 90 all the way to Statesville, 20 miles, flat out. When the state built Route 421, they'd head out there and race to Interstate 40. Then they'd take 40 to the Iredell County line. That was as far as 40 would take them.
Gant couldn't have dreamed for better preparation for stock car stardom. Granted, at the time he couldn't have dreamed that preparation was necessary. Those races and those roads took Gant from Taylorsville to Tinseltown. He went everywhere but never left. And he never changed.
"His low-key personality made people love him," said NASCAR Hall of Famer Ned Jarrett, who was a key figure in taking Gant from the Carolina back roads to NASCAR's most famous tracks.
"He didn't go out and say, 'Look how great I am.' He did his thing and let other people say whatever they would about him. And a lot of times he'd deny all the good things people said. He still works really hard on that farm over there. Just being an ordinary-type individual is what made him so popular. That's a trait people love."
Down on the farm
Gant is 75 years old now, looks 40. Handsome as ever.
"That son of a gun never ages," Jarrett said. "From the time he got into NASCAR to the time he got out, there was no difference in the way he looked or his physical ability. I still see him a couple times a year and it amazes me how he looks exactly the same."
Gant hates to waste time. And unless there's a Harley-Davidson Ultra Classic rumbling between his legs, he hates to sit. Stiff back.
He's still out there in rural North Carolina, Taylorsville, with all that cattle and all that land. The anonymity suits him. He's always intrigued me. The composure. The humility.
In an era when rough and tough and jagged men -- some just downright mean -- drove cars as if possessed in the quest to fill table settings and fulfill dreams, the Bandit, Handsome Harry Gant, was smooth, the sweet corn in the whiskey mash that softened the sport's bite.
"His mental approach was very different than the others," said Andy Petree, Gant's former crew chief. "He was a really sharp man. He is great at knowing what was going on around him and judging people. He was a step ahead. Very intelligent like that."
Every sport has titans, men and women who make the pages of its history book fantastically three-dimensional, who loom so large yet so mysterious that you suspect John Facenda should narrate their walk through the grocery store aisles.
Gant is one of those titans in NASCAR. For me, the sport's greatest era was the early '80s through the mid-'90s. During that time Gant joined Dale Earnhardt, Tim Richmond, Rusty Wallace, Richard Petty, Bobby Allison and Davey Allison, Cale Yarborough, Alan Kulwicki, Bill Elliott and a whole cast of others to pen a fascinating narrative about blue-collar daredevils with an ox's will who drove fast and lived faster -- knowing full well that the next time they drove deep into Turn 1 there was no guarantee that they'd come out the other side.
They were among the first extreme athletes. Guys got hurt. Died. It was understood. But the love was bigger than the fear. They were a different species. The sport was about to burst into the mainstream, and its fans felt part of something very special.
They made magical destinations of nowhere towns all over the South. When you hear Talladega you think NASCAR. When you hear Bristol you think NASCAR. Same for Martinsville and Wilkesboro and Rockingham and Darlington.
I love that imagery, even still. I've been to every one of those places. They look different now. But they occupy my mind as seen within my 12-year-old imagination. I hold that image and its leading men dear.
Gant and the gold-rimmed No. 33 Chevrolet stand prominently within that image.
"When I was his crew chief I always knew I had an advantage," Petree said. "Take a place like Darlington -- it was always so hot, and the race was so long, 500 miles. I knew Harry would be as strong at the end of the race as he was at the beginning. And the rest of those guys wouldn't."
We say grace, we say ma'am
I wondered if Gant would be open to having me jump in the truck and ride out to the countryside, sit a spell and reminisce about his NASCAR days and those royalty checks that still show up in the mailbox from time to time. Those cameos in "Stroker Ace" and "Days of Thunder" still draw a buck and a half, sometimes two bucks a check, thanks to all of those late-night reruns on CMT.
I called his cellphone. (For kids of the '80s like me, that's quite a sentence.) It was a Thursday morning. He had no interest in a visit. None. He'd rather keep the correspondence to the phone. The phone is a wiser use of time. He could chat while unpacking the brakes he'd ordered for the red '87 Jeep Cherokee up on blocks outside.
It was 10:15 a.m. The brakes weren't slated to arrive from the post office until past 1 p.m. So he drove to town to get them.
Don't waste time.
The Jeep is modified. The back seats are gone. Gant ripped them out to make room for tools and fencing equipment: shovels, wire stretchers, toolboxes, a generator and the like. He has 300 acres and a herd of beef cattle to tend to. Every day. He built three houses on that land, too. Rents them.
I figure Harry Gant is the kind of man Hank Jr. sang about in "Country Boy Can Survive."
"His attitude and his work ethic are what made him so great," Petree said. "He never really considered racing a full-time job. He always saw racing as a hobby. He felt like his main occupation was carpenter. He built houses. He worked with his hands. That was his job. Racing was just something he did, and he wound up being really good at it.
"He was a man's man. Physically, he was the toughest guy out there. He had a very high tolerance for heat and pain. When it got tough out there -- hot, slick, long races -- the cars were so hard to drive, and he could handle it better than anybody else."
In Gant's day the boys were Southern, from North and South Carolina mostly. He misses that. He still pays attention to the sport, but his emotional investment is small. He watches when he can. His father died in the spring of 1990. They were very close.
Petree tells the story of Gant winning on Father's Day later that year. Gant and the team had struggled mightily that season and weren't close to putting together a winning performance. They'd experienced many parts failures, lost several engines.
But as that weekend unfolded at Pocono Raceway, Gant stressed that Petree install a certain gear, which was a lower gear than Petree had anticipated running. Petree was against it. They'd already failed enough. They just needed to finish the race. But Gant wouldn't let it go.
"I didn't put it all together in my head. It was just another race for the team," Petree said. "He kept on me about that gear. Race morning he walks in as we're coming through tech. He pulled me outside of tech and said, 'You put that gear in that car, I'll win this race.'
"He looked me straight in my eye. And I said, 'Jack it up, guys, put that gear in.' He'd never done that before. It was really weird."
Gant struggled with the car that day, so he pitted for adjustments and moved to the rear of the field. He drove all the way to third with a handful of laps remaining. The caution flew. Gant timed pitting perfectly. He went back out and won the race.
"It still gives me cold chills to this very second," Petree continued. "He was so emotional. And you never, ever saw him emotional. He was always so collected. But that day and that race he was very emotional. He won that race for his dad."
Now 25 years later, he still visits his mother every Sunday, and the race is always on. Muted. They chat as they sample. He can't stay awake for night races.
"It's fun to watch, but it's just a whole different deal now," Gant said. "I'll tell you what my opinion is. I know people won't like it. But when I raced, I raced with Richard Petty and David Pearson. Buddy Baker. Cale Yarborough. Bobby and Donnie Allison. And most of them people is from the South. That's where you drawed the big crowds. And then they expanded to California. And I went to Indy that first race. That was good.
"I looked it up one day and was figuring it up: If you started every race and made one lap, it paid $64,000-$68,000 just to start. If you ran all the races you'd take in 2.8 million! When I started, to win your first million in racing was a milestone." Harry Gant
"But the people are young. They've not been there, years and years and years like myself, Pearson and all them. Richard. They brought a lot of fans because they was so well-known. Now we only got [Dale] Earnhardt Jr. A lot of them guys are from California, Washington state."
He notes, voice an octave higher, how odd it is to his generation of drivers that the only Carolina boy left is Earnhardt Jr. And he chuckles. Through the telephone I cannot see him shake his head, but I figure he must have.
He can't believe the network television money in the sport today.
"I looked it up one day and was figuring it up: If you started every race and made one lap, it paid $64,000-$68,000 just to start. If you ran all the races you'd take in 2.8 million!" he said. "When I started, to win your first million in racing was a milestone. Then to win a million in a year was a second milestone. Today, 2.8 million just to start? Crazy."
He hasn't been back to the racetrack in years, save the time Bruton Smith invited him to Las Vegas to sign some autographs and take in the race from a suite. The suite may as well have been Mars.
"It didn't feel right," he said. "It wasn't near as fun as being down there at it. So I haven't been back since."
His final Winston Cup season was 1994, and for nearly 15 years thereafter he visited tracks as an ambassador for Skoal tobacco. He rode his motorcycle from track to track and never stepped foot inside a facility. Just hung on the periphery around the fans until the green flag fell on race day.
As his successors -- those for whom he and the boys paved the way to riches and stardom -- peeled off into Turn 1, he jumped back on that Harley and peeled off toward Taylorsville. He averaged 35,000 miles a year riding from Martinsville, Virginia, to Phoenix to Fontana, California.
All over the map. All on that motorcycle.
"I miss racing -- I loved to drive," Gant said. "We watch the race, and every time I see them run I wish I was out there. My wife asked me the other day, 'Do you think you could keep up?' I'll quote David Pearson, here: 'Let's rephrase that -- could they keep up?'"
During his racing career, Gant earned a trio of dashing nicknames befitting a racing legend. Two of them juxtapose each other yet swirled together offer a sweet, complete picture of the man. Like cream spun through coffee.
The Bandit. Handsome Harry.
The savvy bad guy in the movies is often very handsome, isn't he?
Ask NASCAR fans about Gant and most will involuntarily say one of those monikers. Granted these fans must be of a certain vintage. "Handsome" makes Gant chuckle. Legendary Martinsville Speedway promoter Dick Thompson gave him the nickname during Sportsman (now XFinity) Series driver introductions in the late '70s. It embarrasses him even now.
"I told him if he said it again I'd stop coming," Gant laughed. "He took a race or two off from saying it. Then it was right back again. Embarrassed me. Especially in front of all those people."
The Bandit was more organic. A man took on the persona of a sponsor on a hood.
"It fit him perfectly," Petree said. "He was such a cool customer. He is the Skoal Bandit. Absolutely. You couldn't ask for a better person for that Bandit brand. He was that guy from the first time they put him in that car -- that tough, good-looking guy image."
There was the time the government made a push to place warning labels on race cars sponsored by tobacco products. The labels were on cigarette packs, and Washington thought maybe they should be on race cars, too. The race was at Charlotte for the World 600, and news reporters unaccustomed to NASCAR rolled in from all over creation to work the story.
Petree and Gant were seated on director's chairs behind their trailer when one such reporter approached to ask about the warning labels. They'd been prepped for this.
"Harry goes, 'I'll tell you what, it's not a bad idea,'" Petree said. "That guy starts writing like crazy. And Harry says, 'I can tell you, man, I've broken ribs. I've broken my legs. I've had stitches, been knocked out. These things are dangerous! They probably should have warning labels!' We just broke up laughing."
Petree still howls about it now.
Gant was a long shot. He didn't race full time until 1979. He'd owned a construction business, built houses with this brother and father until 1965 when his brother, Johnny, was drafted into the Army. Harry kept the business rolling while Johnny was gone in California and Korea, and once he returned to North Carolina from the service in '67, they resumed the successful partnership for the next decade.
Throughout that time Gant ran hundreds of short-track races, winning often. Then, in '77, he was headed to Daytona with a modified Chevy Camaro for the NASCAR modified race and a Monte Carlo for the Sportsman event. The cars were loaded and ready to roll as a heavy snowfall blanketed the North Carolina mountains surrounding them.
Harry and Johnny were sitting in the truck chatting about the construction business, which was suffering a bit at the time. The cost of building materials continued to rise while profits fell. Something had to change.
Gant had won 35 short-track races that year, and Johnny made a suggestion: Give racing a go, full time.
"I laughed at him," Gant said. "I didn't want to make my living driving a race car. It'd be fun, but I didn't think it was even possible."
They determined that Gant would go to Daytona and upon return would make the decision. If Daytona was fortuitous, he'd take a year off and try NASCAR for a year. He won the modified race in that Camaro. He ran second in that Monte Carlo in the Sportsman race.
Off he went. Gant ran the full Sportsman Series schedule in 1977 while testing often for Firestone tires. He raced four nights a week. He built one house that year and spent many days painting and trimming before driving off to Kingsport, Tennessee, or Columbia, South Carolina, or Hickory, North Carolina, or Nashville, Tennessee, to race that night.
"As a promoter, I found that he was always very honest with you," said Jarrett, who owned and operated Hickory Motor Speedway during Gant's short-track heyday. "If he promised you he'd come race, he'd be there. You could depend on that. Back in those days, that wasn't always the case with everybody."
In 1978 he drove for several owners and built another house. But racing started requiring more and more time. Gant sold off his housing lots to another builder and jumped in Jack Beebe's No. 47 Race Hill Farm car for the next several years with notable success, until 1981, when he hooked up with Hollywood movie director Hal Needham.
Needham owned the No. 22 Skoal Bandit car, driven by Stan Barrett.
"They were creating the Skoal Bandit image. I think because Burt Reynolds was involved in 'Smokey and the Bandit,' that's how it was born. Burt was part owner of that team," Petree explained.
"And they weren't running very good. Harry was an up-and-comer, and [crew chief] Travis Carter got him to drive that car in a test. He was way, way faster than Stan Barrett. So they put [Gant] in a second car. He finished second the first time he ever drove for them. At that point, it was over."
Gant laughs when asked about Needham and Reynolds. They'd seen Gant race Beebe's car and liked what they saw. And while filming "Sharky's Machine" in Atlanta in March 1981, they attended the fifth race of the season, the Coca-Cola 500, at Atlanta International Raceway.
Gant ran second to Cale Yarborough that day. Afterward, Needham and Reynolds had an offer for Gant to mull -- a second car, the Mach 1 Racing No. 33 Skoal Bandit car.
They wanted to meet about it. But Gant's Sportsman crew guys were with him. They all had real jobs. Gant had a house to build. They couldn't wait around for details.
"We drove off and left them standing there," Gant howls now. "Everybody in the world called me up about it telling me I had to take that deal. Humpy Wheeler. The Skoal people. But back then we had a lot of guys coming in and out of Winston Cup racing. They didn't stay long.
"And here's this movie director and Burt, this actor, he's from California, so I was having a hard time making my mind up. But I went ahead and took the deal. And it turned out to be pretty good."
Gant won 18 races at NASCAR's highest level. Nine for Needham. Nine for Leo Jackson. All in a Skoal-sponsored No. 33 car.
Gant says the first thing he did when he signed on to race for Needham and Reynolds was shoot a movie. It was called "Megaforce."
"The only way Hal could justify me flying to them places was to give me a piece of the movie. I still remember all my lines. It was some of my best work." Harry Gant
"Look on the cutting room floor," he laughs. "Most of my parts ended up there."
Gant told a tale of a Los Angeles studio and a conversation with Reynolds during filming for "Megaforce." They were cutting up, and Needham walked over with a megaphone and screamed directly in their faces to shut up. Gant still cracks up at the thought.
"Burt looked right at me and said, 'I think he's talking to us,'" Gant howls.
Another time, while filming "Stroker Ace," Reynolds started rapping with Gant during a pre-race driver-introduction scene. Needham lost his mind, started cussing them.
"He said, 'I can talk to Harry that way -- he works for me,'" Gant recalled. "I enjoyed it so much. I got to meet all them stars and eat dinner with them and have meetings with producers. Ol' James Garner was there at one of the big meetings. I was so surprised. He just got up, walked over to me in the back of the room, sat down and started talking. We were at this big ol' table. He was a lot of fun."
Gant still receives royalty checks from the movie appearances.
"The only way Hal could justify me flying to them places was to give me a piece of the movie," Gant laughed. "I still remember all my lines. It was some of my best work."
Gant's greatest work was the four-race stretch in 1991 during which he won consecutive Winston Cup races at Darlington Raceway, Richmond International Raceway, Dover International Speedway and Martinsville Speedway, all while driving the same race car. And all at 51 years old.
It earned him a third nickname: Mr. September.
Asked about it, Gant said simply, "Should've been five in a row."
After Martinsville came North Wilkesboro. Gant was running away with that one too but suffered a brake failure with 42 laps remaining. He had to let off the throttle so early to make the corner that Dale Earnhardt eventually ran him down. He couldn't even pull into the pits to fix the car. He couldn't stop.
"We gave that one away," he said. "I loved the feel of that car."
Just three drivers have achieved a four-race win streak since. The most recent was Jimmie Johnson in 2007, during his march to the second of five straight championships. Jeff Gordon won four straight in 1998, Bill Elliott did it in 1992 and Mark Martin in 1993.
"We got on a roll," said Petree, Gant's crew chief at the time. "We had a brand-new motor package we'd just developed, and it was really good. It was 10 or 12 horsepower better than anything we'd run all year. So I told Harry we had an advantage."
Petree pulled Gant aside and told him about the engine and that it was time the No. 33 team proved its legitimacy. During Gant and Petree's union they'd never won more than one race in a season. Petree said he and Gant knew they were better than that.
"We won Darlington. That was cool," Petree continued. "Then we went to Richmond and weren't very good. But he willed himself to a win over Davey Allison. I'm telling you it was all driver. Then we go to Dover and win to make three in a row. So now it was like, wow."
Gant refused to discuss the streak.
"He wouldn't address it with the media," Petree said. "He didn't want to jinx anything. He was in an unbelievable zone that you see elite athletes get in. It was neat to be a part of it, to watch it happen.
"In his mind, there wasn't a human being could beat him. And he didn't let them beat him. At Martinsville, Rusty [Wallace] crashed us on a restart, and [Gant] drove up from the very back of the field and passed everybody to win that one. It was just amazing to watch. It was a special time."
Gant still holds the NASCAR record for most wins after turning 50, with eight, and remains, by way of the final victory of his Cup Series career, the oldest driver to ever win at NASCAR's highest level -- 52 years, 219 days.
The teacher and the student
The Bandit only got caught once.
He had a 1959 Chevrolet with a big motor that had just paid a visit to the dealership for some tuning. It ran 142 miles per hour. Gant had a date with Peggy, who would later become his wife, but a buddy of his wanted to open that '59 up.
Off they went, Gant at the wheel, the speedometer, he said, all the way around to the other side, pegged. As they flew toward town they drove up a hill, which at its crest at the right speed would send a car airborne.
On the other side of the hill sat a barbershop where patrolmen liked to hang out. These days a Wal-Mart sits there. There was one in his car just as Gant flew the hill. At 142 mph, Gant never saw him and never lifted until he reached the town limits. He coasted down to 50 mph and looked in the rearview. Red lights.
"I thought it was an ambulance going to the hospital," he laughed. "It wasn't."
He gunned it down an adjacent street. There was a funeral in session. Cars were parked everywhere. He had no way out, so he went down the other side of the street, against traffic, until he reached another median with trees. He yanked the wheel again, sped through the courthouse grounds and down a country road.
"You can actually see pretty good with your lights off ... if you know what you're doing," he said.
He turned very easily, took his time so as to not kick up too much dust. He eased down his granny's driveway and into the barn.
He wanted to let his buddy hop out, but the sirens still blared. They were still after him. The police car screamed by, antennas flat on the back. Johnny came by and picked Harry up and drove him to Peggy's, where his date was waiting. They went to a movie. The '59 had red wheels, so Gant placed the hubcaps back on and placed black tape over the red stripe on the side.
Meanwhile, Gant said, the police had issued seven warrants for his arrest. Off he went from the barn. And here came the patrolman.
"He slid that car in crossways and yelled, 'GET OUT!'" Gant said. "I got in the back seat of the patrol car. My buddy was the deputy. He rolled his eyes. We got two miles down the road and he looked and me and said, 'What in the hell were you trying to do?' I told him, 'I don't know what you're talking about.'"
Gant arrived at the jailhouse and was asked if he had someone to supply bail. He called a buddy, Ray Herman, to bail him out. By now word had spread through town, and there were scores of teenagers outside waiting on Gant to emerge.
His court date was set for two weeks later. He was busy building houses with his father. He told his daddy he'd gotten into some trouble and didn't know what to do.
"Well, it's like this, you never plead guilty," Gant said of his father's advice. "They're gonna find you guilty."
The lawyer wanted to know if Gant was driving. He said it would cost $100. Gant was making 40 bucks a week and had $150 to his name.
"The lawyer goes back in the back, talks to the judge, came back out, winked at me and sat back down," Gant said. "My case comes up, they say, 'Harry Gant ... ' This judge was about 100 years old, looked like Abraham Lincoln. He could hardly talk. Said we were a good family."
Then the patrolman took the stand, said Gant was running 125 mph in a 20 mph zone, ran six red lights and wouldn't stop when asked. Gant's lawyer hadn't shared that part. So when it came time for the verdict, Gant was quite nervous.
"He said $50 and your license for 90 days," Gant laughed. "I was tickled to death with that! That's the only time I ever got caught."
Years later, Gant was signing autographs outside a racetrack somewhere when a woman walked up and handed him a letter. The patrolman who had pulled him over was her husband.
"He sent me the nicest letter," Gant said. "He had cancer and was dying. And he wrote in that letter that I should tell the press he taught me how to drive."