House builder Gant, at 51, can construct streak for ages, too

September 16, 1991|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Evening Sun Staff

DOVER, Del. -- Life begins at 51. That's what the buttons say. What buttons? The buttons being handed out by the Harry Gant racing team.

Someone check the Chinese calendar. Is this the Year of Aging Men?

Nolan Ryan, Jimmy Connors.

Harry Gant, 51, laughs.

He can afford to. In the last three weeks he has earned $343,000, while winning three straight Winston Cup automobile races.

The latest victory came yesterday in the Peak Antifreeze 500 before 77,000 at Dover Downs International Speedway.

It is the first time anyone has won three in a row in this series since Rusty Wallace did it in 1988.

No one age 51 has ever done it.

Until now.

"We've had good luck," understated Gant, the master of understatement. "And the car, well, Richard Petty could have won this race in this car. The sorriest driver out there could have. Anyone could have."

Perhaps. But it was Gant who avoided nine accidents and drove his Skoal Bandit Oldsmobile an average of 110.179 mph to win by more than a one-lap margin.

It is the first time anyone has won by lapping the entire field since 1987, when Kyle Petty did it in the Coca-Cola 500. That was 128 races ago.

No one 51 years old has ever done it.

Until now.

"I'm proud to be 51 years old," Gant said. "I'm racing and building houses. A lot of people didn't live to be 51, so I appreciate where I am."

"But age has nothing to do with what I'm doing."

His rivals disagree.

"We're like a bunch of high school boys chasing a pro," said Michael Waltrip, who finished fifth, two laps down. Geoff Bodine, Morgan Shepherd and Hut Stricklin finished one lap back, second, third and fourth, respectively.

Gant threw up his hands.

"None of that," he said. "I'm not getting into that. I swear the car is the only difference."

Harry Gant can protest all he wants, but this is not the first time he has been on a winning streak.

As a late-model driver, he once won 14 in a row, including the National Boh 200 at Beltsville Speedway in Maryland.

"When I got to 10, I thought there was no way I'd win No. 11," he said, recalling the string in the mid-1970s. "But then the car that would have beat me blew an engine. The next race, I thought it was over, and the car that could have beaten me crashed. That's how it went through 14 races. Sometimes, you're just lucky."

Sometimes, you're just good. But Harry Gant, who from 1967 through 1978 won 300 of the 700 races he entered, insists he is not a born driver.

"I'm a born carpenter," he said. "I always built houses for a living, until I went full-time into Winston Cup racing. And I still build houses. I'm a great carpenter. I know that. I don't care if anyone says I can drive a race car."

He has won four races this season, the most in one season since joining the Winston Cup series full time in 1980.

His current winning streak started Sept. 1 at the Southern 500 at Darlington, where he became the oldest driver ever to win a Winston Cup race in the oldest Winston Cup race on record.

L To celebrate he went home and put an addition on his garage.

Last week, he won the Miller Genuine Draft 400 at Richmond, then went home and re-roofed his house.

Today, he is home in Taylorsville, N.C., hanging new doors on the shed in his back yard.

"I probably love building things more than I love racing," he said. "I race for the money. I build houses because I love getting out in the middle of the field and watching a house grow up in front of me. I love it, absolutely love it."

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