NEW YORK -- Walter Huston never sang a sweeter "September Song" than Harry Gant. In the autumn of his years, at an age at which no driver had ever won a Winston Cup race, 51-year-old Harry Gant had a run for the ages.
Starting Sept. 1, when he won the Southern 500, and ending Sept. 29, when brake failure while leading cost him a victory at North Wilkesboro, N.C. (he finished second), Gant won six races in a row overall, including two Busch Grand National races.
He went on to stretch his Grand National streak to three in a row with his Oct. 5 victory at Charlotte, N.C. Seven wins and a second-place in eight races. In all, Gant won 10 races in 1991, five each in Winston Cup, the major leagues of stock-car racing, and Busch Grand National, the equivalent of baseball's Triple A level. Nobody won more in either circuit.
Although Dale Earnhardt won the Winston Cup championship for the fifth time, it was Gant who finished second to Indy-car champ Michael Andretti in Driver of the Year balloting. And in early January, it will be announced that Gant is the winner of the Jerry Titus award, outpolling both Earnhardt and Andretti, for the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters' most prestigious honor.
So now, while a few yards away the media mob has Earnhardt under siege, Gant is in a little cubicle in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, explaining to a handful of reporters that age is irrelevant to achievement.
"Don't have anything to do with it," he says. "It all depends on what kind of car you got. The only factors at 51 would be your eyesight, your reflexes or the stamina of your body. It's no problem. I'm exactly the same as I always was, only I learned a little patience the last five or six years."
He was always a good race driver, an occasional winner in Winston Cup and a more frequent visitor to victory lane in the lower-profile Grand National series.
But he came late to his profession. He was a Winston Cup rookie at 39 in the same year Earnhardt made his debut. Until then, he had been mostly a weekend warrior in the bullrings around his hometown of Taylorsville, N.C. A carpenter by trade, he still practices his craft between races.
"It relaxes me," he says. "It helps you cope with defeat. I'll get on a plane, and I can clean out my mind before I get home. I'll start planning things, like I've got to call the electrician in the morning.
"Mondays are pretty much devoted to office work, but Tuesdays and Wednesdays I get two good days. I do all the carpenter work myself. A couple of years ago, I built a house for my daughter. This year, all I've had time for is a couple of stalls for my cars."
When the season started, he says, "we thought we could win five races. We didn't know they'd all come at one time."
And by September, when he had won only once, it didn't look as if they'd come at all. In fact, he says, the team had pretty much written off the season.
"Everything we did from September on was really for next year. We said, 'Let's see if we can't work on what we need for next year, because this year seems pretty much gone.' Even the last race at Atlanta was an experimental deal."
But then he started winning . . . and winning . . . and winning, and like a basketball player who can't miss, Gant began to feel he'd never lose again.
When he did lose, while trying to become the first driver in the modern era to win five Winston Cup races in a row, it could have been disheartening. "But to tell you the truth, I was tickled to death to finish second. I lost the brakes with 42 laps to go, and I should have finished dead last. I really should have quit."
The way he finished last year is going to make Gant, at 52, one of the favorites along with Earnhardt and Davey Allison to win the Winston Cup championship next year. "We're going to carry over good," he says, "but other teams are picking up some, too. It's not going to be as easy next year. We'll start out good and fast, but we'll have a lot of company."
This year, "I never considered winning the Winston Cup championship. The goal was to finish fifth. But I'd like to do it now. It would mean more to me than when I was 25."
He has a contract through 1992, and "they want to extend it through '94, but I wanted to see how good I was running. I've just become a grandfather, and being away from home as much as we are, you don't get to see the grandkids."