North State Journal’s 100 in 100 series will showcase the best athlete from each of North Carolina’s 100 counties. From Alamance to Yancey, each county will feature one athlete who stands above the rest. Some will be obvious choices, others controversial, but all of our choices are worthy of being recognized for their accomplishments — from the diamond and gridiron to racing ovals and the squared circle. You can see all the profiles as they’re unveiled here.
Gant was a late bloomer in NASCAR’s highest division. He didn’t start his first Cup race until 1973 at the age of 33 and didn’t earn his first Cup victory until nine years after that. But he was already a champion driver long before he became known to the world as “The Bandit” and “Handsome Harry” — first at the old dirt track in Hickory, then on asphalt, where he won more than 300 races and three straight NASCAR Sportsman national titles.
“We had so much fun racing prior to Winston Cup racing,” he told NBCSports.com in 2017. “The first big race was when I won the Modified race at Daytona and then also won at Charlotte. Winning at both those tracks were probably the biggest things of my career. A lot of people ask, ‘What about your Winston Cup career?’ Well, you wouldn’t have been there if you hadn’t won somewhere else to start with.”
The Taylorsville native sold half his construction business in 1979 so he could concentrate on racing in Cup Series full-time. He was part of a rookie class that included Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Terry Labonte. Two years later, his career took off when he landed a ride in the No. 33 Skoal Bandit Pontiac owned by movie star Burt Reynolds and director Hal Needham.
Gant won 18 times and posted 208 top-10 finishes in 474 career starts. He also tied a NASCAR record with four consecutive victories in September 1991 and became the oldest driver ever to win a Cup race when he took the checkered flag in Michigan the following year at the age of 52.
Not only was Gant one of the top drivers on the circuit, his good looks and Hollywood associations helped him enjoy a side career as an actor who appeared in such movies as “Stroker Ace,” “Days of Thunder” and “Cannonball Run.” He continued to race on local short tracks into his 70s before finally retiring to a ranch in his hometown.