KINGSPORT — The Bandit was back at Kingsport Speedway on Friday night.
Harry Gant, the driver of the famed Skoal Bandit, returned to the Tennessee short track where he racked up numerous victories in the 1970s. While Gant was most known for driving the green and white No. 33 Skoal Bandit owned by Burt Reynolds and Hal Needham in the NASCAR Cup Series, his success at Kingsport mainly came in an orange and yellow No. 77.
“I liked to race and win over here,” Gant said. “My record here is probably as good as anywhere I ever raced.”
Gant was one of the top competitors in the old Late Model Sportsman Series, the predecessor to today’s Nationwide Series, with three straight championships from 1972-74.
Once, NASCAR’s No. 2 division became a national touring series in 1982, Gant proceeded to rack up 21 more wins despite running the tour on just a part-time basis.
His greatest success came while driving the No. 7 for Bristol car owner Ed Whitaker.
“Ed Whitaker was one of the best car owners I ever drove for,” Gant said. “He had a super good race car. I never had to do much to it.
“It was so much fun to get in that car and drive it. Ed would be nervous and say, ‘You think it’s good enough?’ I would always tell him it always works. We started dead last a couple of times and came to the front.”
Gant, who added an International Race of Champions title in 1985, was one of the top drivers in the Cup Series for nearly two decades. He was series runner-up to Terry Labonte in 1984 and finished in the top four of points on six different occasions.
His No. 33 Oldsmobile, which won four consecutive races in 1991, was on display at Kingsport on Friday night. He added one more victory that season, tying him with the late Davey Allison for the most among all drivers. The following year, Gant went into the final race at Atlanta as one of six drivers with a mathmatecial shot of winning the championship.
He retired two seasons later with 18 career victories and 17 pole positions.
As proud as he is of the Cup Series success, he also remembers winning at Kingsport and other short tracks around the nation.
“There were a lot of race tracks around the country when I started racing,” he said. “A lot of them weren’t drawing many fans so about 12 of us started traveling the country. While there were a lot of people racing at Kingsport, there were only about six or seven racing at places like Savannah and other tracks in Georgia.
“But, we had enough people with us to make it a good race. Then, NASCAR pushed the Late Model Sportsman series and people liked coming out and seeing the cars. It got competitive like Sprint Cup is now. Then as now, it helps a lot to have a good short track circuit going.”
At age 71, Gant is long retired from driving although he did participate in a couple of exhibition races at Bristol Motor Speedway in 2009 and ‘10.
He’s also retired from the restaurant business with his steakhouse in his hometown of Taylorsville, N.C. closing three years ago. However, he remains a popular figure with the fans, making appearances around the country. He signed autographs for over an hour Friday night.
Among those coming by to visit was local racing legend John A. Utsman of Bluff City. Gant remembered racing against Utsman and others like Gene Glover of Kingsport and Johnson City’s Brad Teague.
“John A. was a really good driver,” Gant said. “He was real close to being full-time in Winston Cup at one time. I raced with all those guys at here, Martinsville, Hickory and all around.
“The guys from Tennessee, Virginia and the Carolinas, we were all together it seemed the whole time I was in racing.”