MONTE DUTTON – WHEN NASCAR HAD ORIGINALS
For about a month in 1993, I disliked Harry Gant.
It was the first year my primary job was writing about NASCAR. I had written about occasional races since 1981. I had attended them as far back as 1965. Lest you say to yourself right now, “My God, is Dutton that old?” let the record note I was seven when Ned Jarrett won that day.
Anyway, I knew the sport and was anxious to make my fortune. It became endlessly frustrating when every time I asked Gant a question, his answer was ridiculous.
What I learned by keen observation was that Harry liked to hold court with his buddies and tell them, “Hey, watch me pull the wool over this sportswriter’s eyes.”
It was the same way I learned that Dale Earnhardt’s initial goal in any interview was to run the writer off. It didn’t matter what the question was – “Do you enjoy winning championships?” (thankfully, I never sank as stupid as that) – the answer was “What the [bleep] you mean by that?
One time when Earnhardt cussed me, I cussed him back, and we got along fine after that. That’s a bit of an oversimplification, but it’s basically true.
But I digress.
By the time my second NASCAR season and Gant’s career ended, hanging out with him was a favorite pastime of mine. As with David Pearson, the best way to interview him was to shoot the bull and get him laughing.
He was, and undoubtedly is, a fascinating man.
During Gant’s final season, “the Bandit’s Last Ride,” one day he expressed his fascination with why people cared about autographs.
“Beats all I ever seen,” he said inside a hospitality tent. “These folks’ll line up down the street in the pouring rain. … You know, I loved Elvis, but I didn’t care nothing about how he wrote his name. I’d have liked to know him, you know, maybe sing with him, but this beats all I’ve ever seen.”
That left a mark in me. It’s strictly taboo for a journalist worth his salt to ask for an autograph, but the only one I ever got was at the bottom of a handwritten note that wasn’t friendly. Tony Stewart, or undoubtedly someone who represented him, sent me an autographed flag after I wrote a book about him, but I gave it to a friend who hung it up in his service station. He hasn’t owned it in 20 years, but that flag might still be hanging from the ceiling there. My general ethical policy was never to ask for anything, but I accepted items like that and gave them away as soon as I got home. One of the best gestures I ever made was giving a silver Earnhardt diecast to a man who had been kind to my father when he was dying. From then to the end of his own life, he thanked me every time I saw him. RIP, Jimmy Dutton. RIP, Jack Pitts.
I asked Gant how often he planned to return to the track.
“Good goshamighty,” he said. “You ever seen the traffic coming into these tracks? I might ride my motorcycle down to Charlotte on qualifying day, but I’ve built me this cabinet for my TV set, where I can roll it out on the patio and watch the race from there.”
Over the next 15 years, I occasionally saw Harry, maybe once or twice a season, but my suspicion is that whoever brought him there made it worth his while.
Every time I saw him, he looked good. Now he’s 79. Time passages is what they are.