Without Gary Hargett, Dale Earnhardt Jr. still might have become a championship caliber NASCAR driver, but his first Late Model Stock Car crew chief absolutely made him a better person.
The Earnhardts go way back with Hargett.
In the 1960s, Hargett raced in the Carolinas against patriarch Ralph Earnhardt. A decade later, he owned a team with Dale Earnhardt and they won 18 NASCAR Sportsman Division races — a precursor to what is now the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
It was only natural that Earnhardt Jr. would connect with Hargett when he graduated from Legend cars to Late Model Stocks in the Carolinas and Virginias — primarily Myrtle Beach Speedway in South Carolina.
Hargett tutored Earnhardt Jr. for three years until the youngster was ready to compete in the NASCAR Busch Series.
Those were different times in Late Model Stock racing with big fields and unforgiving competition. Earnhardt drove a familiar No. 3 but the success didn’t come immediately like it often does now for a well-prepared team.
His first victory came at Myrtle Beach on August 20, 1994 in the second of a twin-40 lap feature, not unlike the ones the track still promotes today. All told, Hargett and Earnhardt won three races together and countess top-5s at Myrtle Beach, Florence, Concord, Hickory and Tri-County.
Those are times that Earnhardt remembers fondly but believes ended too soon.
“He was perfect,” Earnhardt said of Hargett last weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway. “He was like a grandfather to me. It broke my heart when I had to separate from him. We ran at Myrtle Beach and Florence, South Carolina. We kept the cars I ran in his shop near Pageland, South Carolina in Marshville. I worked at the dealership. So, I’d get done working at the dealership and I’d drive to Marshville and sleep at Gary’s house and then get up and go race on the weekends. My dad offered me this deal that was too good to be true. I lost my job at the dealership and went to work on Kelley’s (Earnhardt, sister) Late Models building her cars.
“Then Dad gave me an opportunity to bring my cars up to Mooresville where I lived for one final season in Late Models. And I thought I needed to be able to work on my own cars and understand how they worked. Gary said he wasn’t going to drive that hour to work every day. So, it was a heartbreaker and a real difficult decision to make because he had become like a grandfather to me.”
So for that final season, Earnhardt worked on the Earnhardt family Late Models without Hargett and it didn’t go particularly well.
“I had to get my cars up where I was, so I could be around them all the time and work on them more often and sort of understand the mechanics of how a car works,” Earnhardt said. “But losing him meant I had to set the thing up on my own. I struggled with that. But it was a crash course, you know, in trying to understand how the cars work. But I had to do that on my own.”
But again, with the resources that Earnhardt Jr. had available to him, he likely would have become a successful race car driver regardless of whom was placed around him.
But through Hargett, Earnhardt learned a certain kind of respect that remains with him to this day.
“Let me tell you a story,” Earnhardt said. “We were putting a decal on the hood. We had these giant Mom “n” Pops logos. When I started, there were four of us. And when I finished, there was just me. I got done with this decal. It had bubbles all in it. It was terrible. I go outside, and Gary and two of the other guys that were there that were just volunteers, were sitting there drinking a soda.
I was like ‘what the heck, why did you all leave?’
“And he goes, ‘you run us out of there.’ And he said ‘you need to learn how to treat people’ because I’d been bickering at them the whole time putting that decal down.
“So, Gary taught me how to treat people with respect and he was a perfect mentor for me. He came along right at the right time.”
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