As the cost of racing went up over his 45 years in motorsports and the stream of sponsorship money went down, Gary Hargett decided he was fighting an overwhelming battle.
In 2005, the man who had worked with three generations of Earnhardts called it quits.
So Hargett retired to rekindle a family-owned country general store near his home in Marshville in Union County. But it took less than a year for the longtime car owner and crew chief to return to his speedier livelihood.
He ran a newly built car in a couple of United Auto Racing Association races last summer. This year, he and driver Chad Mullis returned to Concord Motorsport Park to compete in the late-model stock division. They're hoping to generate enough momentum to hit some of the Southeast's bigger-money races by the end of the season.
Started in 1958
Hargett, 65, got started in stock car racing as a laborer in a shop in 1958. In the 1960s, he started tagging along with Kannapolis native Ralph Earnhardt, who was making it big in NASCAR's Sportsman class (which evolved into the Busch Series) around the Southeast.Eventually, he began concentrating on building and maintaining his own cars. In the mid-'70s, he and renowned driver Harry Gant formed a formidable Sportsman team.
When Dale Earnhardt started driving in the NASCAR circuit in the late '70s, he turned to his late father's former partner for guidance. Dale Earnhardt and Hargett won 18 Sportsman races over three years before Dale advanced to Winston Cup (now Nextel Cup) racing.
"Dale and I always got along," Hargett said. "We'd argue and fight every day in the shop, but we respected each other, I guess.
"We got in a fight one day pitching horseshoes. He would not be beat in anything," Hargett said. "And I was about the same way."
Dale Jr. comes along
After Dale made it big, Dale Earnhardt Jr. showed up at Concord Motorsport Park with a street stock car, looking to break into big-time racing.
"He was wild, but he could get around the racetrack," Hargett said.
He groomed Dale Jr. for three years until he was ready for the Busch Series, NASCAR's second-highest level of competition, in 1995. They teamed up for three late-model stock victories and 59 top-five finishes in 113 races around the Southeast, including at Concord.
In the early 1990s, Mullis drove for his family's race team until he filled the void Dale Jr. had left with Hargett. Mullis raced for Hargett for five years, finishing second in the late-model stock points standings at Concord for three years.
After 1999, Hargett was interested in testing the UARA circuit, and Mullis tried out a car in the Hooters Pro Cup series. They each enjoyed moderate success for five years, but the same issue eventually did in both: They failed to sustain the financial backing to run their respective cars.
Each pulled out of the sport. While Hargett returned to the Marshville family store, Mullis rejoined his family's well-drilling and grading business in Mint Hill.
New life on the track
Between the 2005 and 2006 seasons, Hargett met Monroe dentist Jerry Miracle, who was interested in driving his own race car.
Miracle's dental practice agreed to sponsor cars owned by Hargett, including the limited late model that Miracle drives now at Concord Motorsport Park.
Mullis agreed to drive Hargett's car, as long as he didn't have to do any of the car's maintenance work. That suited Hargett, who believed he still had something to prove.
"I kept hearing `You can't run with these young boys anymore,' " Hargett said. "Pride gets you in trouble a lot of times. I said, `Watch me.' "
Hargett and Mullis won their first race after their reunion, a UARA event in Jacksonville, N.C., last June. In 2007, Mullis has consistently run in the top five at Concord. He won for the first time this season on July 14.
Now that he has his mojo back, the only "retiring" Hargett has on his mind is slapping a new set of Hoosiers on his race car.