It seems impossible but in September, as yet another racing season winds down, the eternally youthful DIRTcar modified hero Brett Hearn will turn 60.
Coming off a 2017 season that saw him surpass the 900-win mark and claim the Lebanon Valley Speedway championship and Eastern States 200 for the 12th time each, he’s clearly not ready to retire.
But the specter is close enough that he can finally devote a few moments here and there to looking back and appreciating his accomplishments rather than focusing entirely on his next race.
“I have good and bad days, just like everyone else,” said Hearn, who looks as he has for decades except for a tint of gray that has crept into his hair. “I’ve had bouts with a bad back, but they were brief episodes. I guess they mostly disappointed the guys who thought it would make me retire.
“Right now, things are going well. I have good help and great car owners, the Madsens, who make it fun,” Hearn noted. “When I look back, I think of the mid-’90s, when I split my schedule between three teams. Then I dropped it to two before going back to one team based in my shop in 2007. This association with the Madsens works the best, though, having my shop in New Jersey means we’re a minimum of two and a half hours from everywhere we race. And the DIRTcar series shows are even further.”
When asked about his biggest success, one might expect Hearn to talk of his Syracuse victories — six big-block triumphs and another half dozen in the small-block race — or his seven DIRTcar Series championships. Or maybe his more than 900 victories. Instead, he offers a more subtle answer.
“I think my biggest success is the raw stats I’ve accumulated — like how many times I’ve won the Eastern States big-block and small-block races and the number of championships; both Saturday night and series,” he said. “If you keep your batting average high, you’ll get to the big win total eventually.
“Actually, I never expected to get past 500, though, obviously I wanted to. That’s what we work hard for, every day, every week, every year. People ask me now about getting to 1,000 wins but that looks doubtful. I just don’t want to travel that much anymore.
“I’m also really proud of the fact that I’ve never had a terrible year since I started,” Hearn continued. “My modified numbers were worse when we raced part time with NASCAR, but when I’ve been here full time they were all good, though some were better than others.”
Talk of Hearn’s failures, on the other hand, provides a glimpse of his mindset.
“I had a lot of them, mostly ‘I could have or should haves,’ like being in position for three or four more Syracuse wins and having trouble,” Hearn noted. “And all the short-track races I could have won, but things didn’t fall my way and I was second or third. But that’s racing.
“Some people might say my time running the NASCAR Busch Series car part time was a failure because we came back to DIRT, but I learned a lot down there and what I learned helped me win a lot of modified races,” added Hearn. “It just didn’t work trying to run a team from up here. I ran my first race in the fall of ’85 and the last in the spring of ’89, back when the cars were still on open trailers behind box trucks. But the guys running them knew what they were doing and I went to school for a while.”
Hearn is frequently asked if he’ll continue to field cars for another driver once he retires. He’s said for years that when he quits driving, he will finally be out of the shop and he’s sticking to it — mostly.
“I don’t think I would find it interesting enough unless some really lucrative business deal came along,” said Hearn. “And when I retire, I expect that the Madsens will go away, too. Together, we’ve done everything they wanted to do in racing. They might sponsor someone, but I doubt they’ll have any ownership position then, though as long as I keep racing they’re all in.”
While he’s non-committal, Brett Hearn’s Big One, an event he’s promoted at New York’s Albany-Saratoga Speedway in recent years, has been a huge success and most observers see his future as a promoter, not a team owner.
Despite a dominant victory in the 2017 Lebanon Valley Speedway round, many insiders have declared Hearn washed up on the Super DIRTcar Series tour. Competitor Keith Flach disagrees.
“I don’t see any difference in Brett overall,” declared Flach. “Last year, he had some bad nights on the series, but they would be good nights for most of us. He’s good, he’s just not winning as much. And he’s as competitive every week at Lebanon Valley and Albany-Saratoga as he was in his 30s and 40s. His problem is that right now Matt Sheppard is like Brett was in the 1980s and ’90s.”