The cover sheet of DIRTcar superstar Brett Hearn’s career statistics summary says it all: “We’re never satisfied. We’re always working to get better, to stay ahead of the competition.”
Other racers will, as the saying goes, talk the talk. Hearn has walked the walk for some 35 seasons.
“Brett’s record speaks for itself,” proclaims fellow driver Jack Johnson. “He’s one of the most serious drivers ever. He’s good at getting sponsors and when he comes to the track, he brings the best prepared cars I’ve ever seen. The guys who whine about him should try working half as hard as he does.”
That record shows Hearn, who’ll turn 51 Tuesday (Sept. 1), closing in on 770 wins. He’s prevailed at 47 different speedways in 10 states and two Canadian provinces. At this writing, he leads both the SuperDIRTcar series and Dart Race of Champions Dart tour standings.
Will Hearn race into his 60s in pursuit of 900 victories?
“I don’t know. I didn’t think I’d still be doing it at 50,” Hearn says. “It’s like anything else; you can still be good, but it takes more physically to get ready to race. I try to work out more and stay ready, physically and mentally, sort of like Mark Martin.
“I’ve been blessed by the fact that I could do something I love for a living. A regular job has no appeal to me. I’ll work three times harder to do this and love every minute of it.”
For sure, there’s enough work to go around. To cover his demanding schedule, Hearn drives Vinnie Salerno’s immaculate small block some nights and cars fielded by the combined Madsen Motorsports and BH Racing Enterprises team on tour. The days of one owner fielding a car for 75 or 100 modified shows are a thing of the past.
“It has a lot to do with the fact that you need so much equipment to run all the different tracks and divisions,” says Hearn. “You need a small-block engine program for the 358 races and a big-block program for the rest. And you need American Racer tires for some tracks, Hoosiers for DIRT shows and Goodyears at Albany-Saratoga. It goes on and on, and all these things combine to make it cost prohibitive for one owner to provide a car for every single track.
“Another major problem is manpower, the number of hours of preparation it takes to run all those different tracks. If you try to run 100 races a year, you end up killing your guys. Look at the sprint cars. They use the same tires everywhere they go, the same cars, the same engine — and they have a whole lot less sheet metal in the way than we do.”
Along with winning races, especially extra distance events (311), Hearn has long been known for garnering track championships and always contending for the prestigious Super DIRTcar Series and Mr. DIRT championships. After a sub-par season in 2008 that saw Billy Decker atop the standings at year’s end, he’s back on top this season and recently won tour events at Ransomville (N.Y.) Speedway and Cornwall (Ontario) Motor Speedway, where he usually struggles.
“That’s a good sign for the rest of the year,” says Hearn. “On that last road trip, we figured just running good would be huge in the big picture and we came out of there with two wins. Those are the things you need to do to win championships. You need to surprise yourself at places where you haven’t been really good in the past.”
Some would point at Decker as having poked 2007 champion Hearn with a sharp stick last year, inadvertently triggering an even stronger effort for ’09.
“Last year Billy got really hot and we got off course a little bit and finished the year with some DNFs,” recalls Hearn. “You’re going to have those ups and downs, and be cycling through cars and setups and sometimes you get a little bit off. And another thing that hurt us was not running our own stuff on weekends, like we are this year. When we got off course, it would take that much longer to get back on track.”
“It didn’t take me to get him going,” adds Decker. “He seems to get his share of wins, year in and year out, and it looks like he might get his share and a little extra this year. I think they were struggling and got to experimenting and now they’re applying what they learned last year. Now, they’re consistent and that’s a hard thing to beat.”
With Hearn strong everywhere and seemingly overdue to add to his five Super DIRT Week wins on the Syracuse mile, his last having come in 1995, does it bode well for another October triumph?
“Syracuse is totally different from everything else we do. I know how to win there, but you’ve got to have so many things go in your favor. I don’t think you can relate Syracuse to anything we’re doing right now. For five or six years in a row we were victims of parts failure — crazy stuff — and I’m not talking about used parts. I’m talking about brand new shocks, wheels, transmissions, engines, everything you can imagine.
“Things have to go your way. I remember one year that I won and we took the carburetor apart and found the jets had fallen out of it and were lying in the float bowl. But we finished the race. When it’s your turn, you win and when it’s not, it’s not!”
When it’s suggested that during his winning years good cars could pull out of line and pass pretty much at will but now passing is rare and track position and fuel mileage are the key, the “Jersey Jet” nods.
“Well, the cars are equal, the tires are the same and everybody has the same parts, so that puts passing at a premium. You can pass — Stewart Friesen passed a bunch of cars last year — but it seems like in the end, the guy with the best fuel mileage still wins.”
Decker and 2008 Rite-Aid 200 winner Frank Cozze have proven themselves to be the masters of fuel mileage and track position in recent years, but Hearn’s spate of DNFs has prevented him from showing his capabilities. For longer than most care to admit, the race strategy for many teams was the height of simplicity — “When Hearn pits, we’ll pit” — showing the regard he was held in.
Hearn always receives the most boos when the Syracuse field is introduced, but he is held in high regard by many fans, product sponsors and other racers. Many wonder why his career in NASCAR’s Busch (now Nationwide) Series petered out when he is obviously extremely talented.
“We had a learning curve where it was going to take a lot of money to catch up, because we were so far out of our element,” he says. “We didn’t have the money to hire the right people to help us learn fast enough. But I took a shot and I don’t regret it at all.
“Another factor was that I looked at a lot of the races on the Busch deal and thought, ‘I could make that running a dirt deal somewhere.’ They were paying $9,500 or $10,000 to win and for a guy making a good living dirt racing, the appeal really wasn’t there.”
Perhaps the best barometer is a statement by Ray Evernham to the effect that had he become a Sprint Cup team owner years earlier, his drivers would have been the extremely talented Northeastern heroes Billy Pauch and Hearn.
“He told me that too,” says Hearn wistfully.
While he won’t go down in history as a NASCAR star, Hearn is already regarded as the most successful dirt modified racer ever, with much more to come.