This story of desire, determination and dedication, plus preparation and perseverance began in 1975 when teenage Brett Hearn first strapped into a Sportsman division race car at Middletown, New York’s Orange County Fair Speedway. Success was not immediate; that would wait until June 15, 1976, again at Orange County, and his first Sportsman victory.
Perhaps that win generated a spark, and that spark ignited a fire because by season end, Hearn had won a dozen races—six each at Orange County and Nazareth Raceway. The following year, 1977, still racing in the Sportsman ranks, the Kinnelon, New Jersey racer took home 20 winner’s trophies and the point championships at both Orange County and Nazareth. And for the first time he ventured to a new track. On July 4, 1977, Hearn won a 50-lap special race, his first extra-distance victory, at Pennsylvania’s Moc-A-Tek Speedway.
Not yet 20, but with 32 Sportsman victories and a pair of track titles already recorded, Hearn announced he wanted to move up to the Modified division. Armed with $3,000, his share from the sale of the family Sportsman, and a “lease” arrangement for a Big-Block engine from Pete Van Iderstine, his employer at the time, in 1978, Hearn entered the realm of Modified racing.
This was the era of fierce competition at both Orange County and Nazareth: Racing against Billy Osmun, Gary Balough, Buzzie Reutimann, Bobby Bottcher, Kevin Collins, Frankie Schneider, and others of that ilk, Hearn managed two victories. He won at Orange County in only his third Modified race on the Hard Clay and scored his first Nazareth Modified victory less than a month later. As a sign of things to come at Orange County, the rookie Modified driver finished third in season-long points, behind champion Osmun, and runner-up Reutimann.
Folks in all sports like to talk about breakout years…seasons when young competitors begin their charge towards stardom. For Brett Hearn, it was 1979. That year Hearn won nine races—three at Nazareth and five at Orange County—and his first of 15 Modified point titles on the Middletown oval. More significantly, three of the sophomore Big-Block driver’s victories were in extra-distance races. Hearn won a 79-lap early season romp at Nazareth, a September 100-lap affair at Orange County, then capped the season with the first of his 11 wins in the Eastern States 200.
“When I won Eastern States in ’79 against guys like (Billy) Osmun, Buzzie (Reutimann), Bobby Bottcher—guys I looked up to all my life—that’s when I first realized I could do this,” recalled Hearn in a long ago interview. “Up to then, racing was more fun than anything else. After winning Eastern States, it took on a whole new meaning.”
And so it did. The wins. The championships. The recognition. As of Saturday, August 5, 2017 Hearn’s documented racing record includes 901 race victories—896 in feature races and five in all-star races. All but two of the 901 wins have been in Northeast type Modifieds/ Small-Block Modifieds/ Sportsman cars. Hearn has two URC Sprint Car trophies to round out his career victory totals. Modified wins stand at 560, Small-Block Modified/Sportsman 339. Extra-distance wins (50-laps or longer) at present are 358, or 39.7 percent of his total victories. He has registered wins at 49 different tracks in 11 states and two Canadian provinces.
Hearn has won more than 100 races at three different speedways: 303 at Orange County (174 Modified, 127 Small-Block Modified/Sportsman, 2 URC Sprint Car); 131 at Albany-Saratoga Speedway (Modified/Small-Block Modified); 116 at Lebanon Valley Speedway (101 Modified, 15 Small-Block Modified).
Wins often translate into championships. Through 2016, Hearn has amassed 90 track and series titles. Track championships include 23 at Orange County (15 Modified, 8 Small-Block Modified/Sportsman), 13 at Lebanon Valley (11 Modified, 2 Small-Block Modified), 7 at Albany-Saratoga (Modified/Small-Block Modified), 2 at New Venture (Utica Rome) Speedway (1986 Modified and Small-Block Modified), 2 at Rolling Wheels Raceway (1991 and 1998 Modified), Accord Speedway (2011 Modified), and Nazareth Raceway (1977 Sportsman).
Of Hearn’s 41 series titles, 36 are DIRT Motorsports or DIRTcar categories, highlighted by eight overall DIRT/DIRTcar Modified Championships. He also won the former Tri-Track Series in 1982, the Twin-Track Series in 1989, the Canadian-American Challenge in 1982 and 1988, and the Fonda Speedway Go Green NMX Thunder Series in 2008.
Throughout his long career Hearn has had a knack for winning races that draw a great deal of attention. His six Super DIRT Week Modified wins, all the Eastern States victories, are prime examples. But so are new events. In 1990, when DIRT experimented with an asphalt series, Hearn won the fledgling series’ first race at Pennsylvania International (Nazareth) Speedway with then track owner Roger Penske looking on. In 2001, when DIRT first ventured to The Dirt Track @ Charlotte Motor Speedway, Hearn and Steve Paine split a win and a second place in a pair of 50-lap features. And in 2002, when DIRT expanded its traveling series to Eldora Speedway in Ohio, Hearn again won an inaugural event.
Former long-time Hearn crewman, tire expert Jay Castimore, says the reason Hearn has been so successful is that he is totally committed to the sport.
“Everybody who races works hard,” Castimore told me years back. “But Brett out-thinks most everyone. He’s ahead of the curve in almost every area. It doesn’t matter whether it’s sponsorship, race strategy, or getting ready for Super DIRT Week, Brett’s dedication to the task is always there. Working for Brett isn’t easy because he expects you to be as dedicated as he is. And if you’re not ready to put in a total effort, this isn’t the place for you.”
I concur. Over the years I’ve interviewed dozens of drivers, and what sets Brett Hearn apart from most is his confidence in his own ability. Hearn actually expects to win every race he enters. Many drivers dance around the subject: “I may win if I’m lucky.” “I don’t have too much of a chance today.” “If the car holds together, I may have a shot.” “I’d just like to get a top-ten finish.” Not Hearn.
He has confidence in his equipment, and supreme confidence in himself.
“I like to say we win because we prepare ourselves to win,” he’s told countless interviewers. In fact Hearn’s cars are always meticulously prepared, and his crew(s) equally ready for almost any trackside emergency. Once in Canada, a rear torsion bar failed at the start of a 100-lap race. Directing his crew through their two-way radio sets, Hearn pitted several times. Without losing a lap, the crew unhooked the torsion bar and replaced it with a suitable coil-over shock absorber combination. Hearn then went on to a top-three finish in the race.
But if there have been any changes in Hearn over the course of his 43-year racing career, they have been philosophical. “I’ve trained myself not to get too up when we win, and not to let losses get me too down. I’ve won a lot of races, but I’ve lost a lot more. If you let that get to you, it will eventually have a negative effect on your performance,” he has said.
There are some exceptions. I’ll name two: When Hearn won the DIRT inaugural foray to Eldora Speedway in September 2002, coming from the back of the field with only half the race remaining, he was as excited, as pumped up, as I have ever seen him. That was until last Friday night at Albany-Saratoga Speedway and win number 900!