As you’ve probably already heard, Shawn Gann has left the planet. We all knew he was from somewhere else anyway, so maybe he’s just punched his ticket back to where he came from.
I first met Shawn when he won Pro Stock at IDBA’s 1999 Rockingham event. Here’s my full article about that race, published then in Motorcycle Performance magazine:
“I only wish Paul Gast had brought that white and red piece of shit down here,” joked Shawn Gann.
Was he joking? Gann had just won Pro Stock at IDBA’s All Motorcycle Weekend at North Carolina’s Rockingham Dragway. The race was being rerun from a snowout in March. Gast qualified #1 in March, but didn’t return in August. “Really, I wanted Paul to be there. Paul always tries to pick with me.”
Gann started eliminations against, or not against, Stephen Inoue. Inoue, who blew his motor on the dyno before the scheduled March event and showed up then without his bike, broke his transmission in qualifying this time around and was a no-show for round 1. Gann easily ran the low ET of the round with a 7.463 at 179.89 miles per hour.
Al Papitto, the #2 qualifier, was as concerned about hurricane Dennis hitting his Florida home as he was about the Rockingham event. He was also under the weather physically as well. His round 1 opponent, Jon Roessler, no-showed, so Papitto also got a solo pass and went 7.511. In an actual race, Tommy Grimes beat Keith Freeman.
Grimes received a scheduled bye in the semis and went 7.788. In a match-up with Gann, the ill Papitto nailed his third redlight in his last three national events, including the Indianapolis Prostar event and Columbus IDBA. Gann, who says he suffered his first red in eliminations ever at Indy, lowered ET to 7.354.
That set up the final between Gann and Grimes. “I was happy to see my friend in the final,” said Gann. “Tommy’s my hometown buddy.” Gann’s buddy treed him good, .438 to .504, but Gann family horsepower won out in the end with a 7.337 at 180.90.
“I’ve gotta thank my dad, Blake,” said Gann. “He builds all my motors, does my heads. The only thing we don’t do is put seats and valves in the head. Ward Performance does that. Leasing engines is a bunch of bull.”
Shawn is 21 years old and Blake is a youthful 40. Fans may recall Shawn hitting Blake as he came out of his burnout at the Prostar Rockingham meet.
The elder Gann is an expert marksman, finishing 10th in the world finals in Venezuela. Not only that, he builds precision competition rifles. “Dad found out early I wasn’t interested in gunstuff,” said Shawn. “He had started building racecar engines when he was, like, 15. I was playing in a vampire band, Hallowed Ground. We wore vampire stuff and looked like we were slapped upside the head with a raw steak. We had a CD and were touring everywhere. I had also been racing bikes, and finished second in Top Gas in ’97. My dad came to me and said ‘I’ll buy you a Pro Stock bike if you quit the band. You know how I am. I’ll put you on top.’
“So I watched Paul, Schultz and John Myers. I had never really watched the pros before, I was always at the trailer. ‘They’re going a whole lot faster than I am,’ I thought. So I quit the band and got me a Pro Stock bike. We called Paul and said ‘Send us the best of everything.’”
That first Pro Stock motor ran only 7.70. Gann knew a guy from his local track who bought a motor “straight out of Paul’s bike. This guy brings the motor to my dad to work on. We looked inside the motor and called Paul and said ‘Hey! We said send us the best of everything!’ He said ‘build your own and it will turn out real nice.’”
And Gast was right. Gann is in there fighting with Gast at every race. “When Paul beats me, I go over to his trailer and take him red licorice. I wish Paul had been there. This win was as bad as all get-out!”
That was Shawn all the way, the Shawn Gann who had a genius flair for needling his opponents—sometimes in the most personal ways possible. I hope we can get a full rundown of these stories some day.
Shawn was always, always loads of fun. His quotes and actions are legendary, often overshadowing his accomplishments on a family team against some pretty big competition.
One of my favorite Shawn Gann stories was when he was being vigorously harassed by a kid along the fence in the National Trail staging lanes. In the pre-internet trolling era, this kid would not let up and kept jacking up the volume. Shawn was humorously dumbfounded.
“Do you now that kid?” I asked.
“Hell no!” laughed Shawn.
Then there was the time he came to the lanes at zMAX with a large black and red splotch painted right across the center of his face.
“What the hell is that?” I asked.
“My kid painted it,” he said. “I’m Batman.”
And that was touching. Shawn didn’t care how ridiculous he looked, because his kid had painted it. That’s cool for a guy who sometimes seemed very self-conscious about projecting his own, unique image.
One time at Maple Grove, John Hall came up to me with a photo he’d taken on his flip phone. “You’ve gotta see this photo of Shawn Gann!” said Hall. “Shawn’s sitting over in the PiranaZ booth dressed like some sort of space alien.”
Indeed. It was a typical, cold, autumn day at Maple Grove and Shawn sought warmth in dressing like a baked potato.
Here’s NHRA video of a great moment for Shawn and Blake Gann:
One of the calls I had today was with Top Fuel Motorcycle racer Chris Hand. “I didn’t really know Shawn, but he one time came up to me, complimented me on my motorcycle, and very politely asked me about riding it,” said Hand. Chris and I both agreed that Shawn put his Southern charm to great use when approaching a man whom he considered might be aging out of the world’s quickest and fastest two wheel class.
NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle is often criticized for being boring. A class whose primary rider challenge is stability and invisibility, where the most successful racers focus on polishing a dry, corporate America persona—a boring image is a fair criticism. Shawn Gann was never boring or invisible at the race track.
Here’s a quick little video of Shawn that I’ve put together:
And here’s a full slideshow:
Godspeed Shawn Gann.
story, photos and video by Tim Hailey, except where noted