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Texas Terry Adds One More ‘Cool Thing’ To Resume

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, January 28 2016
Terry Labonte is welcomed to the NASCAR Hall of Fame by 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champion, Kyle Busch. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/NASCAR via Getty Images)

Terry Labonte is welcomed to the NASCAR Hall of Fame by 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champion, Kyle Busch.
(Photo by Streeter Lecka/NASCAR via Getty Images)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – With a hug from his daughter and a bow from the reigning Sprint Cup Series champion, native Texan Terry Labonte humbly joined the immortals of stock car racing as a member of the 2016 NASCAR Hall of Fame.

hallf of fame logo“You know, I got to do a lot of cool things, got to go to a lot of places and be introduced as a two-time NASCAR champion,” said Labonte, who earned his Cup titles in 1984 and 1996. “But I’ll tell you what _ it’s going to be a whole lot better to be introduced as a NASCAR Hall of Famer.”

Reigning Cup champion Kyle Busch _ the driver who replaced Labonte in the No. 5 Chevrolet at Hendrick Motorsports _ introduced the Corpus Christi native during ceremonies Saturday afternoon in the Crown Ballroom at the Charlotte Convention Center adjacent to the Hall.

“My first fulltime season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, I had the pleasure and pressure of following in the footsteps of a living legend,” said Busch, now driving for Joe Gibbs Racing. “Saying I had huge shoes to fill was an understatement.”

Moments later, Labonte was handed his HOF ring by daughter Kristy Labonte Garrett.

“I tell you what, I walk around and I look at all these banners up here, and I think, holy smoke, I see mine. It really is true. I am in the Hall of Fame!” said Labonte, who received 61 percent of the 57 votes cast by the voting panel last May. “This is awesome. But guys like Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough, Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip, David Pearson, guys that I raced against…I might be in the Hall of Fame today with you guys but you guys will still always be my heroes, and I appreciate everything that you guys did for our sport.”

Terrance Lee Labonte compiled 22 wins and posted 27 poles in 890 Cup starts during a career spanning 1978-2014. That career was bookended by victories in the 1980 and 2003 Southern 500s at Darlington Raceway. But the man who earned the nickname of “Iceman” for his cool demeanor said his most memorable moment was the 1996 season-ending NAPA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway before it was reconfigured _ the Sunday when little brother Bobby won the race and Terry claimed the championship.

The Brothers Labonte stood side-by-side in Victory Lane with their respective trophies, wearing grins as

Terry Labonte has been the pride of Texas NASCAR fans. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by David Tulis)

Terry Labonte has been the pride of Texas NASCAR fans. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by David Tulis)

wide as the Lone Star State. Terry and Bobby were joined in their press conference by proud father, Bob. Terry actually took time to thank the media present that day for covering what was then billed as the Winston Cup Series.

On Saturday, “Texas Terry” spoke directly to his dad and mother, Martha.

“I’ll tell you what,” Labonte said, “you can do a lot of things and you can choose a lot of things, make a lot of decisions, but you can’t pick who your parents are, and I’ve got the best. Thank you.  My parents did an awful lot for me, and I certainly do appreciate everything that they did. I never will forget and thank you for all your love and support.”

Labonte recalled an incident early in his grassroots career that nearly prompted him to suggest to his dad that the family quit racing. As it turned out, fellow-Texan A.J. Foyt Jr. unknowingly came to Terry’s rescue.

“I was going to have a conversation with my parents, or with my dad, because I overheard him telling my mom that he went and borrowed some money to get my (stock car) engine back together,” said Labonte, then a regular at Meyer Speedway in Houston. “I guess to him it wasn’t that big a deal, but I thought to myself, both my parents worked…naturally we just did this for a hobby, just for a sport, just for the fun of it.

“I knew it was a financial burden on them because we were starting to race at different places. The places we went to race at, you had to buy eight new tires a night to be competitive. We’d buy eight new tires a night. I was going to have a conversation with my dad, and I was like, ‘Hey, maybe we need to start doing something else that doesn’t maybe cost as much,’ and even thought about that possibility of having to get a job.

“But it just so happened that was Memorial Day weekend, and it was a true story. A.J. won the 500 (for a record fourth time in 1977), and he was on the news, all the sports news that night. I don’t remember the

Texan A.J. Foyt provided the boost Terry Labonte need to keep going during the tough times. (Photo courtesy of Wood Brothers Racing)

Texan A.J. Foyt provided the boost Terry Labonte need to keep going during the tough times. (Photo courtesy of Wood Brothers Racing)

question that the reporter asked him, but I remember the answer and his answer was, ‘You can never give up.’ He said, ‘Sometimes when the going gets tough, people just give up. You can’t ever give up.’

“And it was almost like sitting there and you go to church and you think the preacher is talking about you. And I was sitting there, and I thought, ‘Man, he’s talking to me,’ and I just took it all in…and I never had that conversation with my dad. And I don’t know if it was Tuesday or Wednesday that same week when I got the call from the track promoter at Houston, and the next Saturday night we met Billy Hagan and he started sponsoring our car. So it was just really, really incredible.”

Labonte recalled his first Cup start for Hagan, at Darlington Raceway, as an experience on several levels. “The longest race I’d ever run before that was like a 200-lapper on a half-mile track,” Labonte said. “I never will forget they had a rookie meeting, so I was in there with a couple of other guys, the only rookies there. I’m sitting there on this couch and man, Darlington…it’s old. I mean, everything in it was old.

“I go in there and sit down on this couch and they’ve got this TV up on the shelf on the wall and got some type of tape player. They start showing the tape of the previous event, the previous Southern 500, and here’s the things not to do, OK. So I’m sitting there watching this TV and I’m driving this car that’s No. 92 sponsored by Stratagraph, Billy Hagan’s company. And the guy that drove this car before me made all the highlights on the TV of what not to do.

“And I sat there and I’m like, ‘Oh, man. I can’t believe this.’ They show you don’t go into the pits this way, you don’t exit the pits this way and you know…here he’s in the way and they’re showing the move-over flag…everything you could do wrong he did it. So I thought right there, ‘Well, the thing to do is, whatever you do, don’t make next year’s video.’ ”

Labonte finished fourth in the first of his 890 Cup races, most of which were attended by his wife, Kim.

One of the sports' gentlemen, Terry Labonte, now has the big ring. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Sharon Ellman)

One of the sports’ gentlemen, Terry Labonte, now has the big ring. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Sharon Ellman)

Labonte acknowledged her with an anecdote typifying his deadpan humor.

“We were riding down the road the other day, and Kim looked at me, and she said, ‘Hey, have you even thought about a speech for the Hall of Fame?’ And I looked at her and I said, ‘That’s news to me. Nobody has told me anything about a speech for the Hall of Fame.’ And she said, ‘No, really I think you’ve got to give a speech,’ and I said, ‘Nope, I don’t think so.’ And I thought right there…I’ve got the perfect wife. We’ve been married 37 years, and she still believes everything I tell her.”

But Labonte also admitted his emotions welled-up as he looked out from the dais and spoke to his family, including son Justin, a former NASCAR driver.

“Well, if I ever have to give another speech or anything like that, I’m not going to let my wife sit on the front row,” Labonte said. “Because I looked at her and she was crying and I looked at my mother and she was crying and I thought, ‘Oh, God, I’m going to cry, too. I can’t look at them no more.’ I wasn’t anticipating that at all.”

Labonte also mentioned his “rowdy fans from Texas” who made the trip from Corpus Christi, only to be greeted by a winter storm that forced Friday’s regularly scheduled ceremony to be postponed and moved to Saturday.

“I’ve got a lot of fans down there, and I think about 25 of them came out here for this event,” Labonte said. “They were all excited. They’ve had the reservations for I don’t know how long _ gosh, whenever it was announced that I was going to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. It was really pretty cool that they all came out here for that.”

Labonte said in an earlier interview with Fort Worth-Dallas media that he was proud to be the first

The ice melted a bit for Terry Labonte during his acceptance speech at the Hall of Fame on Saturday. (Photo by Bob Leverone/NASCAR via Getty Images)

The ice melted a bit for Terry Labonte during his acceptance speech at the Hall of Fame on Saturday. (Photo by Bob Leverone/NASCAR via Getty Images)

person from Texas to be inducted into NASCAR’s shrine. “It’s always easy when you go to a race _ doesn’t matter if you’re in California or Pennsylvania or wherever _ it’s always easy to pick out the fans from Texas,” Labonte said. “Because they’re the ones yelling, ‘Hey, we’re from Texas!’ And you don’t ever hear somebody say, ‘Hey, we’re from Arkansas’ or ‘Hey, we’re from Wisconsin’…I mean, people from Texas are proud. So it’s different, it really is.”

Labonte’s 22 Cup victories hardly measure the breadth of a career marked by consistency. T-Lab logged 17 different seasons among the top-10 in the championship standings along with 361 top-10 finishes, the latter ranking 10th all-time. Labonte also won in the NASCAR XFINITY and Camping World Truck series, as well as the International Race of Champions (IROC) against drivers from various disciplines. An accomplished road-racer, Labonte shared the GTO class-winning entry in the 1984 24 Hours of Daytona, America’s premier endurance event.

Labonte was joined in the Hall’s seventh class by speedway builder/promoter O. Bruton Smith of Charlotte; 1970 Grand National champion Bobby Isaac of Catawba, N.C.; six-time Modified champion Jerry Cook of Rome, N.Y., and Curtis Turner, the “Babe Ruth of stock car racing” who partnered with Smith to build Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1960 in-between his off-track escapades. Labonte and the three driver inductees all were counted among NASCAR’s 50 Greatest announced in 1998.

In addition to the five inductees, Harold Brasington, who built Darlington Raceway in 1949-50, was honored as second recipient of the Landmark Award for Outstanding Contributions to NASCAR. Prior to the ceremony, long-time NASCAR broadcaster Steve Byrnes was bestowed the fifth Squier-Hall Award for NASCAR Media Excellence.

Labonte won his first championship for “little guy” Hagan and his Stratagraph organization and his second for Rick Hendrick’s juggernaut as the driver who replaced Ricky Rudd. Terry’s 1984 championship run in the No. 44 Chevy was backed by sponsorship from Piedmont Airlines _ an unconventional financial backer for that era _ and led by crew chief Dale Inman and engine-builder Dewey Livengood.

“We weren’t supposed to win it and we didn’t know what to do with it,” said Inman, who left the team to rejoin cousin Richard Petty at Petty Enterprises in Randleman, N.C.

“We had a team that was just unbelievable, and we won the NASCAR championship and I thought, ‘Man, this is the coolest thing,’^” Labonte said. “I had just turned 28 that weekend when we won the championship, and I thought, ‘I know this is a big deal, but I think we can do it again next year.’ Next year took a long time coming.

“Then I had an opportunity to drive for Junior Johnson and we finished third in the points one year, finished fourth in the points one year and learned a lot from Junior. One of the things I learned was you better win at North Wilkesboro, because that was the most important race you’re going to run and we were able to do that. But it was just a great opportunity there.”

After parting with Johnson and his high-profile Budweiser-backed team, Labonte drove for Precision Performance followed by a second stint with Stratagraph Racing. His career definitely was on a downward slide when Hendrick called with a job offer that raised eyebrows in the industry.

“It was one of those after-hours meetings and we went down there and I got to tour the shop with Randy Dorton and Gary DeHart and Rick,” Labonte said. “And we walked around there and I looked at all the stuff they had, all the equipment they had and the people I knew that worked there, I thought to myself, ‘My God, this is an incredible opportunity here.’ I knew this place was going to be a place that could win a championship.”

The 12-year gap between Labonte’s championships is significant, as no other driver has won his first two titles that far apart. Labonte also is one of only six drivers with championships in two decades.

“It was really neat because it proved that we made the right decision,” said Hendrick, who fielded Labonte in a series of popular No. 5 Kellogg’s Chevrolets. “To see Terry kind of get rejuvenated and win a championship, everybody was happy for him. I never heard anybody boo him. He was that kind of guy.”

In fact, Hendrick added that Labonte may be NASCAR’s most under-appreciated champion.

“Terry won everywhere,” Hendrick said. “I almost saw him win at North Wilkesboro on seven cylinders. What he brought to our company was real stability. You know he battled Jeff Gordon for the championship when Jeff Gordon was in his prime and beat him. When he raced at Phoenix and broke his hand (in November 1996)…I mean, I don’t think you could do that today, but he broke his hand and we gave him a (painkiller) shot that morning before the race so that he could drive. I thought when he broke his hand (during a practice on Friday) and we were in the hospital that the deal was over. He’s one of the toughest people I’ve ever met.”

Hendrick noted that he and Labonte remain connected as partners in the automobile business. “He’s a team player,” Hendrick said. “He’s just good people. I’ll tell you one other thing about him _ you don’t mess with him. You don’t see anybody in the garage mess with him. I’ve seen him knock a couple of ‘em out. He doesn’t say anything, he just stands there and you don’t want to come within arms-length of him. He doesn’t take a lot of mess off of anybody.”

Labonte, 59, earned an additional nickname as the sport’s “Iron Man,” a nod to his 655 consecutive starts in NASCAR’s premier series _ a record that stood until 2002. Bobby Labonte, meanwhile, went on to win the 2000 Cup championship with Joe Gibbs Racing, making the pair the first siblings to win titles in NASCAR’s elite division.

Despite his solid numbers, Terry said he didn’t leave the bullrings of south Texas for North Carolina and NASCAR thinking he was Hall of Fame material.

“When you look back and you kind of race from week-to-week and season-to-season and you win some races and win some championships and when it’s all over and you’re selected to be in the Hall of Fame, then that’s quite an accomplishment,” Labonte said. “But it’s something that you never…it’s never a goal of yours, but it’s something to be awful proud of.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, January 28 2016
One Comment

One Comment »

  • Bob Andrews says:

    Terry may be a nice guy, but what qualifications does he actually have to be in the HOF? Two lucky championships…and that about does it. There should be a minimum requirement of 40 Cups wins and a win in the Daytona 500. Two wins in the Brickyard, the Southern 500, and the Coke 600 could be substituted for the lack of a 500 win. But as the years wind down, the HOF is increasingly scraping the bottom of the barrel. It won’t be until Johnson, Stewart (if he can avoid killing any other drivers), Gordon, Kenseth and Kyle Busch get in that the HOF will regain any credibility. And it may well cease to exist before those drivers are eligible.