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Labonte Brothers Now Have Matching Ugly Blazers

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, February 4 2020
Bobby Labonte joined brother Terry as a member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Jim Fluharty)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

It was a moment, closing in on 20 years after the fact, only two NASCAR Hall of Fame brothers would remember. 

Revisiting the career highlights that had earned him induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s Class of 2020, Bobby Labonte flipped his back pages to Saturday, Aug. 5, 2000 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“In 2000 when I won the Brickyard 400, that was the first race that Terry missed. It ended his streak,” Bobby said during a phone interview with RacinToday.com. Bobby was referring to Terry’s NASCAR “Iron Man” record streak of 655 consecutive Winston Cup Series starts.

“I won the race and I come down pit road after the race is over and he’s walking out to shake my hand,” Bobby said. “I’ll never forget that because it hit me like, ’Terry wasn’t in this race!’ Every (NASCAR) race I had been in, he had been in.”

Terry’s streak had begun on Jan. 14, 1979 at the long-defunct Riverside (Calif.) International Raceway, when Bobby was 14-years-old. It ended 21 years later at IMS, weeks after 43-year-old Terry crashed hard during the Pepsi 400 on July 1 at Daytona International Speedway. Terry suffered a fractured right shin and sustained a concussion, injuries he aggravated on July 9 in a crash at New Hampshire International Speedway.

Terry Labonte was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2016. Brother Bobby, last weekend. (File photo by Bob Leverone/NASCAR via Getty Images)

Terry had managed to keep the streak intact by starting the Cup race at Pocono International Raceway, but completed only 26 laps before exiting the cockpit in favor of Rich Bickle.

“That’s right,” Terry said during a separate interview. “I sat there on the pit box (at IMS) and watched the race and when Bobby won I remember walking down pit road and congratulating him going to Victory Lane. Yeah, that was the race I had like a concussion and vertigo from the crash at Daytona.”

A proud native Texan, Bobby Labonte said his induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Jan. 31, 2020, was more than a chest-bumping reunion with big brother Terry in stock car racing’s shrine. The end of his decades-long journey from the hardscrabble short tracks of Corpus Christi to the shiny displays of The Brothers Labonte in downtown Charlotte is a tribute to parents Bob and Martha Labonte.

“It’s something for our whole family,” said Bobby, who at 55 is eight years younger than Terry. “We’ve been intertwined in racing all of our lives _ the family and racing. It’s family and racing together. It’s not family and then racing or racing and family, right?”

As right as a career basically spent turning left. Terry Labonte, the NASCAR Cup champion in 1984 and 1996, was enshrined in NASCAR’s HOF in January 2016. The 2000 Cup champion with Joe Gibbs Racing, Bobby is a member of a class that, quite fittingly, featured team-owner Gibbs and former teammate/three-time Cup champ Tony Stewart. The JGR contingent was honored along with legendary engine-builder/crew chief Waddell Wilson and the late driver-turned-broadcaster Buddy Baker. The HOF now includes 55 members.

In addition to the five inductees of the Hall’s 11th class, Edsel Ford II was honored as sixth recipient of the Landmark Award for Outstanding Contributions to NASCAR. Ford is a member of the Ford Motor Company Board of Directors and longtime executive of the company founded by great-grandfather Henry Ford. Known as “The Godfather” of Ford’s racing program, he is on the Voting Panel for the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

 Also, former pit reporter and magazine editor Dick Berggren was presented the eighth annual Squier-Hall Award for NASCAR Media Excellence.

Terry and Bobby Labonte are the first and only Texans in NASCAR’s version of Cooperstown. “It’s really awesome that both of us are in there and both from Texas. I’m very proud of that,” Bobby said.

Bobby Labonte of the Texas Labonte brothers. (File photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

“It really is cool, Bobby and I both being in the Hall of Fame,” Terry said from his ranch in the Texas Hill Country. “Both of us being from Texas, that’s really special. And I think we’re both in the Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame.” Indeed, Terry was inducted into the TMHOF at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth in 2004; Bobby was honored in 2008.

The Labontes also are the third set of NASCAR Hall of Fame brothers, joining “King” Richard Petty with his landmark 200 victories with the help of crew chief/engine-builder Maurice and the pioneering Wood Brothers, Glen and Leonard.

While most of Bobby’s immediate family resides around High Point, N.C., his earliest racing memories from Corpus Christi remain vivid.

“When I was 4-and-a-half years old my dad took me to the parking lot across the street from our house _ there’s an elementary school that I went to,” Bobby said. “And he would lay out one-gallon milk jugs full of water…he made a circle out of it and I would just  go out there and ride around in circles. He measured it like a Quarter Midget track and I just made laps and made laps until I fell asleep. I’m pretty sure he might have been drinking a cold beer on the back of a tailgate.

“He and some other people built a Quarter Midget track and he had a club. It was for us to race and other people to race. We raced in San Antonio and all over South Texas. And then I raced in go-karts in Texas before we left for North Carolina.”

The Labontes uprooted and relocated to North Carolina in the early 1980s, when Terry began chasing his NASCAR dream with the team owned by Billy Hagan.

“Yeah, the pit crew when Terry won the championship (1984), my dad was working on transmissions and rear ends and I was a mechanic and fabricator and doing all I could do,” said Bobby, the catch-can man during pit stops. “You know, I’d come in at 3 or 4 o’clock, sweep the floors until 5. And then I’d wash the vans. And then I’d mop the floors. And then I’d go to the bank to get everybody dollar bills to go gamble with. And then I started being a parts-runner _ and I’d still sweep the floors.  And then I’d bug people to death to do things.”

Bobby referred to that old-school NASCAR apprenticeship as  ”my college degree.” Bobby’s professor of sheet metal/arc-welding was Gary DeHart, who later collaborated with Terry during his second title run at Hendrick Motorsports.

Terry Labonte is welcomed to the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2016 by 2015 NASCAR Cup Series Champion, Kyle Busch. (File photo by Streeter Lecka/NASCAR via Getty Images)

“It’s so different today,” Terry said, referring to landing a Cup ride. “When we were coming up we could actually work on our cars and understood what this and that did to it. Today you have kids that just learn how to drive playing a computer. And it looks to me like it’d be hard to translate to your crew chief what the car’s doing, but I guess they got it figured out. I’ve played with it (iRacing) a little bit and it’s pretty realistic, I’ll say that.”

The skills Bobby and his father honed inside Hagan’s shop served them well when they collaborated to go Late Model racing in the Carolinas after Terry left for Hall of Famer Junior Johnson’s storied Cup team in 1986. Fielding his own team in NASCAR’s Grand National (now Xfinity) Series, Bobby won the 1991 championship.

Bobby went Cup racing fulltime with Bill Davis Racing’s fledgling organization in 1993. “Bill started off from scratch,” Bobby said. “I remember Dec. 1 (1992) going over to the shop and we were going to go Cup racing the next year. I don’t think there was one car in the shop. I mean, it was just like a few chassis and that was it. I think I worked 25 out of 30 days, and everybody else did more than that, to get cars ready. It was all hands on deck. It was great for me because I needed a team like that to start with _ the right thing for me at the time.”

That two-year Cup run caught the discerning eye of Coach Gibbs. When Dale Jarrett exited JGR to join Roberts Yates Racing for the 1995 season, Bobby was hired to drive the No. 18 Pontiac Grand Prix sponsored by Dallas-based Interstate Batteries and chairman Norm Miller.

Jarrett went on to win the 1999 Cup title by 201 points over his old team and Labonte, despite the fact Bobby posted five victories to Jarrett’s four. “Sitting at the (awards) banquet listening to Dale, I was just fuming because I thought I could have been there and I wanted to be there,” Bobby said. “We were just as good and just fast. Dale was just a little bit better and I made mistakes. I remember a couple races where I’d go, ‘Well, you can’t win the championship making mistakes like that.’^”

So motivated, Bobby and crew chief Jimmy Makar dominated the 2000 season en route to the title by 265 points over seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt. In 34 starts, Bobby posted four wins, 19 top-five and 24 top-10 results. He led the point standings for 31 weeks, including the final 25 in a row.

“I tell you what, we were just able to pounce on the situation,” said Bobby, who never gave into Earnhardt’s “Intimidator” persona. ”He was the best at trying to get in your head. I’ll be honest with you, I probably lied to the media all year when they said, ‘Is the pressure getting to you?’ And I always said no. I was lying because like, man, I was hurtin’ inside because he was mowing me down. But it was fun.

“I think that year we finished all but nine laps the whole season _ nine laps we didn’t complete _ which is a modern day record, I think.” True, Labonte completed 10,158 of 10,167 laps raced and led 465.

Makar, who helped Gibbs build his organization from Day One, was seated in the audience  in the Crown Ballroom at the Charlotte Convention Center and laughed when Bobby noted their line of technical race car communication often included…it’s time for a beer.

Coach Gibbs, Bobby said, remains a mentor. “Joe is just an amazing person, I learned so much from him,” Bobby said. “I mean, I didn’t learn how to drive from him, I didn’t learn how to race. I just learned how to be a better person. I wish I could do it over again because I’d do it even better. I would listen more, you know? But when you have somebody like that around you, it was inspiration for no matter what _ whether it was racing or just being a friend.”

The Labontes compiled eerily similar career Cup statistics. Robert Allen Labonte recorded 21 wins and 26 poles in 729 starts spanning 1991, 1993-2016. Bobby was the first of four drivers to win both a Cup and Xfinity Series championship. He also is one of 27 drivers to win a race in all three national series.

Terrance Lee Labonte compiled 22 wins and 27 poles in 890 Cup starts spanning 1978-2014. Terry’s career was bookended by victories in the 1980 and 2003 Southern 500s at famed Darlington Raceway. Terry also owns the only Cup win by the brothers at Texas Motor Speedway in March 1999.

“I wanted to be like Terry and I didn’t get to be any better than Terry,” Bobby said. “I was close.”

The brothers agreed their signature Cup moment occurred in the 1996 season-ender at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Ga.

“As that weekend unfolded _ in typical cold Atlanta _ we were winless and had won the pole,” Bobby said. “Terry was vying with Jeff Gordon for the championship and it was too close to call. So the night before, Terry and I were talking and I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if I won the race and you won the championship?’ I mean, how could you forecast that? You can’t.”

Still, that’s exactly what unfolded on the AMS’ high-banked/1.5-mile layout before it was reconfigured. Terry won his second title by 37 points over Gordon, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, eventual four-time Cup champion and 2019 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee.

The Labontes celebrated with a lap around the track together before an emotional post-race scrum. “The cool thing was our parents being in Victory Lane on the same day at the same time with both their kids. That was definitely the most special moment that I’ve ever had,” Bobby said.

During his induction speech in 2016, Terry’s “thank y’all list” was topped by his parents. “I’ll tell you what,” Terry 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. 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.”

Terry, who formally announced Bobby’s induction on-stage and presented him his HOF ring, added, “You know, for our family that (Atlanta finish) was just one of the greatest days in racing that you could ever have. That’s still one of the highlights for me. Yeah, we’ve really raced for a long time. My dad’s been part of championships with me and my brother and my son (Justin), which is really cool. I’m glad that they were able to be there and enjoy this (induction).”

Bobby said he went into the evening armed with some sage advice courtesy of a 2019 NASCAR Hall of Famer. “Roger Penske texted me after I was announced last May,” Bobby recalled. “And he said, ‘Enjoy the night. It’s the best-ever!’^”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, February 4 2020
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