Hard Work And Dedication Places Terry Labonte Into The NASCAR Hall Of Fameby Hunter Thomas January 24, 2016 0 comments
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Terry Labonte, 1984 and 1996 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion had to move 1,200 miles just to make it to NASCAR country, but on Saturday afternoon, all of his hard work and dedication placed the Texan into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
While running the local tracks around Texas, Labonte still lived at home at 20 years old. Just like many other young men, Labonte wanted to be a race car driver, and it turns out that he was pretty talented. On Saturday afternoon at the NASCAR Hall of Fame during this year’s Induction Ceremony, Labonte recalled a time when his father found an issue with his race car’s engine, and the family was going to have to borrow money to fix it. Labonte, who was only 20 years old at the time wasn’t too keen on the idea of borrowing the money, and he began pondering if he could find another less-expensive way to race or if he needed to start searching for a side job. However, it was words of wisdom from AJ Foyt that changed his perspective and kept him fighting for his dream of becoming a professional race car driver.
“So I overheard my dad tell my mom he had to borrow some money to fix this engine, and I thought, golly,” Labonte said. “I was concerned because they sacrificed an awful lot for my racing career. So I was sitting there, and I thought, you know, maybe I need to have a conversation with my dad, and he’s never heard this story.
“And I thought maybe I should have a conversation with my dad and tell him, hey, maybe we should do something else or maybe start racing somewhere else that doesn’t cost as much or something like that, and it just so happened that weekend was the Indy 500, so I was watching the Indy 500, and AJ Foyt won his fourth Indy 500. And of course I was watching the news that night and watching all the interviews and everything, and I can’t remember the question some reporter asked AJ, and he says ‑‑ but I remembered his answer, and his answer was, you know, you can never give up. He said, sometimes when the going gets tough, people just give up. You can’t ever give up. And I thought to myself, you know, I was fixing to give up. I thought he was talking to me.”
Labonte never had that conversation with his father, and later that week, Meyer Speedway track promoter, Ed Hamlin introduced him to NASCAR Sprint Cup Series car owner, Billy Hagan, who ended up sponsoring Labonte’s car. At the end of the season, Labonte moved to North Carolina and embarked on his journey to becoming a two-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion.
“So Billy calls, and he said, hey, are you ready to go run,” Labonte said. “I said, yeah. He said, well, I’ll tell you what, I want to go to Darlington, and I said, man, I was thinking more like Wilkesboro, Martinsville or something, and he said, no, I want to go to Darlington. He said we’re going to go to Wilkesboro and Martinsville, too, but we’re going to go there first. So I said OK, so off we go. We go to Darlington.”
Labonte began his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career in the 1978 Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. He ended up qualifying 19th out of the 40 drivers that started the event. Timmonsville, South Carolina’s Cale Yarborough won the event with Darrell Waltrip and Richard Petty finishing just behind him rounding out the top-three. Finishing fourth was Terry Labonte, who didn’t lead a lap that afternoon or even finish on the lead lap, but he survived the track, Too Tough To Tame.
“The longest race I’d ever run was a 200 lapper on a half‑mile track, so we go to Darlington for the Southern 500, and went down there and ran that race, and it lasted all day long,” said Labonte at the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Saturday. “It lasted forever. And finally it ended, and I looked at the scoreboard there a couple times to see how many laps were left, but I never thought about looking at my car number. So I came in after the race, I had no idea we were finished, and I came in, and I finished fourth, and everybody is all excited and stuff.”
In 1980, Labonte won his first career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race, and ironically, it was Darlington Raceway’s Southern 500. When he won the series championship in 1984, Labonte had just turned 28 years old. In 1987, 1988 and 1989, he competed for 2010 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee, Junior Johnson.
“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,” Labonte said. “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.”
Richard Jackson fielded Labonte a car during the 1990 season, and in 1991, he was reunited with Billy Hagan before getting an opportunity of a lifetime in 1994 when he began driving for Rick Hendrick. While at Hendrick Motorsports, Labonte had the opportunity to drive the No. 5 Kellogg’s Chevrolet which later became an iconic symbol of NASCAR in the 90’s.
“Rick Hendrick called me and I got to go down there and 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, 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,” Labonte said.
Terry Labonte set a personal record of winning three races during the first season with Rick Hendrick in 1994. Up until that point, the most he had won in a season was only two races. Labonte backed up the 1995 season with three wins, and in 1996, he earned his second and final NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship. Labonte did so by outperforming Jeff Gordon, who won an impressive 10 races during the season. The difference in the championship was only 37 points.
“We had a great team that year, crew chief Gary DeHart, engine builder Jeff Andrews, and we had so many good guys on that team that it came down right to the wire, and we ended up winning the championship, and it was just incredible,” Labonte said. “Thanks to Rick Hendrick because I don’t think I would have ever gotten that second championship, I don’t think I would have been selected for the Hall of Fame, so Rick, I appreciate everything that you did for me.”
Over a span of 37 years competing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Terry Labonte started 890 races and earned two championships, 27 poles, 22 wins 182 top-five and 362 top-10 finishes.
Photo Credit: ISC Archives via Getty Images