Racing Is in the Blood
Terry Labonte talks about his family's need for speed and success that could fuel a Texas racing dynasty.
AFTER A QUICK QUALIFYING run at Atlanta Motor Speedway for the Atlanta 500, NASCAR racer Terry Labonte dashed to a phone to talk to texasmonthly.com. There were no engines vrooming in the background, just the simple voice of one of the greatest NASCAR drivers. Labonte has won stock car racing’s greatest prize, the Winston Cup Championship, twice, in 1984 and 1996—the fifth driver since 1971 to win multiple titles, ranking him with racing greats Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt. But the Corpus Christi native doesn’t mention his achievements unless it’s in the family—he loves the fact that he and his brother Bobby are the only brothers to have won the Winston Cup.
texasmonthly.com: I heard that you come down to Texas a lot. How often are you in Texas?
Terry Labonte: I have a ranch down in South Texas, and so whenever I travel to the West Coast, I either stop on the way or stop on the way back and spend a few days there. Or sometimes we’ll just leave between races and spend the week there. I get down once a month at least, at the longest probably six weeks. We still get down there quite a bit.
texasmonthly.com: What do you do on your ranch?
TL: We hang out and just kind of get away from everything. We don’t even have a real telephone out there, so it’s kind of out in the middle of nowhere out in the middle of the South Texas brush country, and it’s just, for me, a good getaway. We spend a few days riding around and looking at the deer and cows and things like that.
texasmonthly.com: Do you miss Texas when you are not here?
TL: My wife and I both love it down there. We are from Corpus Christi. I think I am just a true Texan, and I still call that home. There have been times when we come home to our house in North Carolina, and the next morning we say that we wish we were back at the ranch.
texasmonthly.com: Speaking of Corpus, you recently had a park named after you?
TL: That’s right. In Corpus Christi they named a park after Bobby and me, and it’s kind of right on the interstate coming into town. It was quite an honor for the people in Corpus to do that for us. You know, racing isn’t as popular in Texas as some of the other sports, and for us to be recognized like that caught me off guard. When I heard about it, I was really a little surprised that they did that.
texasmonthly.com: You had a pretty big turnout too.
TL: They did it right in the middle of the day, and I think they had like three times as many people turn out for it as they had planned. Of course, we couldn’t do it on the weekend because we are always racing on the weekends, but if we had had a better time, it probably would have been an out-of-control crowd.
texasmonthly.com: How did you find out about it? Did they just call you up?
TL: There were articles in the paper, and people were writing in wanting them to do something for Bobby and me to recognize us for our accomplishments in Winston Cup racing. Bobby and I are the only two brothers that have ever won the Winston Cup Championship. I had had friends who would send me articles that people would write in, letters to the editor, and things, and I am like, “Oh, God, I wish they would quit writing this stuff in there.” And so then the city called us, and they said, “Hey, we got some things in the works here and we want to just let you know what we are doing.” And it was great. It’s something that I never expected. And then when they came back with what they did do, that was even more than I expected. The park [formally known as Nueces River Park] is the one as you come in from San Antone, so we were out there and it’s got a tourist center there, and I was asking them how many people come through there in a day. It was like ten thousand more than I dreamed. I don’t remember the number, so it was a pretty busy little place there. It was really neat.
texasmonthly.com: Well, you have had a really busy year because you and Bobby were both inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame [in February] with Troy Aikman.
TL: Yeah, and we had a great turnout there. We had just a huge number of race fans that showed up for that.
texasmonthly.com: I know A. J. Foyt is there. Are you guys the second NASCAR people to be inducted in it?
TL: No, A. J. Foyt, Johnny Rutherford, Carole Shelby, and Jim Hall. That’s right and then Bobby and me. That was the coolest thing that I have been able to do. That was quite an honor. You walk around in there, and you look at all of the people that have been inducted into that thing, and it is kind of hard to realize. I’m like, “Gosh, I can’t really believe we’re in here like this.” It kind of sank in after I got there, and after I walked around, I saw all of the people that were inducted into it. And there’s not that many really, the total number of folks that are in it, so it’s really kind of a select few.
texasmonthly.com: You guys got your picture taken with Troy and Bruce Matthews.
TL: We got our picture made with Bruce Matthews, Mike Munchak, Troy Aikman, and Bobby and me. There were five of us.
texasmonthly.com: Had you met Troy Aikman before?
TL: I had met him before. I met him at Texas Motor Speedway. He is usually out there for the races.
texasmonthly.com: Is he a big fan?
TL: Well, I don’t think he is a big fan, but he is enough of a fan that I mean he follows it a little bit and knows the different players and stuff like that. The other two guys, of course, play in Nashville now. Mike’s a coach there.
texasmonthly.com: They were with the Houston Oilers.
TL: You won’t believe it. They follow it really close up there. They were both pretty big race fans.
texasmonthly.com: I was told that you had a fondness for the Cowboys. You got to go on the sidelines, right?
TL: Yeah, I have been on the sidelines once or twice, I guess. I got to meet a few of the players, so I have kind of always been a Cowboys fan.
texasmonthly.com: So what was that like?
TL: Oh, God, it was cool. They are pretty big boys. [laughs] It’s pretty obvious why I don’t play football. We have had some of them hang out in our pits at the race in Texas from time to time.
texasmonthly.com: You talked a little about NASCAR and the following in Texas. How much do you think you and Bobby have increased the following because you are from Texas?
TL: I told somebody the other day that I could have told them at the Hall of Fame thing the fans from Texas, because they are the ones that yell out, “Hey, we’re from Texas!” People from Texas are proud of their state and everything, and I think that because of that, when we go to Texas, Bobby and I have got more fans than anybody there has. And it is because we are from Texas. They pull for us. Over the years—I have raced longer than Bobby has—the true race fans probably followed us, and now that they have an event down there, it’s just bigger.
texasmonthly.com: I remember when the races [at Texas Motor Speedway] started.
TL: It’s a pretty incredible place. I guess they will probably have two hundred thousand to two hundred and twenty thousand people there for the race.
texasmonthly.com: The race is coming up on April 7. How do you describe your driving style and how well is that style suited to Texas Motor Speedway?
TL: Texas Motor Speedway, for me, is a place that—there are some racetracks that you go to, you run the first time, and you think, “Man, I have got this place figured out. I kind of think I know what I need here,” and then there are other racetracks that you go to that you don’t ever have that feeling. Texas is one of those places that when I first went there and ran, I’m like, “Man, I like this track. This is my style here. I like this.” It’s fast. It’s got a lot of grip. It’s just my kind of track. We had been there and tested a couple of times, so that probably helped us a little bit because we probably have as many laps on it as anybody to try to get our setup as good as we can.
texasmonthly.com: I know that you and Bobby are the only set of brothers to win the Winston Cup. I read somewhere that your son is also looking to follow in your footsteps.
TL: Yeah. Actually he is racing here in Atlanta tomorrow in the ARCA race. He qualified twelfth, and he’s gonna be in the battle for the top three or four spots. Their car is running pretty good. He’s twenty-one. It was hard for me to tell him, “No, you can’t race,” because he grew up around it, watching Bobby and myself for all of these years. He’s very good; he’s very talented.
texasmonthly.com: Did you want him to follow in your footsteps?
TL: That was the one thing that I really didn’t care about. It didn’t matter to me, and the thing that I wanted to make sure that he understood was that I didn’t ever want him to think that he had to do it because I did it or because Bobby did it. I could care less, but if he wants to do it, I am going to try to help him as much as I can. My biggest concern was him doing it because he felt like he would disappoint us if he didn’t, and that’s the farthest thing from the truth.
texasmonthly.com: Are any of Bobby’s kids going to possibly go into it?
TL: Bobby’s got a son, and he’s got a quarter midget, so he has only raced a few times. We’re not sure yet.
texasmonthly.com: He’s a little young to determine that but sometimes you can tell early on.
TL: I started when I was seven, and Bobby started when he was five, racing quarter midgets, so Tyler, his son, is seven, and he’s got his first quarter midget. He likes it. His biggest problem is that he can’t stay up late enough for some of the races.
texasmonthly.com: Because you and Bobby are very competitive, how does that affect your relationship, competing against each other every weekend?
TL: We get along very well. There are a lot of times during the week that he’ll tell me something, and I will tell him something. Hey we did this, and it helped. They did this and it helped. So we kind of look at him as another one of our team members really [chuckles]. His driving style and mine are the same as far as how we set our cars up and how we like them, so he can bounce stuff off me, or I can bounce stuff off him, and usually it is pretty much the same. We get along well although we are very competitive on the track—we’ve finished first and second before and started first and second before—but if I can’t win, I hope he wins, and that’s the way he feels about me.
texasmonthly.com: Now I have some technical questions about NASCAR. What is your opinion on the restrictor plates that are used on the super-speedways?
TL: Well, I am not a big fan of the restrictor plates, and we use them at two racetracks, Daytona and Talladega. We had one race at Daytona, and it’s kind of a really bad situation because the bottom line is the tracks are too big and too fast, and the only cure for the problem is going to be for them to fix the racetracks. You know they can put restrictor plates on and keep making all of these crazy changes to our cars, and all that is doing is putting a Band-Aid on it. It’s not fixing the problem. It’s kind of a touchy situation to talk about because that’s not what they want to hear.
texasmonthly.com: Well, it costs a lot of money.
TL: Yeah, and see the sanctioning body also owns the company that owns the racetracks. It’s like, “Well we are going to keep making rule changes. We’re not going to fix our track.”
texasmonthly.com: What do you think of the new aero packages this year?
TL: We have new aero packages at Daytona and Talladega. I think the ones this year are definitely much better, which is back to how we had them a few years ago. You don’t have quite the big pack of cars that you had although we saw a giant wreck again at Daytona.
texasmonthly.com: You got caught in that last one, didn’t you?
TL: I got caught in the last one, but I missed the other two [laughs], but that it is typical of restrictor-plate racing.
texasmonthly.com: I am sure that the last question is probably one that you have had a lot. How has Dale Earnhardt’s death affected the emotions on the race circuit?
TL: I think that was something that just shocked everybody. It was very hard to believe. I mean when you watch that wreck, it didn’t look like that bad of a wreck. I’ve seen wrecks that looked a lot worse than that; it was just all of the circumstances were wrong in it. I don’t ever think that anything good comes out of anything bad, but I will say that there have been so many gains made in the safety issues since that accident. Our cars are so much safer today than they were a year ago.
texasmonthly.com: Like with the H.A.N.S. device?
TL: The H.A.N.S. device, what people are doing with the seats, what people are doing with the headrests, different restraints inside the car. NASCAR has just done an unbelievable job at looking at everything. Their big focus is safety today, and they have really done an outstanding job. The cars now carry data recorders in them to record the accidents so they can look at how many G’s they pull in an accident. They never had that stuff [before]. Indy cars have had it for several years; for stock cars, this is our first year to have it. Our sport, motor sports, used to be the safest one, and the Indy cars and the Formula One guys didn’t have a very good record. They worked very hard for a long time to get their cars much, much safer, and they had passed us. Now NASCAR is working very hard to get back where they need to be. They have got a lot of things in the works right now that people don’t know about. They are testing soft walls, different configurations on the chassis that will absorb energy better. There is still a lot [to do]. They are committed to it being an on-going thing, so that’s good.