WITH A RACE CAR REVVING in the background while circling the track, Corpus Christi native Bobby Labonte answers questions on a cell phone during a test run at Lakeland, Florida. At times his voice drifts off like his concentration is on the car instead of the phone. But then, it’s racing season, and he has a job to do. Labonte is pressing for more than a checkered flag. In 2000 he won the Winston Cup Championship, and he’s in the hunt for a second. That determination drives him through crew meetings, test runs, time trials, and even the races themselves. It’s that tunnel vision that will help him down the stretch.
texasmonthly.com: I hear you have been pretty busy.
Bobby Labonte: Oh, yeah. We stay busy all of the time.
texasmonthly.com: I was wondering how often are you in Texas?
BL: A lot of times I just get down there once a year, maybe twice a year. You know, probably a few times a year for more than a day, but that is usually just for the races.
texasmonthly.com: You miss it?
BL: Ah, yeah. I mean obviously growing up there, especially around Corpus Christi around the beach and everything—that was always fun growing up. We moved when I was fifteen-years-old; I got away from it pretty quick, so I didn’t get to spend the times being able to drive out by myself and that type of deal. I do miss it, but I didn’t get to taste that, so I am probably better off.
texasmonthly.com: Speaking of Corpus Christi, you and your brother just had a park named after you.
BL: Yep, that was last year. They named a park up there on the north side of Corpus and that was a pretty special deal. It was neat the way they handled all of that. I was back down there about two weeks ago, and we didn’t get to go by there. We went to Terry’s ranch in Freer, but it was pretty neat that they were able to do that.
texasmonthly.com: Were you surprised at how many fans came out that day?
BL: Well, it is just the way you are. It was the kind of a deal where you are kind of surprised, and then on the other hand, you are not as surprised because everywhere we go they announced that drivers are going to be there, and they are going to be doing an appearance or whatever. More people show up than you always think will. It was surprising in one way, but it wasn’t in another.
texasmonthly.com: Back in February you were also inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame. What was that like?
BL: That was really neat. We got inducted with Troy Aikman and a few other people, football players and a baseball player. That was pretty neat because there has only been four other people inducted into the Hall of Fame that were in racing so to be a part of that core for such a long time is pretty special.
texasmonthly.com: Had you met Troy Aikman before?
BL: Yeah, I met him somewhere. I don’t know where it was.
texasmonthly.com: How much of a following do you think NASCAR has in Texas?
BL: Well, the way that NASCAR has been, it has more of a following today than five years ago. I think it is no different than it is in the country. I mean a lot of people watch it, read about it in the paper, look at it on the Internet. It’s more accessible now days. They will look at it on the Internet and find out what is going on and know a lot about it, so I think that their studies have made them race fans.
texasmonthly.com: How much do think you and Terry have been a part of building that fan base since you are someone locally who they can cheer for?
BL: [laughs] I don’t know, but I guess we are doing our part by just doing what we are paid to do, racing, but it’s not a special [thing]. I don’t know that we have made it grow anymore than the next guy from Indiana or the next guy from California. I do know that when we go to Texas Motor Speedway, we have a lot of friends, a lot of fans show up, a lot of people there more so than anywhere else that we go, and it’s always exciting to see that and hear that.
texasmonthly.com: Well speaking of Texas Motor Speedway, how well is your driving style suited to that racetrack? Do you like to race there?
BL: Yep. We are going down there next week to test, and they have repaved the racetrack, so it’s going to be a little different this year. But for the most part, it has been a good track for us. We always like going down there. We fell out last year, and it was the first time we finished out of the top ten, I think. Always seem to run pretty good there.
texasmonthly.com: The home crowd helps too?
BL: It sure does. It doesn’t hurt.
texasmonthly.com: Now you and Terry are the only set of brothers to win the Winston Cup, and Terry told me that your son, Tyler, started racing quarter midgets. Do you think he is going to carry on the family legacy of racing?
BL: He might. You never know. He’s only seven years old, so anything can happen. I feel like right now he is just a kid, and I am not going to push anything on him. But if he wants to do it, I’ll be there to support him in whatever he does.
texasmonthly.com: Terry said his biggest problem was that he didn’t get to stay up for most of the races now.
BL: Yeah. [chuckles] All of the races that they have had so far have been late at night, and we’re crashed out by then. We play too hard during the day.
texasmonthly.com: I know that NASCAR is really competitive. How does that sort of competition affect yours and Terry’s relationship as brothers?
BL: We are competitors on the racetrack but we always give each other a little bit of a break, more of a break than anybody else probably, but we get along really good. We’re competitive, but if I won the race, I’d be happy, but if he could win the race, I’d be happier. It goes the same for him saying that to me, because we both pull for each other, we like each other, we talk to each other all of the time. It’s competitive, but it is not like we are trying to outrun each other as far as do somebody wrong or do them dirty or anything. We just try to go out there and do our job.
texasmonthly.com: The next couple of questions are more technical NASCAR questions. I was wondering what your opinion was of the restrictor plates used on the super-speedways?
BL: It is always a controversial issue. I guess if we didn’t have restrictor plates, they’d be going really, really fast, and you probably don’t want a wreck going that fast. But at the same time, with the cars bunched up like they were, that’s the hard thing. I wish they could go as fast as they could now with the cars not bunched up and the handling play more of a factor in it, but that hasn’t happened yet. It looks like they are leaning that way, but I don’t know if they’ll go that way or not.
texasmonthly.com: What do you think of the new aero packages they have this year?
BL: I think the cars have got way too much down force on them. What’s happening is when you pull up behind somebody, the car behind can’t pass the car in front because the car has aero push and the tires are too hard and they have too much down force. We’ve made more down force. We have gone faster and now we are going fast, the tires are real hard, and we have too much down force where the racing is not as good. To me, we should probably back up about five years or so. Then it will take a few years, and then it will catch back up to where we are today. Then you figure that you try to do something to slow it back down. It’s where you put it back in the driver’s hands instead of all in the shape of the body and the balance of the car. That way you leave it back to the drivers and the crews to figure out how to make it handle. The driver to drive it differently or driving harder or doing whatever he can do, and then work back on the chassis part of the car instead of the complete aero package.
texasmonthly.com: The last question is probably one that you have had a lot. How do you think Dale Earnhardt’s death has affected the feelings on the race circuit?
BL: I think it’s affected it in a lot of different ways. I mean, obviously, we are all saddened by it. At the same time, he had a lot of influence on what went on, not just in other drivers as far as helping their careers out or just him talking to you and giving you advice, but he was real influential on things that happened on the racetrack too. Without him there, that was a loss that I think we are all going to miss.
texasmonthly.com: What do you think about the new safety regulations?
BL: I think they have done a great job with that. It never fails that you always learn more after a tragedy. But if you can make anything good out of something bad, I think they have done a great job in expediting the safety procedures and getting that better than they ever had been.