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NASCAR Teleconference Transcript: An Interview With Terry Labonte
Moderator: We are now joined by two time Series champion Terry Labonte, who won his titles in 1984 and 1996. He is going to compete in his last Series race next week at Texas Motor Speedway. Terry is a native Texan from Corpus Christi, Texas, originally, and he's joining us today on the teleconference. Terry, I guess there's lots of emotion looking forward to next week.
Last win: '03 Southern 500
Terry Labonte: I'm looking forward to it. I've always enjoyed racing at Texas out there. It's going to be a little bit different, I think, going out there knowing it's your last race. You know, like I have said before, I've been doing this for a long time, been very fortunate over the years to be with some good teams and win some races and a couple of championships. I don't know, I just felt like it was the right place for me to run my last race was in Texas.
Larry Crump, Point Pleasant Register: First of all, I just want to say good luck this weekend. I've followed your career for quite a while. Do you have a specific moment during your career or off the track that in your mind maybe stands out a little more than the rest?
Terry Labonte: Oh, gosh, I don't know. I think probably one of the most exciting days, I guess, was the day actually my brother won the race in Atlanta and I won the championship back in '96, and that was a pretty cool afternoon down there. We both made our victory lap together down there, so that was pretty neat.
Larry Crump, Point Pleasant Register: You've earned a lot of nicknames over your career from Ice Man to Iron Man. If you could sum up your career, what would you like to be remembered as as your legacy?
Terry Labonte: I think I've been asked that question before, and I don't have a good answer for it. I really don't know. I still don't have a good answer. I'm not sure what to say.
John Sturbin, Fort Worth Star-Telegram: Can you recall what your budget was back in '84 when you won that championship with Billy Hagen?
Terry Labonte: I think our sponsorship was probably in the $800,000 range for the year, and then I think we won about $800,000. I'm sure we spent every penny of it. That's probably about where our budget was.
John Sturbin, Fort Worth Star-Telegram: Was it a big deal back then to try to bring in a sponsor like Budweiser I think was on your radar screen and that was one of the things you were chasing?
Terry Labonte: No, we had Budweiser before that in '83. That was $300,000. So then next year we had Piedmont for like $800,000. We had Budweiser for one year and then Piedmont for three years, and then I guess a couple years after I left the team.
John Sturbin, Fort Worth Star-Telegram: That wouldn't get you very far today, would it?
Terry Labonte: No, it wouldn't. It's a little bit more expensive today to operate a race team.
Jim Gintonio, Arizona Republic:: Terry, from the perspective of a former two time champion and knowing how hard it is and how talented these Cup guys are, to go on the assumption that the Busch Series is kind of a training ground
Terry Labonte: It's a practice ground.
Jim Gintonio, Arizona Republic:: How fair is it in your mind to have the Cup guys come down and dominate the Busch Series week after week?
Terry Labonte: Well, you know, I was probably one of the guys that was guilty of running the Busch Series years ago, and I did. But the big difference was the majority of the guys that ran the Busch Series that were Cup guys had their own teams. Today you have the Cup owners that have the Busch teams and just use it as a practice session for their Cup team, so it's kind of an extension of that team, and it's really driven the cost of the Busch Series up dramatically. It's pretty much for the most part on the way to eliminating all the Busch teams from the picture.
Jim Gintonio, Arizona Republic:: Are you saying that the guys who race Busch full time, it's not fair to them?
Terry Labonte: Well, I'm not saying it's not fair to them, but it sure puts them at a disadvantage because instead of having a $3 or $4 or $5 million sponsorship, they'd have to have a $7 or $8 or $9 million sponsorship to even compete with these guys, and they still aren't going to be able to do it from the technical side, they're just going to spend that much money trying. They just don't have a three or four car Cup team to draw off of. So that to me is the biggest thing that hurts the Busch guys.
Claire Lang, XM Satellite NASCAR Radio: Terry, various people talking about you in the garage, you're such a humble guy and a man of few words, not going to brag about yourself, but Dale Earnhardt, Jr., was asked this weekend about you, and he told two stories. One was that you had been invited by his father to go hunting, and that anybody his father invited he was just in awe of because he must be a cool guy. And then he talks about pulling out on the track when he was very young just getting started and sitting there in a car next to you. I mean, he went on for six minutes talking about this, how you pulled out and he sat next to you in the car ready to do out, and how he'll never forget he was next to Terry Labonte. And the other one was that you had told him to start wearing a HANS device, and you had never spoken to him before; it's the only word you ever said to him. And he said, "If the man speaks to me and tells me to do something, I did it." Do you have any reaction to those stories? That maybe perhaps is part of your impact into the sport.
Terry Labonte: I can remember telling him he needed to wear a HANS device. That's a true story. I did go hunting with Dale before. Yeah, you know, I don't know. I was pretty good friends with Dale and I've always been a fan of Dale, Jr.'s. I thought he's really handled himself well with the tremendous amount of pressure that he not only probably puts on himself but the fans and everybody else puts on him, too.
Claire Lang, XM Satellite NASCAR Radio: What do you think that you will take away from this sport? You've been there you're one of the few people that can remember all those great stories of the early years. What do you take with you about it?
Terry Labonte: You know, I just feel so fortunate that I've been able to compete in the sport as long as I have, been able to do so many things that I've had the opportunity to do and still feel very fortunate to have been able to make a living at something I love doing. You know, I don't know, I never dreamed that I would be able to have a career as long as I've had. If you look at other sports, most people don't have near that opportunity to compete for as long as I've been able to.
Kenny Bruce, Scene Daily: When you started out racing around Texas and realized that you could be competitive there, was there any point where you thought, hey, you know, this is a good deal and everything, and maybe if I work hard enough at it and make the right connections that I could actually go to what was Winston Cup at the time?
Terry Labonte: No, I never really thought about it that much probably. I was racing in Houston, Texas, actually and had the opportunity to beat Billy Hagen up there. And it was through the promoter at the race track who introduced me to Billy, and Billy started sponsoring our car down there in south Texas, and we raced in Houston and San Antonio. And he called one day and gave me the opportunity to move to North Carolina and run his Cup car five times that year. But I never really before that I never really knew if I'd ever have the opportunity or not. I think you just never know. It's probably much harder now or easier now to get in. I think it's probably harder now. It's kind of all about being in the right place at the right time and meeting the right people, I think. I think I was just lucky enough to do that.
Kenny Bruce, Scene Daily: Would you have taken a Cup ride I don't mean this to sound bad about anybody, but would you have taken a Cup ride with anybody that offered it? Were you looking to get in?
Terry Labonte: I had never even thought about it. Honestly I never really thought about it that much. You know, just racing the short tracks down there it was a lot different back then. You didn't go home on Sunday afternoon and watch racing on TV. They weren't on TV. You didn't ride down the road listening to it on the radio because they weren't on the radio, in Texas anyway. You'd look in the newspaper on Monday and see who won the race, and that was about it. So that was really the only as much as you knew about that. The Daytona 500 was on closed circuit TV and I remember going to a theater downtown with my dad and watching it. As far as knowing really a whole lot about the sport, I never really did because you really couldn't follow it that much, especially living in Texas. Yeah, looking back, I would have probably taken a ride with anybody, as most people would have. Back then I was looking at I think back then probably 60 percent of the guys owned their own cars. They were kind of owner/drivers.
Jim Pedley, Kansas City Star: Do you remember what your reaction was when you found out that NASCAR was going to have a playoff?
Terry Labonte: (Laughing) well, you know, I had mixed signals about it. I really didn't think nothing was wrong with the system they had. But I will say it has brought some excitement into leading up to the last ten races. I think it has added some excitement to it. I'm not sure I still like I'm not sure I like the way it is, but I've got to give them credit for trying to come up with something to add some excitement to it.
Q. You say you don't like the way it is. Is there something that stands out in that area, anything you'd change?
Terry Labonte: Well, I'm not sure you know, it's just I'm not sure what I'd change. I think there needs to be more people that have the opportunity to be in the playoffs if that's what you want to call it. I don't know, if I had to change it, I don't know what I'd do. I'd like to see our ideas, I guess, of what they wanted to come up with. So I don't know. I think the other thing that's kind of disappointing is the guy that's 11th or 12th, that they're denied the opportunity to finish in the Top 10 in points, and finishing in the Top 10 is a big deal to a team and to a sponsor, things like that. It kind of takes away a little bit from what those guys are trying to accomplish. But it does, I think, add some excitement for the guys that are in the Top 10.
Jeff Hood, Atlanta Journal: Terry, congratulations on a terrific career. I was actually at Darlington back on Labor Day of 1980 when you won your first Cup race. I just want to ask you, what do you remember about that day?
Terry Labonte: Well, that was I think the coolest thing I remember that day is all the people riding on my car to victory lane after the race. The people used to jump on your car and you'd ride to victory lane. When we got back the pictures like the next week that they were taking, there were people riding on the car and we didn't even know them. Our pit crew guys were on it but so were these others and we didn't even know them. It was just kind of one of those deals that I think I was running 3rd on the last lap. Yeah, it was the last lap. We all went down to turn 1 and David Pearson and Benny Parsons and somebody else hit the wall, and there was oil on the track. And I didn't hit the wall and so I beat Pearson back to the line before the white flag is what it was, or the white and the checkered. I passed him coming off 4 to the caution, we raced back to the caution. I beat him to the caution. We got the white, and I don't even think he saw me coming.
Jeff Hood, Atlanta Journal: One other question: You've been racing on a part time basis here for the last couple years. As your brother Bobby gets closer to retiring from the sport, would you advise him to do the same thing?
Terry Labonte: No. I wouldn't advise a limited schedule to anybody after I did it. It's a little bit tougher than I thought it was going to be. I think it wouldn't be so bad if your team ran every week and you just drove it occasionally, that would probably be okay. But running a limited schedule when you have a team that doesn't have any points, you know, you're one of the last cars on the track, last cars through inspection. Sometimes you don't have the full practice sessions. You don't learn things from week to week. You're always trying to play catch up, seems like you're behind a little bit. It's a little bit tougher than I thought. Our sports changes so much right now as far as the setups go and shocks go and the technology side of it. You're chasing a moving target. Back five years ago, we ran the same springs at some of the race tracks three or four years in a row before you'd ever change, you'd just be fine tuning your car, where today it's just it's a lot different. Like I said, it's been a little bit harder than I thought.
Bill Gamblin, Santa Rosa Press Gazette: Pleasure to speak to you today. I wanted to ask you, I remember when you made the ride at Riverside, of course back then the Piedmont car that you drove was more of a Mach style car as I like to call it compared to today's aerodynamic cars. With the changes that have occurred from Championship 1 to the aerodynamics that were needed for Championship 2 and beyond, how would you describe the change from night to day?
Terry Labonte: You know, there were probably not as much changes from '84 to '96 as there are from '96 to '06. The aerodynamics have gotten much more important today in a big way than it did from '84 to '96. You know what I'm saying?
Bill Gamblin, Santa Rosa Press Gazette: Sure.
Terry Labonte: It's changed a lot since the past four or five years, I think. Yeah, those cars were a lot different. They weighed more. Heck, I think we took our speedway car to the wind tunnel, it was in like '85. I don't even think we took it in '84. The guys knew how to build the cars and they knew how to make it look and everything like that, but as far as building it and going to the wind tunnel and testing it and working on it, we never did something like that.
Q. If you don't mind me asking one more question, I know you recall a memorable race. Who was one of the more memorable drivers that you looked forward to competing with on a week in, week out basis?
Terry Labonte: You know, there were so many guys that I looked up to that I raced against, David Pearson I think was one that I was always impressed with him because when he drove for the Wood Brothers they didn't run a full schedule, they ran a limited schedule. You knew when you saw their truck pull in that, man, he was going to be one of the guys to beat. I thought that was really cool that he didn't run all the races, but every one he ran, he was a real contender for the win.
Keith Courson, Dallas Morning News: It's a real privilege. I just was wondering if you've thought at all about that day, that Sunday at TMS, and Eddie Gossage has a lot of things planned and what sort of things you'll be feeling leading up to that.
Terry Labonte: Well, I don't know. I kind of I guess have a little bit to think about because I'm sure it'll be a little bit different when I get there and take it all in. But I still feel the same way about my decision. I think my wife asks me that about every other week. But I still feel good about it, and I'm still looking forward to going to Texas and running that race. Hopefully we're going to have a good run. That's my biggest concern, I think, is hoping we run good. But as far as how I'll feel after the race is over, I don't really think I'll feel any differently. I might be wrong.
Keith Courson, Dallas Morning News: One other thing. You certainly have driven for some great car owners over the years, if you could go back and maybe a thought on those guys and some other people in the sport that you've really enjoyed working with over the years.
Terry Labonte: You know, starting out, Billy Hagen gave me an opportunity, chance of a lifetime actually to run his cars. I drove for Billy for several years, left, went and drove for Junior, then for Richard Jackson for a year, then I came back to Billy for a few years and then left and went and drove for Rick Hendrick. I haven't really driven for many people in my career. You know, they were all of course Billy was pretty successful real successful in the old business, liked to race on his own. His real love I think was sports cars all the time. He had sports cars and we'd go over in those sometimes.
Kenny Bruce, Scene Daily: I've got to ask you this: Is there any chance at all that you could be in a Cup car next year?
Terry Labonte: Not that I know of. I'm not planning on it.
Kenny Bruce, Scene Daily: There's no one race appearance or anything like that?
Terry Labonte: I had someone come knock on my door in Charlotte wanting to know if I wanted to go to Atlanta, and I said, "Nope." The guy says, "So I don't need to talk money?" I said, "Nope." I just don't really have no desire to maybe after I sit out for a while I might change my mind or start missing it or something, but as of right now, I sure am looking forward to life after the Texas race.
Q. Physically you still feel like you could do it every week if you wanted to?
Terry Labonte: Oh, I could, yeah. There's no doubt about it. I think if you're going to do it, you need to either get in or out. This limited deal was I really like it a lot, but it was a little harder than I thought it was going to be. I think we'd be a lot better if we ran every weekend just because I can't really tell the guys on my team how to fix my car. I can tell them what it's doing, but with these setups that we run today, I don't have enough experience with I can't come in and say do this and do that, where I used to do that. It's just difficult that way.
John Sturbin, Fort Worth Star-Telegram: Was it more satisfying to beat Harry Gant in '84 or Jeff Gordon your teammate in '96?
Terry Labonte: It didn't make no difference. We won the championship, and that's what was most satisfying.
John Sturbin, Fort Worth Star-Telegram: Jeff said he doesn't recall you guys racing a whole lot against each other but the teams were very competitive that year.
Terry Labonte: Oh, they were, and that was one of the things that Rick was really concerned about. He was afraid that it was going to really hurt the teamwork and things at our facility. It probably did because I don't think Ray Evernham and Gary DeHart talked to each other very much. Rick was more concerned about it than anybody, I think. I think for Jeff and I, it wasn't really no big deal.
Moderator: We want to thank you for joining us this week. We appreciate it very much, and best of luck next week.