Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – CHARLOTTE, NC – The indications were there from that first green flag he took as a little boy growing up in small town Texas. Bobby Labonte was perhaps simply destined to be a winner, a champion. And on January 31, he will officially become a member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Even from those early laps he turned trying out a quarter-midget on a short track near his family’s Corpus Christi home, the elementary-aged Labonte left no doubt about his competitive frame of mind or his talent behind the wheel. There was something special there. Unmistakable.
“When he first started out in quarter-midgets he was either going to wreck or win,’’ Labonte’s older brother Terry recalled with a slight chuckle. “He was wide open.
“He did good though. We had quarter-midgets and I remember the first time my dad made him go out and follow me and he wouldn’t even follow me. I was just going to show him the line, but no, he wanted to pass me.
“I knew from the start he was going to be competitive.’’
Competitive and Hall of Fame-worthy. As it turns out, all those years ago on that South Texas short track, Terry was actually watching and guiding a Hall of Famer in training…his brother.
Bobby Labonte, now 55, went on to become one of the most successful drivers of his generation, earning two national series championships – the Grand National (now NASCAR Xfinity Series) title in 1991 and answering that with the 2000 Cup Series championship. He was the first driver in NASCAR’s long and storied history to win both titles.
He also earned the prestigious 2001 IROC championship and was the first driver to win races in all three major NASCAR racing divisions – Cup (2002), Xfinity (1992) and the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoor Truck Series (2005) – at a single track (Martinsville, Va.).
In 1994, Bobby won a second Grand National title – this time as a team owner with driver David Green.
And now Bobby will formally join Terry, a two-time Cup Series champion, in the sport’s grand NASCAR Hall of Fame in two weeks. Labonte’s former Cup Series team owner Joe Gibbs and his former Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Tony Stewart will also be inducted in this Hall of Fame class of high achievement. Joining them are celebrated engine builder and crew chief Waddell Wilson and the late, hugely-popular driver-turned-broadcaster, Buddy Baker.
The Labonte brothers become only the second pair of siblings to be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, joining Glen and Leonard Wood.
As with the Wood Brothers, the Labonte brothers have a celebrated history now marked with a rare and coveted Hall of Fame exclamation point.
While Bobby Labonte and his wife Kristin couldn’t be more genuinely honored or excited to attend the NASCAR Hall of Fame induction gala in Charlotte next month, he admittedly still gets a kick thinking of how he got the big news.
A year prior – Labonte’s first year of eligibility for the Hall of Fame, the couple got dressed up and attended the selection announcement at the Hall. However, Labonte’s name was not among the five chosen for the 2019 class.
So last spring, for his second year of eligibility, Labonte changed the vibe and opted not to attend the formal Hall of Fame announcement in downtown Charlotte. Instead he and Kristin went for a bike ride at the time the news was to be revealed. The two are avid riders and say it just felt like a good way to deal with the natural tension of a potential life-changing moment.
“We’re about halfway into our 20-mile ride and I see on my phone – which is connected through a little computer on my bike – the word ‘Congratulations’ as a text message,’’ Labonte vividly recalled. “Then all of a sudden, a phone call comes, then another, so we just had to stop on the road and answer the phone and the texts. And I called my mom and dad.
“They told me,’’ he continued with a hearty laugh. “‘You’re not the first to call.’’’
Labonte said the pride, the memories and the overall great sense of accomplishment he was able to share with family and friends that afternoon was palpable. After all, so much of his career was family-centric. When his brother Terry – eight years his senior – got a chance in NASCAR’s big leagues in the 1980s, the entire Labonte family relocated from Texas to North Carolina for support.
And it was there that Bobby Labonte really began to flourish, first working in the pits then as a competitor earning that first opportunity to immerse himself and his dreams in the NASCAR culture.
Both Labonte and his father Bob helped work on the Billy Hagan-owned NASCAR Cup Series team that Terry won his first Cup championship with in 1984. But two years later Terry Labonte left the Hagan team to drive for NASCAR Hall of Famer Junior Johnson – and his younger brother and father were let go from the team.
Instead of that being a major setback for Bobby Labonte, however, it really turned into a career send-off.
He and his father worked together to form and fund their own late model team and Labonte began turning heads as he raced throughout the Carolinas – earning a dominating 10 wins en route to the 1987 Caraway (N.C.) Speedway track title, which was a huge highlight of that time. With the prize money he began to earn, Labonte was able to fund occasional starts in the NASCAR Grand National series. And before long, his talent and determination turned humble mid-pack showings into championship caliber headlines.
Labonte soon began capitalizing on the increased opportunity and burgeoning confidence.
He fielded his own team fulltime in the Grand National Series winning the 1991 championship over another future NASCAR Hall of Famer, Jeff Gordon. The following year Labonte lost the series title to Joe Nemechek by a heart-breaking three points.
Labonte’s hard work and impressive results landed him a full-time job with the Bill Davis Racing Cup Series team in 1993. He earned his first career Cup Series pole (at Richmond, Va.) that fall and finished second to Gordon for the season’s Rookie of the Year honors.
In 1995, Labonte was hired by Joe Gibbs Racing to take over for Dale Jarrett in the famed No. 18 Interstate Batteries car. Labonte won his first Cup Series race that Memorial Day weekend in the series’ longest event, the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
He finished runner-up to Jarrett in the 1999 Cup championship and then answered with a mega 265-point edge over the late seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt for the 2000 Cup title. Labonte finished eighth or better in the championship six times in a seven-year span between 1997 and 2003.
Labonte won 21 career races at 11 different tracks and 26 pole positions at 16 different tracks. Notably, his last pole position came in his home state at Texas Motor Speedway.
And he did it competing against a list of fellow Hall of Famers from iconic champions like Earnhardt, Jarrett, Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin and Bill Elliott to Gibbs teammate Tony Stewart and those undoubtedly future selections such as Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch.
“The competition was tough,’’ Labonte said. “It really was in that era.’’
Of course, highest among that great list of legends that Labonte sparred with on-track will always be his brother Terry. They finished first and second in multiple races.
One of the most noteworthy races for them, however, was 1996 in the Atlanta Motor Speedway Cup season finale when Bobby won the race and Terry, who finished fifth, clinched his second Cup title. They celebrated with a victory lap around the track together.
“You can’t write it any better than that,’’ Terry Labonte said. “That was a pretty special day.
“Usually the last race of the year is the only time two people get to go to victory lane and to be able to do that with my brother was pretty special.’’
In many ways it was the only fitting way to celebrate a family that left such a bold mark on the sport. Some would find it intimidating to have an older sibling excel in the career you shared. But Bobby Labonte was inspired by it and learned from it. And he went on to earn his own stripes and celebratory hardware.
In two weeks, the sport and entire industry will honor Labonte’s impressive Hall of Fame-worthy accomplishments. And no one will be prouder than his family, who guided, cheered and took great pride in a career well spent and now again, duly celebrated.
“I think about how I watched my brother race since I was a kid,’’ Labonte said. “We always raced in different divisions growing up so I was always watching his racing, following him. Whatever he did, I was the little brother, I guarantee I was the nuisance brother. But I was always wanting to be like my brother.
“So for all this to have taken place with the NASCAR Hall of Fame, in my head, I’m thinking I got to be like my brother. That is cool and I never would have thought that would happen and it did.
“It’s so awesome for our parents. We were all like the steady boat over the high seas. Never drifted.’’
And now essentially, their family “port” is the NASCAR Hall of Fame – alongside the best of the best.