Clinton, South Carolina, Thursday, October 23, 2014, 9:50 a.m.
When I started writing about NASCAR, young drivers spoke the same way about Terry Labonte they later did about Mark Martin, though Labonte was fond of saying that he wasn’t old enough to be deemed a wizened veteran.
Labonte had gone four seasons without a victory, 1990-93, but when Rick Hendrick hired him, he was “only” thirty-seven. Restored to top-flight equipment, Labonte won three races in both 1994 and ’95, and his second Winston Cup championship in 1996.
He was the driver’s driver, the one who best understood the give and take of the high banks. He drove unto others the way they drove unto him. Terry Labonte would give another fellow room, but he’d better not take advantage of the courtesy. Labonte’s memory was strong, too.
Now, after all of these years, Labonte, who won championships twelve years apart, has decided it’s time to say when. He’s only run a few races here and there in the past few years. Last week, at Talladega Superspeedway, he decided this time would be the last time.
Labonte finished thirty-third. Started thirty-second. He always was consistent.
Even eleven years removed from his final and twenty-second victory, Labonte had a hard time giving it up. Fans watch the front, but drivers actually get something out of starting thirty-second and finishing thirty-third. It’s infectious, that racing.
“You know,” Labonte said beforehand, “it’s only about the third time I’ve said this is going to be my last race, but this is really going to be the last one.
“Another time I said it was my last race would have been in Texas about eight years ago, and then, last year, I told them this was going to be my last race, and then Frank (Stoddard) and I got to talking, so we decided to run one more year.”
Back in the mid-nineties, Terry Labonte greatly amused me. He has these piercing blue eyes that express more than his words. I’m not sure why the eyes that pierce are always blue. Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson are others. I’ve got brown eyes. They never pierce anything.
Neither he nor his brother, 2000 Winston Cup champion Bobby, is an easy interview. Bobby rambles, and it has to be for show. I used to say that the average Bobby Labonte answer to any question is, Here’s what I think, or, perhaps, the opposite.
Terry’s comedic style is subtle and more advanced than his younger brother. He rolls those piercing eyes, opens his palms and spreads his hands, and lets the poor interviewer know, in a nice way, just how insipid his question was. Once Terry won a pole at Rockingham and conducted what I considered a masterpiece of a press conference, which, from his mindset, likely had the goal of being quoted as little as possible. Labonte was so nice, though, his voice so soft and pleasant.
Somehow the topic of NASCAR’s then-fledgling Truck Series came up, and someone asked Terry to compare and contrast the trucks with cars. He rolled the eyes, spread the hands, ended up with the eyes piercing the ceiling, and said, “Uhhhhhhh, I don’t know.”
That was it. The questioner waited for more. Fruitlessly.
Next was a reciter, who pointed out Labonte had won one pole in the previous four seasons, two in the past seven, but this was his fourth of 1996. Why was that?”
Friendly look. Kind set to the eyes. Forthright. “I haven’t been around this sport but a brief time,” he said, “but it’s been my experience that it helps a lot when you’re in good equipment.”
I had a hard time keeping a straight face and was surprised that others in the room didn’t seem to appreciate the great humorist in our midst.
He got mad at me one time. I don’t remember the circumstances. He didn’t say anything. He just got unusually, even by his standards, terse when I was among those asking questions of him. Those eyes and expressions he relied upon so strongly either betrayed him, or more likely, performed the function of letting me know I’d written or said something that pissed him off. I’m satisfied that, if I’d touched his shoulder, it would have been cold.
I just waited. I didn’t want to discuss the matter, whatever it was, with a frenzy in progress. I passed him in the garage, felt the lasers from his eyes boring into mine, and stopped. He was a bit defensive, yes, but we talked it through, and I think, in a span of just a few moments, we knew where each other stood.
Hell, I liked him even when he didn’t like me. He may still not like me. It doesn’t matter.
This isn’t timely. It was a blog I wanted to write, but I needed to think about it a while. I hope you’ll read my www.wellpilgrim.wordpress.com blog from time to time. What I really hope is that you’ll buy my books. Most all of them are here: http://www.amazon.com/Monte-Dutton/e/B005H3B144