The Iceman Goeth

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Terry Labonte (NASCAR Photo)

Terry Labonte (NASCAR Photo)

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.

Terry Labonte (Monte Dutton sketch).

Terry Labonte (Monte Dutton sketch).


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.”

Written by me, as usual.

Written by me, as usual.

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 blog from time to time. What I really hope is that you’ll buy my books. Most all of them are here:


About Monte

For 20 seasons, I mostly wrote about NASCAR. I'm still paying attention, but I'm spending more of my time these days writing novels and songs. I try to blog regularly on whatever happens to strike my fancy.
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12 Responses to The Iceman Goeth

  1. Wayne says:

    I was at Darlington Labor Day weekend in 03 when Terry won his last race. The thing that sticks with me is he took the checkered flag and drove to victory circle. Mark Martin did the same in 09 every time he won. I’d love to see someone do that these days. Hey Monte, who did the very first victory burnout?

  2. Monte says:

    I dont know. Ive never been particularly fond of them.

  3. Ron Widman says:

    Been a fan of the iceman for quite a while a class act glad to see him retire with the same steady drives that netted him 2 championships with consistent driving without a lot of crashes that took him out of the event. The cool Texan cowboy that rides into town cleans house and goes home with the girl. Congrats Terry on a hall of fame career.

  4. Andy Denardi says:

    Alex Zanardi invented the victory donut at the 1997 CART Long Beach Grand Prix. I don’t remember who was the first NASCAR driver to adopt the gesture. Some suggest that it was Dale Earnhardt, after winning the Daytona 500 in 1997. But he did his on the grass and he wasn’t a big fan of the long, smoky burnouts that followed later.

    To return the favor, in 1996 Dale Jarrett gave Indycar the tradition of kissing the bricks at Indianapolis. Another racing custom, the spraying of champagne, was started by Dan Gurney after winning LeMans in 1967.

  5. Bill B says:

    You should title that sketch “Phantom Of The Labonte”.

  6. Monte says:

    I was in a hurry and, as you point out, could have done a better job of shooting the sketch.

  7. Monte says:

    Just for the record, Jeff Gordon won the Daytona 500 in 1997. Earnhardt’s victory was in 1998.

  8. Dave J says:

    Great comment, Wayne. I’ve been waiting for the driver who DOESN’T do a burn out.
    Fave Terry Labonte memory: limping his crumpled, smoking car into victory lane at Bristol. Now that was cool.

  9. Wayne says:

    I did like Alan Kulwicki’s Polish Victory laps. Respectfully done, driver side of car along the wall so the fans could really see him.

  10. Tim says:

    Zanardi more or less invented the burn out. Gordon did them after his championships but nobody really after race wins until Dale in the grass after the 500 in ’98. Sprague and Hornady did a sweet synchronized burnout after the final race of the truck season in 98. As the race was one by one driver and the championship by another. I get credit Harvick with making it a common practice after his win at Atlanta in 2001. It seemed that it became a consistent practice after that race.

  11. Monte says:

    As i mentioned early, they’ve never meant anything to me. Usually, back when i was at the tracks, i was busy and didnt even watch them. Obviously, lots of folks like them. I just never was one of them.

  12. M G Jackson says:

    Victory burnouts in NASCAR were going on long before Dale Earnhardt won his Daytona 500….and that was not a burnout anyway.

    Jimmie Johnson did a hardcore burnout after his first Cup win in 2002, resulting in the car dropping oil from the engine, transmission, and rear end when he got it to Victory Lane. But he surely did not pioneer the practice.

    Also, I forget the year, but I recall Dale Earnhardt (he never used “Sr”) telling the DEI drivers that if they wanted to do victory burnouts they could pay for the engine.

    All that said, for me it is a practice that can go away any time. It is juvenile, and proves nothing…I surely hope that an 800+ HP car, with the brake bias dialled fully to the front wheels, can smoke the tires. I much prefer a respectful victory lap with the checkered flag…but then, that is what I grew up watching at the dirt tracks.

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