Sunday, June 24, 2018

The Brothers Labonte

(NOTE: I wrote this for a magazine, not sure which one, in the 1990s.)

The Brothers Labonte

Terry Labonte was happy. More importantly, he was satisfied. And he felt safe.

He’d just captured his second Winston Cup championship, and brother Bobby had just won the season-ending NAPA 500 at Atlanta. Things couldn’t be better.

The problem, though, was that he was sitting in the Atlanta Motor Speedway pressbox, and inquiring sports writers wanted to know what other interesting things the Brothers Labonte had done together. Terry couldn’t think of anything – maybe intentionally—but car owner Rick Hendrick piped in, “What about the truck? You know, you and Bobby shooting the truck?”

The Ice Man began to sweat. His eyes said, ‘How could you?’, and he obviously wanted to change subjects. Finally, he gave in.

“Daddy (Bob Labonte) had this truck; it was a piece of junk, and I borrowed it and it broke down on me,” Labonte began. “I hated that truck. It broke down on Bobby one day, and he hated it, too.

“My dad called me one day and told us to take it to the junkyard. We called out there to tell them to come pick it up, but I told Bobby, ‘You know what? We ought to do something with that truck before they come get it.’

“He said, ‘What do you want to do with it?’ I said, ‘Let’s shoot it.’ ”

So Terry went home, got a .44 magnum, and they killed the truck. Repeatedly.

“Mom comes driving in, and we had one bullet left, and I asked her if she wanted to shoot it,” Labonte said with a choked laugh. “She didn’t want any part of it.”

Good thing. Bob Labonte called home to say he had a buyer for the truck, and he wanted it retrieved from the junkyard. Before they could do anything, their dad went to the junkyard and found the vandalized vehicle.

As the media members laughed, Terry went on:

“Bobby calls me in a panic and says, ‘We’re in trouble. Dad has sold the truck you shot.’ I said, ‘You shot it, too,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, but it was your gun.’ ”

The argument resembled the TV commercial in which the brothers argued over who’s the better driver. And the tongue-lashing by Bob Labonte probably resembled some of the confrontations the boys faced when they were boys.

“It took six shots to get it,” Terry concluded. “But we got it.” Indeed they did. 

The thing is, Terry and Bobby Labonte aren’t necessarily the quiet guys they appear to be. Bobby has one of the better senses of humor in big-time stock-car racing, and Terry has a dry wit. Both men are ready to needle each other— and everyone else.

Terry also likes to hunt, and he’s been known to trek to Montana a time or two with Dale Earnhardt. When Earnhardt nudged and wrecked him last year at Bristol, the standing joke was that Dale wouldn’t be going hunting with Terry anytime soon. And he’d keep all of the gun cabinets locked.

Oh, the Labonte brothers try to keep a good humor on track, but even the Ice Man (Terry) and the Ice Man Too (Bobby) can get a little hot. Take the race on April 26, 1998 at Talladega. Terry was leading with two laps to go when Bobby, looking for that first carburetor restrictor-plate victory, linked up with Jimmy Spencer and drafted past Terry. Bobby won the race, and Terry fell back to fourth.

Afterward, Bobby wasn’t worried about any .44 magnums or hunting guns, but Terry’s wrath was going to be terrible. He’s just like their dad, you know.

“I haven’t talked to him,” Bobby said then. “I’m sure I will call him or he will call me. I think the best thing to do is to call my dad first and see if Terry called him and is mad. I’ll call my dad first. Then I will go from there, down the chain of command.”

Still, Bobby was sure that, deep in his heart, Terry would understand. That’s racin’, after all.

“I wanted to win as bad as he did,” said Bobby, who turned 36 on May 8. “It’s kind of hard to have friends (in a race). When it comes down to the last lap or two and or catching him, I think of him as just another driver. Just like he’d be with me.  “If the roles were reversed, the same thing would happen. It’s just another driver you’re trying to outrun.” Maybe, but Bobby was worried about Terry during a big wreck earlier in the same race.

“When that wreck was happening, I was screaming in the radio until I got off turn two,” Bobby said. “ ‘Find out where he’s at! Find out where he’s at!’ ” Terry, of course, was safely in front of the wreck, which started when Ward Burton got loose and hit Dale Earnhardt, sending Earnhardt’s car into Bill Elliott’s and setting off a storm of smoke and flying car parts.

But that’s the way with brothers: At one point, you’re terrified that he’s hurt. Later, you’re just happy to dust him in the draft.

“You never know what’s going to happen,” Bobby said. “... I had to try to pass my brother some time or the other.” Oddly, Terry and Bobby also hooked up that fall in the fire-delayed Pepsi 400 at Daytona. It would seem that Terry would have learned his lesson, but the Labontes hooked up again.  And, again, Bobby was the main benefactor.

A red flag on lap 154 set up the final run of the 160-lap race.  Bobby was seventh on the restart, and he quickly passed Ward Burton for sixth and immediately hooked up with Terry. The brothers charged forward, with Terry drafting behind. On the last lap, Bobby passed Mike Skinner and dove through a tiny hole. This time, he finished second to Jeff Gordon. Terry finished out of the top five.

“It was pretty obvious I couldn’t have done it without Terry’s help,” Bobby admitted. “He pushed me three or four times pretty hard.”

Terry won’t say how he felt about either race. He might say, “That’s racin’.” Or he might not.

The Labontes say the 1996 season finale was their favorite racing moment together. After Bobby won the race (with Terry a solid fifth), the brothers took a victory lap in tandem.  “I don’t think I ever saw such a big smile on his (Bobby’s) face as that day,” said Terry, whose first title came in 1984.  “That was probably the neatest thing that ever happened to me at a race track.”

The Labontes, you understand, like to say “neat deal” or “cool” or “awesome.” It’s their thing.

“To win the championship and have Bobby win the race was awesome, it really was,” said Terry, who will turn 44 on Nov.  11. “I’ll never forget that.”

It may not seem like it, but Terry knows a thing or two about beating little brother. Through mid-May, he had won 21 career races to Bobby’s 13, he had started a series-record 649 straight races and he has three more nicknames (Texas Terry, the Ice Man and the Iron Man) than his brother.

Last year, Terry beat Dale Jarrett and brother Bobby at Texas Motor Speedway, the “home” track for the native Texans.  “Most of the time when you’re racing, you don’t notice the people in the stands. I noticed them there (Texas),” Terry said.  “The whole place was standing up cheering. It was pretty exciting.”

And on May 9, 1997, Terry finished .146-second ahead of Bobby and won the DieHard 500, at Talladega. Yes, it was a restrictor-plate race, and, yes, Terry had to depend on Bobby.  This time, though, Bobby didn’t leave him in the dust. He just congratulated him in victory lane.

“If one of us has a problem the other one doesn’t say, ‘Hey, I beat you today,’ ” Bobby insisted. “You know you’re out there to do your job, but we’re very close.”

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Learning On The Go (article on Forsyth Tech's motorsports program

(NOTE: Appeared in Winston-Salem Monthly magazine in 2013.)

Learning On The Go
Students can race toward a motorsports career at Forsyth Tech.

By Tom Gillispie
Cameron Hughes was working at a Terry Labonte auto dealership, but he wanted more.
He wanted a career in motorsports; he just had to figure out how to get it.
Now, Hughes, 34, is in the final semester of his first year in Forsyth Tech’s motorsports program. He says when he approached a NASCAR team and asked about pit-crew work, he was asked whether he’d ever worked on a short-track pit crew. When he said "no," he was sent on his way. That led him to Jason Myers’ pit crew in the Modified division at Bowman Gray Stadium, where he’s helped out since 2010.  
"I’ve wanted to do it all my life," says Hughes, who was born in Greensboro but grew up in New Jersey. He moved back to North Carolina years ago. "In eighth grade, I saw ‘Days of Thunder’, and I was hooked." He was later drawn to the Jeff Gordon/Hendrick Motorsports No. 24 team, and his goal is to one day work for Hendrick.
Hughes, who currently works at O’Reilly Auto Parts in Kernersville, should graduate from Forsyth Tech’s two-year program in May 2014. His instructor is Randy Butner, 53, who has a two-year degree in applied science from Forsyth Tech. "I really wish they’d had a program like this when I was growing up," he says.  
A 1978 graduate of West Forsyth, Butner began racing when he was 16. His uncle raced a dirt car at 311 Speedway in Pine Hall, and "it was convenient for me to race there," he says.  
He’s done most of his racing in Modifieds the past several years at Bowman Gray and Ace Speedway in Altamahaw. He has "14 or 15" career wins at Bowman Gray since he started racing there in 1987. He’s also a two-time champion in Ace’s Modified division.  
Despite his busy teaching schedule, Butner still races at Bowman Gray on Saturday nights throughout the summer. This means that while he and Hughes work together in the classroom during the school year, they’re opponents come race night.  
Accelerated Learning  
Butner says that Forsyth Tech’s new Transportation Center—which houses the motorsports classes—has been a blessing for the program.
A former strip mall on Patterson Avenue, the center has given the program much more space than it previously had on Forsyth Tech’s main campus.
Butner is also proud that Sprint Cup car owner Richard Childress, a six-time NASCAR champion car owner with the late Dale Earnhardt, has put his name on the program. He says that Childress called up one day and asked for a tour of the school’s motorsports facility. At the time, he had several Forsyth Tech graduates working for him and wanted to learn more about the race car technology program.
One thing led to another, and the program eventually became Richard Childress Race Car Technology at Forsyth Tech. Childress’ No. 31 race team also donated a Chevrolet that Jeff Burton raced on the Sprint Cup circuit, and Butner’s students work on it as practice.  
The motorsports program currently requires 76 credit hours with prerequisites including English, math, PC literacy, oral communication, expository writing, and psychology. Butner says he’s seen a welcomed mix of students enrolled in the course; he’s taught several women and even a 68-year-old man.
He adds that many of his students have found motorsports-industry jobs that they hadn’t planned on. He likes to talk about the student who was proficient at a machine that uses water under pressure to cut metal. Richard Childress Racing decided to get one of these machines, and that student was hired to run it.  
"We’re always satisfied when one of our students succeeds in the motorsports industry," he says. "We pride ourselves in the fact that we can take someone who has no racing experience and prepare him or her for a job in the racing industry."  
Hughes, meanwhile, says he wants to work in the engine program of a Cup team—preferably one with No. 24 on the side. "If I’m lucky enough, I want to work for the best," he says.
Whether he ultimately gets there, a motorsports degree from Forsyth Tech is a great head start.
For more on Forsyth Tech's motorsports program, visit the department's web page.
WSSU’s motorsports management program  
Forsyth Tech isn’t the only local higher-education institute with a motorsports program: Winston-Salem State recently began offering bachelor degrees in motorsports management. "It’s really the most exciting major I can think of," says Dr. Clay Harshaw, assistant professor and program coordinator. "There aren’t a lot of majors where you’re required to go to races."  

WSSU’s program concentrates on two areas: motorsports operations and motorsports marketing. The students do fieldwork at racetracks and other venues while getting hands-on experience working with hospitality, marketing, sponsorships, public relations, track suppliers, and more. WSSU is currently the only four-year college in the country that offers a degree in motorsports management.


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