Time flies inexplicably past us. We can't stop it…just simply go along for the ride. I wrote this article in July 2004, when it appeared that Terry Labonte was eyeing retirement. Texas Terry ended up choosing to be kind to his fans, giving us two years of limited racing to get used to the idea he would no longer be around…but when that final race came Sunday at Texas, it was still too soon. Terry Labonte raced hard, he raced clean, and he carried himself with class – if there is finer praise for a driver, I don't know what it could be. Terry Labonte was kind and gracious to his fans and his competitors, although he never let the latter rest when he had a better car, working on them relentlessly until he was clear… and even then, showing only his back bumper as he drove away. He won often, but most importantly, he won honest; every young driver in the garage would do well to follow his example, on and off the racetrack.
Here are the words I wrote over two years ago. They are still true, at least to this writer. I hope they're still true to Terry's many fans.
One of the latest rumors flying around the NASCAR circuit is that Terry Labonte may retire at the end of this season. I hope it's not true, because I hate to see it happen. But at the same time, I realize that time is not on Texas Terry's side, nor is it on the side of a handful of others who find themselves suddenly in their fifth decade. Let's face it; none of us are getting any younger, though I'll also deny that I'm getting any older.
By now, you probably know that I'm into the history of racing, big time. I love the stories and the idiosyncrasies that pepper the years and only make the whole thing better. And so I worry that as time marches on, people will forget the Terry Labontes, the Rusty Wallaces and Ricky Rudds and Dale Jarretts. I worry that even the names of Petty and Earnhardt will be dusted off only by nostalgics like me. As NASCAR fandom undergoes a massive demographic change, I even sometimes wonder if many of today's fans know that Dale Jarrett's dad, Ned, won more championships in the top series than his son. That the series schedule once included seventy races and more in a season. That Darrell Waltrip, in a previous incarnation, was one of the fiercest competitors on the track and one of the best ever at what he once did. That there were woes within Jeff Gordon's decidedly inauspicious rookie year. And…I wonder if they know of the quiet accomplishments of Texas Terry Labonte.
Terry Labonte is one of only a handful of drivers still in the game who remember the days before live, full-length, national broadcasts. The days of people not recognizing probably 90% of drivers on the street, let alone even the field fillers being sought after for autographs. Terry won his first Nextel (then Winston) Cup championship in 1984. He was a quiet, intense racer in an era of brash, intense racers like Earnhardt and Waltrip. Back then, Terry had a little brother who worked in his race shop… but nobody really knew who the kid was. Now the kid brother is a Nextel Cup champion in his own right. Then, he swept the shop and occasionally worked on Terry's cars.
Labonte won his first race in NASCAR's premier series in 1980, in the Southern 500 at Darlington. Four years later, he took the season title, and at 27 years, 11 months old, was the youngest champion the series had seen in the modern era (since 1972). That 1984 title was won on the strength of two wins and twenty-five top-ten finishes in thirty starts. Labonte averaged roughly an eighth place finish during that season, a career best. The years following were up and down for Labonte, who had earned the nickname Ice Man for his coolness on the track.
1996 found Labonte at Hendrick Motorsports. His teammate, Jeff Gordon, had won the Nextel Cup title the year before and was considered the favorite to repeat, racing up several wins in 1996. But the quiet Texan rode a win, 20 top-ten finishes, and an average finish of 8.8 to his second title, setting a NASCAR record with 12 years between his championships. Labonte still lists the final race of the season as the favorite of his career, the race at Atlanta where he won the title and his little brother, Bobby, no longer sweeping shops, won the race. Terry and Bobby are as close as two brothers can be, and each takes pride in the other's accomplishments.
Labonte finished 10th in points in 2003. He scored a victory in the race where it had all begun, the Southern 500 at Darlington. With the race moved after decades of Labor Day weekends to November in 2004 and eliminated altogether for 2005, many fans will doubtless remember Labonte as the winner of the last real Southern 500. Eschewing the burnouts that have become epidemic in NASCAR, Labonte instead drove past the flag stand, choosing to take the checkered flag and circling the track instead. It was just as he once did as a Saturday night racer… years ago.
If Labonte retires this year, I'll miss him. He's an integral part of the sport, one of only a handful of ties to days gone by still in the game. He's a racer's racer. Called Ice Man for his coolness and seeming lack of emotion on the track, he was reduced to tears when injuries from a crash forced him out of the driver's seat for a handful of races a few years ago, shortly after setting a series record for consecutive races started. That record has since been eclipsed, as has the record he set twenty years ago as the youngest modern champion. His 23-year-old son Justin won his first Busch Series race last weekend in Chicago, and dad stood proudly in Victory Lane, again barely containing his emotions. As the Ice Man melted, everyone discovered what a select few already knew; his heart of gold.
So good luck, Terry, no matter what decision you make at season's end. If time could be saved in a bottle, then in some place, on a shelf of special things, would be two bottles, not quite exactly alike, but close. One might be taller, or squatter, clearer or more flawed. But in the two bottles are two sultry end-of-summer days. In both of them, on that shelf of special things, are two victories in the sport's oldest and maybe best race. The checkered flag streams in the wind, and a quiet Texan stands tall in Victory Lane.
Two years ago, I wrote those words. We'll miss you, Terry. Your mark on the sport – now That's History.
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