NASCAR Race Weekend Central

SRX Saturday: Bobby Labonte Talks Inaugural Season, Importance of Short-Track Racing

Bobby Labonte’s dive into the Superstar Racing Experience should come as no surprise.

Sure, the 57-year-old stepped away from full-time NASCAR Cup Series racing after the 2012 season, but Labonte has shown he never intended to slow down.

The 2000 Cup Series champion has jumped into anything and everything over the past decade, including part-time Cup rides and a one-off Xfinity Series ride through 2016, a full season of the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series in 2018, and even a modified this year.

Inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2020, Labonte has an incredible resume: 1991 Xfinity Series champion, 1995 Coca-Cola 600 winner, 2000 Brickyard 400, Southern 500 and points champion, and even an IROC championship in 2001.

That IROC championship, in a season that spanned four races, becomes something of importance as the SRX pits legends and well-recognized names from all different forms of racing against each other, similar to how IROC used to operate.

Below is our edited interview as Labonte spoke with Frontstretch about getting involved with SRX, the importance of the series racing at short tracks across the country, his passion for racing and more.

Zach Sturniolo, Frontstretch: This whole [SRX] idea obviously came from Tony [Stewart] and Ray [Evernham], and there were a lot of minds who went into creating this SRX series. Who approached you for the idea to get involved? And how excited were you to take advantage of the opportunity once you were approached with it?

Labonte: Well, Ray Evernham is the one that I had talked to a couple years ago. And he said, ‘Man, I’ve been thinking about this. I’m trying to come up with an idea to come up with a series like the IROC series. I don’t know how to do it yet. I’m just trying to figure it out.’ And he said, ‘Would you be interested in something like that?’ And I said, ‘Well yeah, sure!’ And so then I wouldn’t see him for six weeks, six months, who knows when? Bump into him again somewhere. And we’d always sit there and he’d say, ‘Yeah, I’m still working on it. I got some ideas, and doing this.’ And Ray is such a cool dude. He’s thinking all the time. And he’ll go, ‘All right, you’re still in so far.’

So then it came one day, I became friends was Willy T. Ribbs over the past couple years, three years, doing some vintage racing, and he texted me and said, ‘Hey, I think Ray’s got his deal done.’ So I texted Ray and said, ‘Did you get it done?’ He’s like, ‘Yeah! You want in?’ And I said, ‘Yeah!’ Anyway, I knew that he was thinking this was something he wanted to do for a few years or a couple years for sure. So yeah, reached out and we said yeah, thumbs up.

Sturniolo: I’m glad you mentioned the IROC thing because as a past champion of that series, this really does have an IROC feel to it, except it’s on the short-track level. What kind of memories does this bring back? You’re going to be racing against Tony Stewart again, Michael Waltrip, Helio Castroneves, Bill Elliott. The cars are a lot different, but are there any memories that get kicked up from the IROC days as you head into something like this?

Labonte: I raced against Helio in that and probably Bill Elliott, Tony Stewart, obviously won one championship in it, won a few races in it. It’s cool that we’re going to be on the short tracks because the IROC series was basically never on a short track besides Richmond [Raceway]. And they had their staple events that they would go to Daytona [International Speedway], Talladega [Superspeedway], Michigan [International Speedway], Fontana, somewhere like that for several years. So I’m jacked up.

[In] the IROC series, there was times that I would go to Daytona and they say, ‘Hey, you get a practice.’ ‘I said, I know.’ So I gotta run like two laps and come in. Well, I’m really 100% sure that I will not go to any of these races and run two laps in practice. I will want to run more. So it’s not going to be the same as far as that goes for me because I’ve been around Daytona enough laps, I’m like, ‘Yeah, OK,’ where you go to these places with a new car, new track, competitors and all that stuff. So it’ll be interesting to be able to be out there with some guys that I know and some guys that I have raced against.

Sturniolo: Six really unique tracks on this year’s schedule. Is there anyone in particular that you’re really looking forward to making laps around?

Labonte: I think [Lucas Oil Raceway Park] or whatever it’s called now. I won a race there [in the Xfinity Series in 1991]. That’s going to be one I feel like when I get there, I’ll feel like, ‘Hey, I’ve been here before.’ I been to Eldora. I’ve run Nashville [Fairgrounds] — actually won Nashville [in 1996]. Slinger [Speedway] is gonna be interesting because it’s a quarter-mile. That’s probably going to get the attention of a lot of people, just because it’s gonna be quick and short. I’ve never been to Knoxville and I’ve never been to Stafford, but Stafford’s like a short track and Knoxville’s like — I don’t know what that is yet. [laughs]

Sturniolo: You mentioned Eldora. Obviously, both Eldora and Knoxville are going to be on the dirt. How comfortable do you feel running a dirt race? Do you feel like that’s gonna be a challenge for you? Where does your confidence lie heading into the two dirt races on this year’s schedule?

Labonte: I would say it’s gonna be a big challenge probably for everybody, you know, and some more than others. For me, I’m going to be on the ‘more’ side. At least it’s not a super dirt late model that you’ve got to get so crooked and it’s just a different animal. This is a different animal for me. Maybe you can’t get it as crooked, as far sideways, because it’s not going to have the total package like a dirt car’s got and all the chassis stuff in it that makes them work sideways. So I feel like a little bit better at it. It’s like, OK, well, this may be more like the truck, the Camping World Truck Series. You’re still on dirt, but maybe you won’t have to drive it like a dirt late model.

Sturniolo: The series as a whole feels like it’s really connecting the superstars of motorsports with the grassroots all over again. Why do you feel like that’s such an important aspect of what the SRX series is doing?

Labonte: Dirt tracks or asphalt tracks come and go. You know, certain tracks are good for 10 years and go away and come back. And they don’t all go away. Some come and go. And short-track racing to me maybe has had its changes of cars, rules, spec motors, stock this. I remember when Mike Eddie and Bob Senneker and Dick Trickle and Joe Shear and Freddy Campbell would come to Concord. We’d run late models. You’d buy a Five Star body and you go race. And it all kind of changes. And like [car builder] Ed Howe, they don’t build many late models for short tracks. They build a lot of road course cars.

If you look at [short-track racing] just from Ed Howe’s point of view, when I talk to Chas [Howe, son of Ed and co-founder of Howe Racing Enterprises], which I do talk to him, I go and they’re building cars and I’ve seen them in Europe. I walked into a guy that had a car at testing and I was like, ‘That’s a Howe car.’ He goes, ‘Yeah!’ They had to broaden their view because the short-track racing kind of went away for them.

Now, there’s other short-track racing that keeps going of course. But to me, I think it’s awesome to see that you got this caliber of drivers that are racing short tracks. And I think about what we used to do at times. We’ve done this at times. [Dale] Earnhardt and Bobby Allison, maybe you’re gonna race somewhere on Saturday night before the Sunday race. Well, now guys aren’t doing that because of the schedule. Kyle Larson‘s doing it more. Ryan Preece is doing it more. Christopher Bell does it more. Sometimes because it’s of the schedule, but also they’re short-track racers at heart.

It’s almost like it kind of went away, and now it’s coming back. I feel like it’s really cool because it really is the heartbeat of a lot of racing. I love going to Daytona and trying to win that race. I love going to Charlotte trying to win that race, and Michigan, trying to win that race. But I didn’t grow up going to Charlotte or Michigan or Daytona to win that race. I grew up at Caraway, trying to win that race to get to Daytona, to get to Charlotte. I didn’t go to Charlotte for the first time and then go to Caraway. I went to Caraway.

To me, the short-track racing is really the heartbeat. And it’s like it maybe missed a couple beats. So I think to me, from the outside looking in, it looks like it’s getting more positive reviews and popular. So for this to be at short tracks is way more exciting for me than if they said, ‘Hey, we’re going to run Watkins Glen. We’re going to run Texas Motor Speedway.’ Nothing against that. But it’s a good short-track type of event. And if Ray said, ‘Hey, we’re gonna do a series next year that’s gonna run the big tracks, but it’s different cars?’ Sure, but this is kind of cool. It gives you a lot to look at with short-track racing.

Sturniolo: You mentioned Europe. You’ve raced a little bit of everything over the last decade between the NASCAR Euro Series, modifieds, even the iRacing stuff anymore. It seems like finding a way to stay behind the wheel in any facet is important to you, and kind of speaks to who you are as a racer. Why is that and how fun has it been for you to find new cars to hop in and race?

Labonte: Well, I try to stay as fit as possible and try to stay as active as possible. It’s in my blood and I still enjoy it. In fact, I enjoy that more than a lot of things. And I’ll make fun of you — I’d rather race a car than do an interview. [laughs]

But I just enjoy it and I’ve had some really cool opportunities to do things with different people in different venues. Europe, modifieds, late models, just different things. I thought at one point in time that I wanted to retire on the beach, put my feet in the sand and just do nothing. And then I got closer to that in time and, I was like, I probably don’t want to do that.  I thought I did but now I don’t. I’d rather do something more fun and racing’s more fun.

Sturniolo: Are there any tracks that you think that SRX should consider heading to in the future, seeing this as a more long-term endeavor? We talked about the short tracks. Are there any others that aren’t on the schedule this year that you think that this series should be looking at going to in the future?

Labonte: There is a ton of really good short tracks across the country, so it’d be hard to pick one, two, or five or 10 because there’s so many good ones for sure. But at the same time, and I know that they have some road races in their future. They wanted to go to some road courses. I love [Virginia International Raceway], I’m a member of VIR. I think that’s a good road course that could be made into something — I know it doesn’t have lights. But when you think of short tracks, I mean gosh. I raced South Boston this year, and I thought, dude, this is one of the nicest short tracks I’ve been to. I know Nashville, the short track, this one’s a three-eighths-mile. It’s a smaller short track, but that’s one of the nicest I’ve been to. I mean we’re kind of grading these tracks that we go to like, ‘OK, running water. That’s a plus. Electronic scoring, that’s a plus.’ And South Boston had all that.

We ran Franklin County [Speedway in Virginia], and if you went up there, you’d probably have 8,000 people there. Easy. But you go some places, you might not have that much. It’s hard to say for sure. But South Boston comes to my mind because I just was there a few weeks ago.

Sturniolo: Do you set any goals for yourself heading into this SRX season? Or are you just out there to have fun? It seems like it’s gonna be a fun time regardless. But do you set any goals for yourself as you’re entering these six races?

Labonte: I want to have fun by running well and winning. That’s gonna be the fun part. Like anything else, I want to go have fun in everything you do. But also, when you put 12, 20, 40 drivers together and you say, ‘All right, everybody put your helmet on,’ it’s a different ballgame, man. It’s a race now. And not everybody’s gonna come home happy because not everybody’s gonna win. There’s not a finishing medal. I want to go have fun, but I also want to run good and win. [laughs] And at the end of the day, if I didn’t think I could, I don’t know that I’d want to do it then because then it wouldn’t be fun if I didn’t think I could do it or had the chance to do it.

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