By Owen A. Kearns, NASCAR Wire Service
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Some label Terry Labonte the NASCAR premier series’ least flamboyant champion.
Perhaps it just seemed that way, when measuring Labonte alongside such colorful contemporaries as NASCAR Hall of Famers Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip.
His calm, quiet demeanor at least partially explains why Labonte became known as “The Iceman.”
The Corpus Christi, Texas driver may not have personified flash, but Labonte got the job done.
Labonte won his first of two championships in 1984 and figuratively fell off the radar for a dozen years before resurfacing to claim a second title driving for Hendrick Motorsports.
His 22 premier series victories don’t accurately measure the breadth of Labonte’s career. Consistency is a much better measure: 17 different seasons among the top 10 in the championship standings along with 361 top-10 finishes, the latter ranking 10th all-time. Labonte also won in the NASCAR XFINITY and Camping World Truck Series, as well as the International Race of Champions (IROC) and shared the GTO class-winning entry in the 1984 24 Hours of Daytona.
Rick Hendrick believed Labonte’s attitude – which often put others first – may have kept him from winning more frequently.
“Terry could’ve accomplished even more in his career had he been a little more selfish,” Hendrick told The Associated Press in 2006. “But there’s not a selfish bone in his body. He’s a great talent, but he’s just a great human being.
“He’ll always do what’s best for the team, even if it puts him in an awkward spot.”
Labonte will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, North Carolina on Jan. 22, along with the other four members of the Class of 2016: Jerry Cook, Bobby Isaac, O. Bruton Smith and Curtis Turner. Ceremonies will be broadcast live on NBCSN at 8 p.m. ET.
Born Nov. 16, 1956 and raised in south Texas, Terrance Lee Labonte was introduced to racing by his father, who worked on race cars for friends. He was a quarter-midget champion by age nine and won stock car titles in Corpus Christi, Houston and San Antonio from 1975 to 1977.
Labonte met Louisiana oilman and sports car racer Billy Hagan, who fielded the NASCAR premier series team that carried Skip Manning to the rookie of the year title in 1976. Labonte joined the Stratagraph Racing team for the final five races of 1978 and became Hagan’s permanent driver the following season in which he finished 10th but lost rookie of the year honors to Earnhardt.
Labonte notched his first premier series victory in the 1980 Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. With sponsorship from Piedmont Airlines, Labonte, Hagan and NASCAR Hall of Fame crew chief Dale Inman captured the 1984 championship with victories at Bristol Motor Speedway and the Riverside (Calif.) International Raceway road course.
Success, however, was fleeting.
“We weren’t supposed to win it and we didn’t know what to do with it,” said Inman, who left the team to rejoin Richard Petty.
Labonte agreed, reminiscing after his second title, “I thought it was a pretty neat deal and we’d win it the next year. Next year took a long time coming.”
Labonte departed the Hagan outfit for Junior Johnson’s Budweiser team, then went to Precision Performance followed by a second stint with Stratagraph. He joined Hendrick Motorsports in 1994.
“I looked at his statistics early in his career and I couldn’t believe how well he’d run with the equipment he was in,” Hendrick later told The Associated Press.
Labonte responded by winning the 1996 championship, edging Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon by 37 points. His younger brother, Bobby, won the season-ending NAPA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway and the two celebrated together. Bobby Labonte became a NASCAR premier series champion himself in 2000, making the pair the first brothers to win a title in the top division.
Terry Labonte continued fulltime with the Hendrick team through the 2004 season, winning for the final time at Darlington in 2003. He continued to race on a part-time basis, calling it an 890-race career at Talladega Superspeedway on Oct. 19, 2014.
Labonte has said his two favorite victories were those in his home state – at Texas Motor Speedway. But he may be better-remembered for a pair of slam-bang races at Bristol battling the late Earnhardt. In 1995, Labonte won a final-lap duel despite a shove by Earnhardt that sent his car into the wall. Fast-forward to 1999, when Earnhardt spun and wrecked Labonte on the final lap and famously said in Victory Lane, he was “just trying to rattle his cage.”
The driver – and his fans – were livid, but Labonte admitted 15 years later in a Popular Speed Magazine interview that he was at least partially to blame for the ruckus.
“If I had gotten into the corner at a better angle then he wouldn’t have got the chance to hit me. But I was passing him low and couldn’t carry the speed into the corner and he took advantage of it,” Labonte said. “I don’t think he really intended to wreck me. He wanted to move me out of the way. That was his only shot. I had four new tires and he didn’t.
“It was just one of those deals.”
Labonte is a member of the National Quarter Midget Hall of Fame and in 1998 was named one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers.
Tickets are available for the NASCAR Hall of Fame Induction Dinner and Ceremony (limited quantities available). Individual ticket and ticket packages are available at ticketmaster.com, the NASCAR Hall of Fame Box Office or by calling 800.745.3000.
Image: ISC Archives via Getty Images