Earlier this week, Terry Labonte was in a hotel in Dallas when his phone rang. Then texts and calls started flooding in to congratulate Labonte on an honor he wasn’t sure he’d ever receive—much less his first year on the ballot.
Labonte, 58, had been named to the 2016 NASCAR Hall of Fame class. Labonte was watching TV, but had no idea the announcement was being broadcast at the time. It was still an overwhelming moment for the elder Labonte.
The two-time NASCAR premier series champion took time to speak about his upcoming induction and much more on Sunday in Charlotte before the Coca-Cola 600.
Chicken Bone Alley: What was it like to find out you’re going to be a NASCAR Hall of Famer?
Terry Labonte: Well, it was very exciting. It was something I certainly never really expected. So it was really somewhat of a surprise when I started getting texts and calls to congratulate me. It’s quite an honor to be inducted and something I never dreamed of.
When you start out in any sport you don’t do it to eventually make the Hall of Fame. You want to be the best at what you do, which I guess is what got me to this point. I initially set out just to make it (laughs). To be selected is just a bonus and humbling that the people who select the classes thought that much of me.
Some of the people that I looked up to and admired over the years like Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison and Dale Inman, who was my crew chief in 1984, are all in the Hall. To join them is just an honor I never imagined when I got into the sport.
CBA: You’ve spoke in the past about how difficult it was to hang it up for good. With Bobby [Labonte] still driving today, how much do you keep up with him and support his career?
Labonte: I watch all of the races that he runs and I think he’s still just having so much fun with it that he can’t separate himself from it. You don’t want to leave. It’s not like you get mad and quit, you just eventually know when it’s your time to go.
I still love it to this day. I wish I was out there tonight driving [in the Coca-Cola 600]. But then I see that some of the competitors are younger than my kids (laughs). That’s when I remember, ‘You know what, maybe this isn’t for me anymore.’
CBA: With Jeff Gordon stepping away from the sport this year, what are your thoughts on his retirement?
Labonte: I hate to see Jeff retire. I talked about it earlier and I think he still has four or five years of competitive racing in him. I’m a huge fan of his and what he’s done for the sport.
But I’ll say this, it’s hard to walk away from the sport you love. I’m pretty sure I retired at least three times before finally coming to terms with it myself.
CBA: What do you think of NASCAR today? A lot has changed since you started in the sport and even since you retired years ago.
Labonte: Oh man, it’s changed an awful lot. From the late ’70s to today, the cars, technology and so much more has changed. The cars today are not any harder to drive than the older cars, but it’s so much harder to make these cars fast. It literally takes a team full of engineers to figure it all out with the way the rules and cars are set up.
I really think these cars are easier to drive, but you better have a team full of the best people possible to make it work. You can be a great driver today, but not have the equipment to get you to where you need to be.
CBA: You know a little about having a younger brother at the NASCAR level, which is what Austin and Ty Dillon are learning now. What would you say are some of the positives and negatives to having a sibling in the field with you?
Labonte: There was nothing bad about it, as far as I’m concerned. I think I was able to open a few doors for Bobby and give him some advice about what to do at the highest level. We really fed off each other, which made both of us want to find success on the track.
I still can’t believe the success we enjoyed together in our own respects. I wouldn’t have wanted to do it with anyone else.
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