In the words of the late Ken Squier, Terry Labonte was often “waiting, waiting as ‘The Iceman’ always does” when it came to contending for race wins.
When it seemed like Labonte could be counted out from victory, the cool and calm driver rose to the occasion when it truly mattered. Throughout Labonte’s 37-year NASCAR Cup Series career, he maximized his 890 starts with remarkable consistency and his trademark focused demeanor.
Before Labonte made his mark as a venerable winner and championship contender, he was like most young racers who dreamt about making it to the top of his craft.
“We actually got started in Corpus Christi down there racing,” Labonte said. “And then when I was younger, I raced quarter midgets for several years until I was like 15. And then my dad built me a stock car.
“We raced in Corpus. Then we started racing in San Antonio and Houston and typically, we’d race on Saturdays, Saturday nights or something. And then Sundays, we would, of course… in Texas, they would always cover AJ Foyt and Johnny Rutherford and guys like that. And so, I was interested. The local news always covered what they had accomplished that weekend, usually on Sunday nights. And so, I started following it that way. ”
In 1972, Labonte, who idolized Foyt and Rutherford, two Texas motorspors icons who blazed their trails in open wheel racing, soon discovered the world of stock car racing. From that moment, he had to get his fix with these closed wheel wonders that were popular in the Southeast region of the U.S.
“I became interested in NASCAR when AJ was driving for the Wood Brothers. And then after he quit driving for the Wood Brothers, David Pearson started driving for him. And I just continued to follow NASCAR and the Wood Brothers.
“Back then we could only listen to the races on the radio. It was a channel out of Galveston, an AM channel out of Galveston that carried the races. And so, the only way you could pick it up most of the time was if you went to (South) Padre Island and you could listen to the race. So a lot of times on Sundays, we’d go to the beach and listen to the NASCAR race. And that’s when I guess I got interested in it.”
Like most aspiring drivers smitten by the wonderment of stock car competition, the adolescent Labonte attended his first races with his father, Bob, attending one of the earliest runnings off “The Great American Race.”
“My dad took me back before the races were televised. I think… I don’t remember, I think it was 1967 and I went when the races used to be televised, they were on a closed circuit TV, and so you had to go to a movie theater and watch it,” he said. “And so we went and watched the Daytona 500 and I just, I don’t know, I just thought it was the coolest thing.
“You know, growing up in Texas, I never dreamed that I’d have the opportunity to one day move to North Carolina and actually race in the NASCAR series. But I guess I was very fortunate and just kind of the right place at the right time.”
So the Story Begins
At the age of 21, Labonte relocated to North Carolina to earnestly pursue his dreams to compete in NASCAR. Hailing from Corpus Christi, Texas, the mild mannered racer learned how to handle the pressure and heat during his home state’s brutal summers.
Perhaps that may explain how Labonte acclimated to the steel chariots that were commonplace in the 1979 NASCAR Cup Series scene.
“The cars were a lot different than what we raced later,” Labonte said. “They had no power steering back then. And of course, I think one advantage I had was growing up in South Texas. It was always hot down there, so the heat didn’t really bother me that much.
“I was pretty much used to it, but it was different. The cars didn’t drive good compared to later on when we finally had cars that actually drove a little bit better.”
When the then clean shaven Lone Star native made his first Daytona 500 start, it was memorable in more ways that one.
“I never will forget that ’79 Daytona 500. We were running there late in the race and our clutch went out and I left pit road, and we had transmission problems,” Labonte said. “The clutch came out and I coasted to the back straightaway and pulled off the track and stopped there. It was like just 10 laps ago, and I stopped there, and I got out of the car, and I was standing there, and here they came for the last lap.
“And it was Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough, and they’re beating on each other going down the back straightaway. And then they went off in a corner and you heard the crowd cheer or yell and everything. And I was standing in the back of a NASCAR safety truck with a guy, and I said, ‘Well, what happened?’ And he had his radio on. And he said, ‘Well, they’re fighting down there.’ And he said, ‘It’s Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough.’ I said, ‘No, no, that was Donnie Allison.’ He said, ‘No, they said it was Bobby Allison.’ And sure enough, it was Bobby Allison. He stopped to help Donnie in the fight down there. So that was my first Daytona 500, and it was quite one to remember.
For most Americans, especially those stranded in their homes in the Northeast due to a blizzard, the 1979 Daytona 500, the first, live, flag-to-flag 500-mile race telecasted on national television, was a seminal moment and introduction to NASCAR. Suddenly, those unfamiliar with stock car racing were introduced to a type of auto racing that epitomized “common folks doing uncommon deeds,” as Squier would often say.
In Labonte’s case, it was a prelude to his remarkable Cup career and his initial encounters with the likes of Joe Millikan, “Handsome” Harry Gant and Dale Earnhardt.
“I think it was kind of an unusual year that year because there was three of us, and I think three of the four of us finished in the top 10 in the point standings,” Labonte said. “And so that was kind of unheard of to have that three rookies finish in the top 10 in points. So, we kind of all started our career at the same time. And yeah, it was just I ran five races in 1978 and did that and then we ran for the Rookie of the Year deal the next year.”
Despite Labonte’s prowess in a stock car, particularly in his sample foray into Cup in 1978 at the age of 21, tallying a fourth in his maiden Cup start at Darlington, a seventh at Richmond and ninth at Martinsville, nothing was promised to the Texan.
“Sometimes, when you race in the racing business, you kind of just go from week to week,” he said. “You don’t know if you going to have a job the next week. Depends how you did last week.
“I guess when you don’t own your own car, you’re driving for somebody else. And I was just fortunate that I was able to drive for Billy Hagan for a long time. And he actually sponsored my late model cars when I raced in Texas. So, it was just a chance of a lifetime to be able to move to North Carolina and race with his NASCAR team.”
There’s No Other Way
During the 1980s, NASCAR experienced a popularity growth with on-track attendance and interest with races telecasted on TV. One of the most ardent supporters of NASCAR’s telecasts was CBS, the network that aired and produced the telecast of the wild and memorable 1979 Daytona 500.
In CBS’ initial years to deliver innovative production quality to viewers at home, the first in-car cameras were mounted inside select cars, including Labonte’s No. 44 ride during the 1981 Daytona 500.
Although Labonte was understanding about the need for these unique angles for the TV audiences, he could not help but feel a bit superstitious about some of the misfortunes that besieged his efforts on the track.
“I think that first time we had a camera in our car was 1981. And I never finished a race with a camera in my car,” Labonte said. “So, I was not a big fan of having a camera in my car because something always happened. So, I was like, I really don’t want those in my car.
“But every now and then you had to tolerate it for the sponsor. So anyway, they were cool. They were cool. I just liked them better than somebody else’s car.”
Years later, after a few laughs, Labonte expressed some appreciation for the effort put into mounting these inside his car to provide an on-track experience for the TV audiences especially when considering the technological advancements over 40 years later.
“You wouldn’t believe how big those cameras were back then,” he said. “I mean, they were just massive compared to the cameras they have today. So, it was quite a job actually just putting (and) installing the camera because they were big old cameras back then.”
Cameras or not, Labonte knew, like the rest of cohorts in the NASCAR Cup Series, that the sport was gaining more exposure with other networks like ESPN, ABC, USA and TBS, among others, telecasting races at various points of the season. Along the way, those cameras captured the steady rise of Labonte and Hagan’s No. 44 team.
Mainly, Hagan was convinced that he and Labonte would strike gold if the combination stuck together and built upon their successes. After all, the duo won their first ever Cup race in one of the crown jewel events during the 1980 season.
“Billy had a kind of a vision to build the team into something that could compete for the championship,” Labonte said. “And I can remember, (when) we won our first race in 1980 at Darlington, and I can remember being in the press box and after the race, somebody had asked Billy a question or something, and he said that he had planned on winning the championship within five years.
“And this was 1980. And I thought to myself, I looked at him, I thought, and we just won our first race, we got a long way to go to win a championship. But, you know, he was right. He was able to put together a team. And we had a lot of great people that worked for us. And Dale Inman was just a fantastic crew chief that surrounded himself with excellent people. We won the championship in ’84 and really felt like we had a great shot at it in ’85 and ’86 and just came up short. But that’s the way it goes.”
Tallying six wins in nine seasons with Hagan, Labonte moved to the legendary Junior Johnson and Associates’ No. 11 Budweiser team in 1987. With Darrell Waltrip moving to Rick Hendrick’s newly minted No. 17 Tide Chevrolet Monte Carlo, the Texan had the chance to showcase his talents in Johnson’s unmistakable red and white No. 11 Chevrolet Monte Carlo.
Once again, Labonte showcased his incredible consistency in 1987 when he tallied a win at North Wilkesboro, 13 top fives and 22 top 10 results. He repeated that patented performance in 1988 with another win at North Wilkesboro, 11 top fives and 18 top 10s.
By this point, Labonte, who was in his late 20s and early 30s, thought he found himself a pot of gold with Johnson’s organization. However, the No. 11 team encountered a hurdle in 1989 when a manufacturer change was made.
“Yeah, that was really a great opportunity,” he said. “And we finished third in the points one year and fourth one year. And then I think the next year we switched to Fords and we struggled just a little bit (with) finishing races. And you know, we had a lot of engine failures and stuff. And it just kind of a learning curve, I guess, with the Ford stuff. But we were third and fourth in the points with the Chevy.
“We really fully expected to have a chance at a championship. And championships are hard to win. You know I won the one in 1984 and so we had a shot to win at ’85 and ’86, and I thought I had a chance in ’87 and ’88. You kept thinking that next year, it’s going to happen. And then finally in 1996, I won the championship again. So it took forever for the next year to get there. But, you know, championships are tough to win.”
And It Really, Really Could Happen
Following a three-year stint with Johnson’s No. 11 team, Labonte had a cup of coffee with Richard Jackson’s No. 1 Skoal Classic Oldsmobile Cutlass team in 1990. At the age of 33, the championship contender seemed to hit a bit of a rut, placing 15th before reuniting with Hagan in 1991 in a newly renumbered No. 94 car sponsored by Sunoco.
Attempting to recapture the magic of the late 1970s to mid 1980s, Labonte and Hagan fought an uphill battle against the likes of Earnhardt and Richard Childress, Gant and the Leo Jackson outfit, Mark Martin and Roush Racing, Ernie Irvan and Morgan-McClure Racing, Kyle Petty and Team SABCO, Davey Allison and Robert Yates Racing and Alan Kulwicki and his independent team.
Nevertheless, Labonte kept his head up high, especially in 1992 when the team switched to three different manufacturers, including Ford, Oldsmobile and Chevrolet. Through thick and thin, the Lone Star State native needed a bit of a spark in his stock car career.
On July 1, 1993, Labonte announced that he would move to Hendrick Motorsports’ iconic No. 5 Chevrolet Lumina, a ride made famous by Geoffrey Bodine and Ricky Rudd. At the time, it was seen as the team’s flagship car.
When the 1994 season arrived, Labonte’s lucky day finally arrived. And it really did happen as he made up for lost time, returning to his winning ways on three occasions. But before he captured the checkered flag, he showcased his race contending ways in the Daytona 500.
“The first race that we ran, we went to Daytona,” Labonte said. “And I knew when I went down there and had the opportunity to go down there and join Hendrick Motorsports, I walked through their shop down there and looked at what they had, I thought to myself, ‘Man, you can win a championship at this place. There’s no doubt about it.’
“And so, the first race out and we finished, I think, third in the Daytona 500. And then it wasn’t too many races into the season, we won at North Wilkesboro. So, I just knew that… I thought we had something special there and we would have an opportunity to race for a championship.”
Just three years later, much like his first tenure with Hagan, Labonte’s time at Hendrick was handsomely rewarded with a title run that epitomized what it meant to be “The Iceman.” At age 39, Labonte was known as the smooth, patient and unruffled racer who worked his way into position for wins and strong results.
Even when Jeff Gordon, Labonte’s Hendrick teammate, was putting an incredible season together with 10 wins going into the final four races of 1996, the stock car veteran still had reasons to believe that his No. 5 Kellogg’s Corn Flakes Chevrolet Monte Carlo team could get the job done.
For starters, in the 1996 UAW-GM Quality 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Gordon, who started on the outside pole, led 14 laps before engine issues derailed a promising effort to put a stranglehold on the title.
Meanwhile, Labonte, like the cool customer he became known by at this point of his career, started 16th and managed to take the race lead by Lap 61. In all, he led 129 of 334 laps to take his familiar yellow, orange, red and white Chevy to Victory Lane.
A week later, more problems befell Gordon and the No. 24 DuPont Automotive Finishers Chevrolet team as the team missed the setup at North Carolina Motor Speedway. On the other hand, “Texas Terry” demonstrated more of his cool resolve, starting 19th and placing third, taking the points lead from Gordon by 32 markers.
Heading into the penultimate race of 1996, Labonte wanted to bring back a proven winner to Phoenix Raceway.
“Well, in Phoenix out there, we had the accelerator hung and I hit the wall in practice like my first lap out or second lap out,” Labonte recalled. “And I can remember coming by the first lap and what had happened. We took the car that we had won North Wilkesboro with, and we decided to take it to Phoenix out there. And it was a really fast car. And I won Wilkesboro with it. And Rick wanted to put it in his museum. So, they took the car to the museum.
“And so, we got down to the race for the championship there. And I told Gary DeHart (crew chief), I said, ‘Man, we need that car back to go to Phoenix.’ So, we went and got it out of the out of the museum that it went through and got it all ready and took it out there to Phoenix. And I came by the first lap, Gary gave me my lap time, and it was pretty fast. And I thought, ‘Man, I wasn’t even really trying. So, this next lap should be pretty good.’ And I drove down to Turn 4, and I let off the gas and the throttle was hung, and I hit the wall and broke a bone in my hand.”
Injured but not deterred, Labonte returned to the track to qualify 30th in a backup ride. Like a rugged quarterback refusing to leave the gridiron, the Cup competitor did not want to relent when the prize was seemingly within sights.
“And then I had to go to the infield care center there, and the guy numbed my hand (and) gave me some shots in my hand so that I didn’t have no basic… no feeling. So, I had no pain,” Labonte said. “So that was unfortunate at Phoenix to wreck in our best car and breaking my hand to being able to bounce back and finish third in that race which was… that was a real game changer for us, I think, because we were able to extend our lead just a little bit.”
Gaining 15 points over Gordon, the Hendrick Motorsports teammates made their way to Atlanta Motor Speedway for the 1996 NAPA 500, the season finale on Nov. 10. Broken hand and all, Labonte was not wavering in the face of great pain and agony.
Sure, he made it look easy by qualifying third for the 328-lap race, a position behind Gordon. Then again, he needed the same medical assistance that got him through Phoenix.
“We had to do the same thing at Atlanta because I thought, ‘Well, I’m not going to do it in Atlanta. I’ll be okay, you know?’ No, I made one lap in Atlanta. I couldn’t do it,” he said with a chuckle. “So, I was like, ‘Oh man, I got to have another shot in my hand.’ So, we waited till Sunday morning to do that down in Atlanta.”
Medical intervention may have aided Labonte in his quest for his second title. Similarly, the Texas born racer was also made of sterner stuff, relentless and steely eyed on the prize against his younger, formidable teammate who wanted to defend his 1995 championship.
Trading competitive punches in clean but stock car style, Labonte and Gordon made it a memorable duel for Hendrick Motorsports at the 1.522-mile track. In the end, age and experience prevailed over youth and enthusiasm.
“We did in ’96. We put it all together and won the championship,” Labonte said. “So that was quite a very exciting time for us to to win the championship. And I really feel like, for me personally, it just meant more. The first championship meant a lot to me, but I can remember I just turned 28 that week and I thought that ‘Well, we won the championship. That’s cool. We’ll probably win it again next year.’
“And that next year took forever to get there. And so, I really did appreciate the one in ’96, I think, a little bit more than I did the one in ’84, just because I realized how hard it was to win the championship.”
Naturally, the 1996 NAPA 500 may be one of Labonte’s finest moments in his Cup career as his younger brother, Bobby, won the season finale in his No. 18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet Monte Carlo fielded by Joe Gibbs Racing.
Once the race concluded, the Labonte brothers shared a memorable victory lap in front of the fans, making for a memorable moment that still stands out in NASCAR’s 75-year history.
The afterglow of the 1996 championship was followed by more Labonte consistency, winning races with grit, determination and resolve. Toward the tail end of Labonte’s Cup career, he had the chance to be a true home state hero in the 1999 Primestar 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.
“I think that one of the races I think that just really stands out to me is the race in Texas,” Labonte said. “And I think we qualified like [fourth] fastest. And we had a fast car all week and weekend there and led several laps, and we got down to the end of the race. It was between Dale Jarrett and I and they beat us out of the pits.
“And so I ran him back down and I was catching him. And I thought to myself… the track was pretty kind of treacherous. The grooves’ not real wide down there at the time, and you had to really be careful. If you got up out of the groove, you could have trouble. But I caught Dale and was able to pass him with about six or seven laps to go or something. There was less than 10 to go and I caught him and passed him.”
Leading the way in the waning moments of the 334-lap race at the 1.5-mile intermediate track, Labonte, like any racer trying to seal the deal, took notice of the happenings around him and with his car.
“I never will forget (as) I came down the front straightaway, it’s like I’ve never in my life noticed the crowd before driving the car,” Labonte said. “I just noticed that the whole place stood up as I was coming under past Dale down the front straightaway.
“And I thought to myself, ‘Oh God, don’t screw this up, because they’re gonna be mad at me if I screw this up.’ (laughs) And so we were able to win the race. That was probably one of the ones that really stood out the most to me that I remember the most.”
Driving for Hendrick’s organization from 1994 to 2006, Labonte holds the 14-time Cup championship winners in high regards. With the team celebrating its 40th anniversary season in 2024, Labonte, a NASCAR Hall of Fame racer in 2016, reflects on his comrades, now at the age of 67, with fervent feelings and pride.
“I’m still a Hendrick guy, you know?” Labonte said. “And I just love that team. And we had so many great memories down there at Hendrick Motorsports, and it was just quite an honor to drive for Rick Hendrick and everybody at Hendrick Motorsports. They’re a class act. There’s no way around it.
“I mean, they just do everything the best that it can be done. And it’s a real honor to be able to drive for them for several years and to be teammates with Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Kenny Schrader and some of the other guys that were there over the years. So, it was just… I loved every minute of it, I really did.
Special thanks to Terry and Kim Labonte and Bridget Holloman, Executive Secretary for the National Motorsports Press Association, for making this feature story possible. Also, special thanks to Nigel Kinrade for his kindness with this feature story as well.
This story is dedicated in memory of the late Ken Squier for his outstanding contributions to motorsports, including NASCAR moments such as “Texas Terry” Labonte’s iconic wins in his storied career.
Look for the “Hot Seat” version of Labonte’s interview in early January 2024 here on The Podium Finish!