CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (AP) — The distinction of being a hall of famer is something that never really crossed Terry Labonte’s mind in his racing career.
In fact, the NASCAR Hall of Fame didn’t exist when he embarked on his career as a youngster in Corpus Christi in go-karts in an elementary school parking lot in the early 1960s.
But as the 59-year-old is set for induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte later this week, it is Corpus Christi where the roots of that success were laid. Labonte, even now as a three-decade long resident of North Carolina, still considers Corpus Christi his hometown and where he began his race to greatness.
From the parking lot where he raced quarter midgets as a youngster to the quarter-mile Corpus Christi Speedway to Meyers Speedway in Houston all the way to the NASCAR cathedrals of Daytona and Darlington, Labonte’s racing journey has taken him around the world to two national stock car championships and millions of dollars in winnings.
A 1975 Mary Carroll High School grad, Labonte was a local racing legend in his teens, winning races against older competitors in a car built by his father, Bob, and close friends. Terry Labonte later went on to win championships in Houston and San Antonio before his NASCAR career went full throttle.
It was in a shop off Old Brownsville Road, where those cars were maintained and built, that the Terry Labonte racing legend was forged.
“I’m proud that people that know about racing, that are familiar with NASCAR and NASCAR fans come to Corpus Christi for one reason or another, maybe the tourist town of it, the beach of it, just for whatever reason they enter town there is Labonte Park,” Rick Rapp, a Corpus Christi native, former competitor of the Labontes and family friend, said of the park on the Nueces River named for Terry Labonte and his brother, Bobby. “That makes me proud.”
Bob Labonte was in the Navy and came to Corpus Christi in the late 1940s, and later settled in the city working at the Corpus Christi Army Depot.
He dabbled in racing as a teenager in Maine, and Terry Labonte remembers him always working on cars. He worked on cars that raced at Corpus Christi Speedway and also drove a few nights, helping out friend and local salvage yard operator Al Yeomans.
“I raced at CC Speedway for just a few nights when the guy that drove the car got hurt,” Bob Labonte said.
It didn’t take Dad long to pass on that passion to his sons. Terry Labonte began racing go-karts in a school parking lot near the family’s home on Key West Drive and then moved on to quarter-midgets. Bobby Labonte, who is eight years younger than Terry, raced, too.
“I really enjoyed it,” Terry Labonte said. “And it was always something that I did with my dad. Still today he comes to the shop every day and works.”
While other boys their age were pedaling bicycles, the Labonte brothers were getting an early taste of horsepower.
Terry Labonte won a quarter-midget national championship in Tulsa, Oklahoma, at 9 years old in 1966, and raced until his teenage years before moving to bigger cars at the local Corpus Christi Speedway and the half-mile dirt track at Cuddihy Field.
“I remember I got a trophy, and it was about that tall,” Terry Labonte said showing his hands about 7 inches apart recalling his first race win during an interview at Texas Motor Speedway in November. “I think it’s in a box somewhere packed away, but I’ve still got that trophy. I’ve also got the quarter-midget when I was 9 years old, and my grandson goes and sits in it now.”
It was that relationship with his father that Terry Labonte remembers the most about racing locally and in NASCAR. While he was building a career in South Texas, his father and family were right there with him.
Aaron “Slick” Yeomans, also a Corpus Christi native transplanted to North Carolina and a close friend of the Labonte family, said his father, Al, and Bob Labonte worked on cars together. Yeomans remembers how hard the Labonte family labored to make sure Terry and Bobby were successful.
Bob Labonte worked on the cars, while the boys’ mother, Martha, sold tickets at the racetrack.
“There is not any one person more dedicated to racing and being good at it than Bob Labonte,” said Yeomans, himself a successful racer in asphalt Late Model stock cars. “He was kind of behind the scenes a lot and anybody that knows Terry knows his dad. Bob did a lot for him, and sacrificed a lot, and his mother did, too. She was part of it and it’s been a family deal.”
Terry Labonte was introduced into the racing world of Corpus Christi in the early 1970s when grass-roots racing was a rough and tumble sport.
Fistfights in the pits and the stands were common, and what might be considered rough racing today on the track was common place, meaning there was lots of bumping to get positions and sometimes flared tempers.
“It was truly when men raced,” said Rapp, who raced against Labonte. “They didn’t have daddies footing the bill, and most of the time they were guys that worked at garages or gas stations . blue collar folks. Your sponsors were bars, a lot of bars, car-related things such as auto parts and junkyards. It was a pretty gruff bunch of guys, and it was not your PC folks, let me tell you.”
Bob Labonte worked on the cars at the family’s shop on Old Brownsville Road, while Terry Labonte would sometimes come by, driving a white Corvette, to check in. His younger brother worked at the shop as well.
Terry Labonte had similar success driving full-size cars as he did in quarter midgets, winning frequently in the “Hobby” class where he raced a rebuilt 1957 Chevy. He is believed to have won his first track championship in 1974 in the Hobby class at Corpus Christi Speedway.
And it was during this time that Terry Labonte began to build his reputation as a cool, collected driver, while also winning a bunch of races. In fact, at the end of the 1974 season, Labonte swept his heat race, the “Australian Pursuit,” and the 40-lap feature at CC Speedway to win the Hobby title.
That was a common occurrence through his career in his hometown both at Corpus Christi Speedway and Cuddihy Field’s dirt track, where at one time in 1975 the promoters placed a $50 bounty on Labonte if another driver could beat him.
“He kept his cool and didn’t get excited, and he was a very smooth racer,” Yeomans said. “We raced that little ol’ quarter-mile track and it’s so tight, he developed a lot of skills through that.”
All that winning, though, also produced some feuds along the way. Rapp said he carried a knife in his car while the two teams were feuding, and Terry Labonte said, “it was pretty rough,” adding he carried Mace in the car just in case something happened.
“The orders he had from me was if somebody comes for the car that you don’t know who it is, give them a shot,” Bob Labonte said.
Peace has long since been made but at the time it was a realization for Terry Labonte and his family that it was time to race somewhere else. Rapp, meanwhile, said an incident during a month championship race in 1976 was one of the catalysts for them to look for other places to race. Finding other racetracks in Houston and San Antonio to compete led to Terry Labonte being recruit by a NASCAR car owner to drive on stock car racing’s biggest circuit and Labonte’s multimillion-dollar career.
“The last time I was in (North Carolina), we were at Bobby’s shop and they had motor homes pulled in, one pulled one way and the other pulled the other way,” Rapp said. “Both were a million dollars apiece. We are looking at these motor homes and during that conversation, (Bob) said, `Have I thanked you lately?’ You have to understand his humor, but he knows that event that evening helped stir them to racing in Houston where they got discovered by Billy Hagan.”
Terry Labonte took the family’s late 1970s model Camaro, which he said was his favorite racing car, to Meyers Speedway in Houston in 1976 and was immediately successful, winning the Late Model track championship that same year at the now defunct speedway in southwest Houston.
A year later, Terry Labonte won the track championship at Hi Way 16 Speedway (now San Antonio Speedway), and had a chance at another title at Meyers Speedway if not for the fact that both season championship races were on the same Saturday night.
Terry Labonte said racing on those tracks helped him learn what it took to win on a regular basis against quality competition.
“I tell you what, you are only as good as the people you race against, and we were really good back then,” he said. “I think that if you could be competitive against those people, you could be competitive anywhere.”
In 1977, the Labonte family was introduced to Louisiana businessman and millionaire Billy Hagan, who owned a race team on the NASCAR Winston Cup circuit. Meyers Speedway track owner Ed Hamlin found out that Terry Labonte would not attend a race that year because they had a blown engine and needed new tires, and couldn’t afford to make the trip.
Through Hamlin, a sponsorship was set up with Hagan so that he could race.
A year later, Terry Labonte moved to North Carolina and drove in NASCAR’s then Winston Cup Grand National Series. Terry Labonte did want to think the offer over, but his father told him, “Boy, it might be the only shot you get, people like that don’t come around every day.”
Accepting the offer sparked a Hall of Fame career that produced 22 wins in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series, two championships and more than $38 million in winnings.
What might be most amazing is that Terry Labonte readily admits he was in the right place at the right time throughout his early career, but also was able to launch a career in a place, South Texas, that is not known as a racing hotbed.
“I got an opportunity through Billy Hagan and was able to give that a try, and I think about that a lot,” Terry Labonte said. “How many young kids and girls, just as talented as the guys racing (at Texas Motor Speedway) never get that opportunity because it’s just not going to be there. Today, I think it’s even tougher to get that opportunity than it was.”
Terry Labonte retired from full-time racing in 2004, and ran limited schedules through the next decade. His last race was at Talladega in October 2014.
He occupies his time running an event marketing company, adding he even goes to work at an office every day. He is also a partner in a Chevrolet dealership with former car owner Rick Hendrick. Terry Labonte helps his son, Justin, with his Late Model dirt car chassis business.
Terry Labonte and his father also work with Justin when he races and is a regular at the family’s shop in North Carolina.
Terry Labonte, who has been married to his wife, Kim, for 37 years, frequents the family’s South Texas ranch near Freer, and he comes back to Corpus Christi periodically to visit and also helps out with the Roam for a Home charity motorcycle ride that benefits the local Ronald McDonald House.
Labonte, nicknamed “Texas Terry” when he raced, has been a North Carolina resident for more than 30 years, and it is where his children were born, but to those who know him he is a Texan through and through and is more than proud of being from Corpus Christi.
And he is certainly proud to be the first Texan inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
“When you start your career as a hobby, or whatever, and it turns into something a little bit bigger it’s never one of your goals,” Terry Labonte said. “It doesn’t matter if you are playing football or baseball, your goals are not like, `I want to be in the Hall of Fame.’ You want to do the very best every weekend and every season, and that’s what you try to do.
“When you are retired and someone selects you to a Hall of Fame, it’s just incredible.”
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