Icommentary:/I All-Around Winner

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NASCAR fans know Bobby Labonte as a great race-car driver. His titles in the Winston Cup, Busch and IROC series certainly speak volumes about his ability behind the wheel of a stock car.

What you won’t hear much about – and it’s simply because Labonte’s modesty won’t allow it to be widely publicized – is the fact that he is one of the more benevolent, caring and well-liked individuals in all of motorsports.

It would be difficult to come across anyone in the garage area or beyond who has a cross word to say about the character of the defending Winston Cup champion. He’s a man of few words, but his actions speak loudly.

Since he’s become a Winston Cup star and has been able to obtain the means to do so, Labonte has been generous with his money. Several of his charitable contributions are not well documented, but then that’s the way Labonte wants it. He doesn’t want any fanfare or publicity, just the feeling of knowing he’s helping someone that truly needs it.

“He’s a man of few words, but his contributions to the human race far outweigh anything he could do on the track,” said Tim Sullivan, public relations representative for Labonte and the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Pontiac team. “He’s very quiet, but that’s just how he is about things. He’s a very generous person, but he’s not going to tell anybody about the money he donates to certain charities and other causes.

“To give you an example, in 1999, he was asked to fill in for Al Unser Jr. at Daytona in the IROC event because Al’s daughter had become paralyzed. Bobby filled in, and when Al said he wasn’t going to compete for the rest of the year, Bobby ran the whole series and wound up finishing like second or third. He won something like $60,000, and he immediately donated it to Al to help him pay for his daughter’s medical bills. Now Bobby’s involved with the project, and he puts a lot of time and effort into that.”

At the age of 12, Cody Unser contracted Transverse Myelitis, and has been confined to a wheelchair for the past two and half years. Labonte was named as the honorary chairman of the Cody’s First Step Foundation, which raises money to combat the tragic affliction.

Earlier this year, in appreciation of his on-track efforts, Labonte was given a brand-new Pontiac Grand Prix, and in turn, Labonte donated the car to the Victory Junction Gang Camp, which was founded for kids by Kyle and Patty Petty in honor of their late son, Adam. The car was auctioned off and the money went directly to the Victory Junction Gang.

Labonte has donated his time and money to several other charities, as well, too numerous to mention. But you get the picture.

Labonte’s kind heart and caring attitude also extends to members of his team and the people at Joe Gibbs Racing. After he won the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last year, he got together with his business manager and purchased nearly 300 bricks from the track, and in turn, had trophies made from those bricks and gave them to every employee at Joe Gibbs Racing.

“It’s amazing, but he didn’t just do that for the people on his team, or the people on Tony Stewart’s team, but he did that with everybody,” Sullivan said. “People in the front office, the guys in the body shop, guys in the engine shop, guys in the fab shop, every employee there. That just shows you what kind of person he is. He was so happy to win that race, and he was grateful to everybody involved.”

But then that’s the only way Labonte knows how to be.

“I’ve always tried to take care of my team, whether it be here or at Bill Davis or with my own Busch team,” Labonte said. “Sometimes it’s hard, and people are different. But that’s just my character, I guess. These are not just employees, they’re your friends.

“You’d give them the shirt off your back just like they’d give you the shirt off of theirs. It’s great to have that communication and trust with people. We’re together more than our families are, so it’s like you have to get along with them. That’s the best way to be with people.”

Money or fame has not altered Labonte’s personality over the years, but it has given him the means to be more appreciative than he already was.

“To me, he’s not changed,” said Bob Jeffrey, who has known Labonte since 1986 and is now the spotter for Dale Jarrett’s No. 88 UPS team. “I’ve known him forever, and we’ve always been good friends. He’s always cared about people, it’s just that now he’s able to do more things that the public might get to see. He doesn’t flaunt it, by any means, though. He’s a good guy to call a friend, and when he does call you friend, your life becomes so much richer for it.”

Handing out compliments comes easy to Labonte, and he does it on a daily basis at the shop or at the track.

“I’ve worked with a few drivers before, and as soon as practice starts, the driver would come in and get in the car, and as soon as practice is over, they leave,” said Jonathan Davis, a tire specialist for the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Pontiac team. “Bobby is the kind of guy that sticks around.

“I’ve only been here a few months, but there isn’t a day that hasn’t gone by that he hasn’t left the track without saying, ‘Hey, good job. Thanks for today.’ He acknowledges you. I’ve worked with drivers that appreciate what you do, but a little extra effort never hurts, either. Bobby goes that extra mile for us and gives us that extra boost.”

“He’s a true gentleman of the sport,” said Peter Jellen, who has been the team’s truck driver for the past five years. “When he leaves the track, all you can hear is ‘Thank you’ to this person, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’ He makes a point of coming up to everyone and telling how much he appreciates them. He’ll stick around and go out of his way to talk to people. You just don’t see that very much these days, and it’s really refreshing. Bobby’s just a great guy.”

A statement that no one around NASCAR circles would dispute.

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