Iracingone On One:/I Bobby Labonte

It hasn’t been an easy year for Bobby Labonte in 2001, but then there’s a lot of pressure and expectation after you come off the year Labonte had in 2000. The driver of the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Pontiac finally won his elusive Winston Cup championship, never finishing lower than 26th with zero DNF’s. Labonte talks about the difficulty of repeating a championship, his relationship with team owner Joe Gibbs, his being a big Jimmy Buffett fan, and his relationship with brother Terry.

RacingOne: Your first Winston Cup victory was in the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in 1995. What was the first thing that went through your mind when you took the checkered flag?

Bobby Labonte: Up to that point, we had finished second three or four times to (Jeff Gordon), and I thought, man, this isn’t going to be good for us because we’re always going to be one step behind him. It was a good feeling knowing that we were so close, yet we were still looking for our first win, and that’s a difficult thing to get. I was pretty elated when I won that race. That event is such a big one, and it was important for us to win and to beat Jeff. Terry (Labonte) finished second, and that was exciting because we finished 1-2. So, just knowing we were capable of winning a race, one of that caliber, was a great feeling.

RacingOne: Has winning the Winston Cup championship changed your life at all, or do you find you have the same amount of responsibilities, such as appearances and media obligations, etc.?

Labonte: It’s really the same amount, except for back in November, December, January and February, that’s when it seemed like everybody wanted a piece of me. But that’s understandable, and that’s what comes from winning the Winston Cup championship. It’s something you deal with. Last year, week in and week out from May on, it seemed like there was always somebody that wanted to talk to you. This year, it seems like not as many people are wanting to talk to me because we’re not leading the points or anywhere near the leading the points. The championship was great, but that’s all history now. If you ain’t running good this week, then it’s no big deal. It’s not that big of a deal anymore. For the most part, my responsibilities really haven’t changed a whole lot.

RacingOne: You’ve always been highly regarded as one of the better drivers out there, but can you pinpoint a time where you stepped back and said, man, I’ve finally arrived as a bona fide Winston Cup contender?

Labonte: No, I usually don’t look at it that way. You’re only as good as you were the week before. If you don’t run as well the next week, then you don’t think you’ve arrived at all. Last year, we ran good week in and week out, and it was exciting. But I still don’t think of myself in that way. My thought process, and maybe it’s right and maybe it’s wrong, is that your confidence level is high, but you don’t really need to show it. When you get there, there’s some humbling moments as well that can be pretty discouraging. But that’s part of racing. I’m not Superman. If it was really easy, it wouldn’t be as much fun. If you keep yourself humble and know that hey, you could be gone tomorrow, it’s better for you. You need to keep that in mind. You can’t be too confident. You can’t just say you’ve arrived, because there can be times when you really haven’t.

RacingOne: You and Terry are eight years apart. Was it ever a struggle for you just to hang around with him when you were younger?

Labonte: Not really. It’s probably because I didn’t really hang around him all that much. We did a few things together, but with the age difference, you don’t do everything together. We spent some time together, but not a lot. We never raced against each other before, so it’s not like we had that to go with. It didn’t seem like it was all that much trouble, but probably much more so on his part because the younger brother seems to be much more excited to hang out with his older brother than it is vice-versa.

RacingOne: You won the Busch Series championship in 1991, but were beaten out by Joe Nemechek the next year. No matter what NASCAR Series it is, it’s difficult to repeat a championship, isn’t it?

Labonte: Yes it is, but it really is much tougher to win the first one. It’s tough to repeat, and it took a lot of years to win the first one. This is only the year after. It’s not like we won the first year, the second year and the third year. It’s tough to repeat, but it’s tough to win so I don’t really see that much difference in it.

RacingOne: Along those same lines, you spent three solid years in the Busch Series. Some drivers spend one year there, or in the truck series, and try to move up to Winston Cup, and struggle when they get there. Do you think the majority of them need to stay where they’re at to get more experience and seasoning?

Labonte: Some of them don’t struggle. What helps some of them out these days is the multi-car teams. There are probably more teams that are better these days than there used to be. Even though a driver hasn’t had a lot of years of experience, he gets with a team that’s got a lot of experience so he’s not starting off with a new team or a single-car team that doesn’t have the right amount of people and money. You can see sometimes there are guys out there that have the talent and they’ll run one year and not do well, but his talent is still there. It’s easier for guys nowadays than it was five years ago, that’s for sure. And five years ago, it was easier than it was five years before that. Nowadays, you might see a guy that comes up and might not even run the Busch Series and start off with a team and not run bad. They might not run as well as they would like to, but they don’t run badly, either.

RacingOne: What is it about Joe Gibbs that makes him such a special person?

Labonte: Joe tries to organize his race team where everybody feels like they’re part of the team and it’s a total team effort. He tries to solve issues as fast as possible when they arise. He gives people responsibility and puts the people in the right places. He’s over the top of all of that, but he’s not in there trying to re-invent the wheel. He tries to help, but isn’t flexing his muscles. He’s very good with the sponsors, too. He doesn’t know as much as he’d like to about the race cars, but he knows about the marketing side of it and about the people involved.

RacingOne: Everyone knows you’re a big fan a Jimmy Buffett. How many times have you actually seen him in concert, and what’s your best “Parrotthead” story? Word has it you have a good one about Boston.

Labonte: (MRN’s) David Hyatt had tickets to go a concert in Boston, and we didn’t have a way up there. He asked me if I wanted to drive, and I said no, it’s too far to drive up there. I said the only way we could go is if we could get a helicopter, so we got a helicopter and went. We didn’t have tickets for it, so we went up there and thought we could just buy some tickets off scalpers or something. But there were no scalpers. So, we ended up buying some t-shirts and we just wound up going home. We never saw him, but we flew up there. There was one in Raleigh (N.C.) that I really remember, though. I stood out there through the whole concert in the rain, pouring down rain. I’ll never question race fans again for sitting through a rain delay. We were sitting there in the concert with the thunder and lightning going on.

RacingOne: You’ve recently gotten together a bunch of your old driving memorabilia and put it all into one office. Is that just for you and your family to view, and are you a memorabilia buff?

Labonte: I don’t know why I saved all that stuff, but I guess I did. It’s just something for me to have, nothing else. It’s just something to show that I love what I do and was able to keep some stuff from my career that I’m really proud of. I just wanted to have some place where I wouldn’t have to have all that stuff in boxes or crates. It’s fun and enjoyable to see it. I figure if I put it all out, my children will one day have it for their enjoyment.

RacingOne: If you weren’t a race car driver, what do you imagine you’d be doing?

Labonte: Well…(hesitating)…well, no, can’t do that either. I guess it would have to have something to do with racing or with aviation, one of those two. Both of those are challenging, they’re both exciting, they’re both mechanically inclined professions. It has to do with hand-eye coordination, so that’s challenging.

RacingOne: What do you remember most about your first Winston Cup race? That was at Dover in 1991, wasn’t it?

Labonte: It was probably the stupidest thing I’ve ever done. It was done with my own money and not enough people. I just didn’t go about it the right way. It was pretty aggravating. We were trying to run a whole Busch deal and struggling, and at the time, going to a Winston Cup race seemed like a great thing to do. But as it turned out, we didn’t end up doing the five races we wanted to do. We ended up doing two, we just couldn’t do it the way we wanted. The biggest thing I remember is that we ran it, something happened to the motor, so I said, ‘whew, that’s probably the best thing that could happen to us.’ For the most part, it was a disaster, something like walking off a plank. We just got eaten up. It was neat to do it on our own, but we definitely didn’t do it right.

RacingOne: Not that you’d ever think about retirement now, but now that you’ve won a Winston Cup championship, would your racing career be complete if you never got in a race car ever again?

Labonte: No. I don’t think it will be complete until I decide I want to quit, plain and simple. I’ll race until I just don’t want to do it anymore.

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