Welcome home, Texas Terry

Published 9:46 am Monday, February 1, 2016

Even the snow couldn’t keep these guys out.

Despite the snowy, icy weather that blanketed much of the state last week, the Carolina Panthers had a little competition for the sports fan’s attention in Charlotte last weekend.

Up Stonewall Street, a little more than a stone’s throw from Bank of America Stadium, NASCAR inducted its seventh class into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, stock-car racing’s shrine.

Delayed a day due to the weather – they’d hoped to have done it Friday night, maybe to leave the rest of the revelry in town to football fans – the ceremony got pushed back to Saturday.

59-year-old Texas native Terry Labonte made it in this year, along with fellow driver and modified stalwart Jerry Cook; one of the early stars on the circuit, Bobby Isaac; hard-charging Curtis Turner; and lastly, speedway executive Bruton Smith.

Two of these guys I was a bit more familiar with.

When I first heard the soft-spoken Labonte was going into the Hall I was somewhat surprised; then I had to go back and retrace his record, and that made his induction obvious, if not overdue.

He raced in five different decades, winning 22 times over three decades and it was a dozen years between claiming Series championships, first in 1984 and his second in 1996, and in 1998 he was named one of NASCAR’s 50 greatest drivers. He made 665 consecutive starts, a record at that time. Maybe 666 – which he would’ve had if not for missing the Brickyard 400 in 2000 for an ear ailment – would have been a little too ominous. I mean, think about those three numbers. But then Labonte was mighty ‘devilish’ on his fellow competitors.

And now he sits among racing’s greats.

“It sounds awfully exciting,” Labonte said at a press conference prior to the ceremony. “Certainly it’s something I never dreamed of because, of course, when I started out there wasn’t a NASCAR Hall of Fame. But to be inducted into the Hall of Fame is really quite an honor. I look at all the guys that are in there and some of those guys were my heroes growing up. It’s special to be inducted with those guys. I never expected it, anyways.”

Labonte went into semi-retirement after the 2004 season, but he continued racing partial schedules with 11 different race teams until his 890th and final start in the 2014 GEICO 500 at Talladega.

Now he doesn’t have to travel as much. He and wife, Kim, can enjoy the quiet life; but for someone used to moving fast it’s hard to slow down.

Well, put your feet up here at this arena and make yourself at home, son; because now you’ve earned the chance to leave the fast lane behind.

The other inductee, Bruton Smith – or, “Rootin’ Tootin’ Bruton, as he was affectionately called in racing circles – never got a chance to fulfill a racing career, so he did the next best thing: he became a promoter.

Smith ran race tracks, then he built and bought speedways, then he improved those speedways, and then he improved them some more.

A native of Oakboro, in Stanly County, Smith is the third non-driver, owner, crew chief or engine builder inducted; right behind NASCAR founder “Big Bill” France and son Bill France Jr.

“Bruton should have been in the Hall before now,” NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick said. “His mind is racing all the time; he’s done so much for the sport. He’s so brave to step out and try things that have never been tried before. It’s past time for him to go in the Hall.”

He built up NASCAR racing much like he did the condos of Texas Motor Speedway. And that kind of vision makes you a Hall-of-Famer even if you don’t wear a fire-suit.


Gene Motley is a Staff Writer with Roanoke-Chowan Publications. He can be contacted at gene.motley@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7211.