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WAID’S WORLD: One Person Knew NMPA’s New HOF Members For More Than Achievements

The 2018 National Motorsports Press Association’s Hall of Fame is made up of four worthy individuals who have established themselves as among NASCAR’s greatest competitors.

They include drivers Donnie Allison and Terry Labonte and crew chiefs Jake Elder and Buddy Parrott.

The achievements of each have been widely reported and will again be the subjects of media offerings when they are inducted Jan. 21 in Charlotte.

That said, I am pleased to say that during their competitive heyday I knew each of them well enough to learn something of their personal side – which meant they were comfortable enough with me to allow me to do so.

And they were characters; real down-home, “good ol’ boy” NASCAR characters that could make you laugh with a single sentence.

 

—- In the mid 1980’s Grand National Scene, later to become NASCAR Scene, was a growing trade paper. It was quickly becoming touted as the “Bible of Winston Cup Racing.”

By that time, Allison, the younger brother of Bobby Allison, had already established himself as a top-flight competitor whose skills were equal in stock cars and Indy cars.

He was the subject of a GNS “Spotlight” feature, which was composed of a one-page, large photo of an individual or lighthearted incident.

For one issue I selected a photo of Allison and the late T. Wayne Robertson, the head of Sports Marketing Group, an arm of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.

The two faced each other, smiling. They had pushed out their stomachs to the limit and looked like two jolly fat men smiling at each other.

About a week later Allison came up to me. For a competitor to do so is not always a good thing.

“Know what happened?” he said. “My mama (Kitty) came up to me and said, ‘Did you see your picture in the Grand National Scene?’

“After all these years and she talks about that photo.”

“Well,” I said, relieved that he was not angry. “You and Wayne made it funny, for sure.

“Yeah,” Allison said with a smile. “We did do that.”

 

—- By the time he joined Rod Osterlund’s team with rookie driver Dale Earnhardt, J.C. “Jake” Elder was a widely successful and respected crew chief.

The union was perfect as it paired Elder’s experience and knowledge with Earnhardt’s raw talent.

Earnhardt won at Bristol in the spring of 1979, a victory that heralded a future superstar.

The irrepressible Elder came up with a classic quote, paraphrased here:

“Stick with me kid and we will be rolling in diamonds as big as horse turds!”

At a dinner with Elder, also at Bristol, he ordered a filet mignon. He didn’t realize that his piece of steak came wrapped in bacon, which, of course, was held to the meat with toothpicks.

Bite after bite Elder kept pulling shreds toothpicks out of his mouth.

“Durn,” he said, “I don’t believe this but I have already eaten a cord of wood!”

We don’t know how great Elder and Earnhardt could have become because Elder move on after just one season.

He moved on often – so often that he earned the nickname “Suitcase Jake.”

“Suitcase” remained respected until his passing in 2010.

 

—- Parrott loved jokes and loved to laugh. He smiled a lot. He still does.

He had already established himself by the time he joined DiGard Racing Co. and driver Darrell Waltrip in 1978. The two would win 22 races in a four-year span.

His fun-loving persona was best displayed to me at motel pool on a hot July day at Daytona.

He was on the diving board – but not for long. He performed a series of twisting, turning dives, coupled with outlandish spins and flops.

He was a one-man show. Everyone at the pool was watching in awe.

“Hey Steve!” yelled. “Get on up here with me!”

I wasn’t going anywhere near that diving board.

Later the story was that Parrott once been a serious diving competitor – and a champion.

As much as he loved to laugh, he was fiercely loyal to his friends, whom he would protect if needed.

It was seldom needed, by the way. Parrott was not a man with whom anyone would want to tangle.

 

—- Labonte hit NASCAR like a cyclone. By his second year of competition, 1980, he had already won the Southern 500. As you know there was much more to come.

Labonte drew media attention quickly. It was new to him. He was quiet and somewhat reticent. If a one-word answer could suffice, that’s what a media individual got.

Once I asked his wife Kim why her husband was so quiet.

“He just doesn’t have anything to say,” was her answer.

He earned the nickname “Iceman” because of his cool, calculating driving style.

I said he earned the name because when it came to interviews, he was frozen.

I was part of a Labonte video presentation offered during his induction in the Unocal-Darlington Record club’s ceremony on Southern 500 weekend.

Understand, it was supposed to be funny.

So I tried. I portrayed Labonte as the silent type. In the video he was being interviewed.

As Labonte, I shuffled, scratched my head, rolled my eyes and finally said, “I don’t know what to say.”

When the affair was over I stood in a hallway, ready to leave. Labonte came walking by.

He passed me then turned around. He walked up to me.

“Ass—-!” he said. Then he smiled and strode away.

Suffice it to say as the years passed Labonte, who became a two-time champion, grew more comfortable with the media.

There were times when it appeared he wouldn’t shut up.

EMAIL STEVE AT steve.waid@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW STEVE ON TWITTER: @SteveWaid

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement    

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WAID’S WORLD: Doors Once Closed To Young Drivers Now Wide Open

We all realize there’s a youth movement going on in Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series racing. Guys who are not far removed from adolescence are steadily replacing guys who retire in their early 40s.

It wasn’t that way in the past. Drivers who hung around long enough to become veterans didn’t retire. They were recycled.

If their tenure with one team came to an end, they simply moved on to another. Sometimes the vets merely swapped rides and kept going.

Only a handful of drivers remained with a single team much longer than three years. In fact, a three-year contract was routine.

Among the regulars, only Richard Petty didn’t move – for decades. The reason was simple. Petty Enterprises was a family-owned business passed along to Richard by father Lee, the team’s founder and three-time champion.

But even Petty moved on for a couple of seasons, 1984-85, when he raced for owner Mike Curb.

For the majority of drivers it was a matter of finding employment and hope that it might last for more than a few seasons. It seldom did.

This “one team to the next” environment included some of NASCAR’s top competitors. I daresay Bobby Allison, the late Benny Parsons and the late Buddy Baker drove for 10 teams or more during their careers.

They were recycled and sometimes not by choice. If they did not produce they were gone. And if they were at odds with their team – specifically their team owner – they either left by choice or were terminated.

But they kept racing with another organization.

For decades team owners weren’t willing to sign eager, young talent. They relied on experience and it was always available.

To be hired, a young driver had to be noticed. In the majority of cases he was not recruited. He had to catch someone’s eye.

Terry Labonte did so when he finished fourth at Darlington in 1978 and won the Southern 500 two years later.

Rusty Wallace was a hot shoe in the Midwest who startled everyone with a 1980 runner-up finish in Atlanta driving for Roger Penske – his future employer.

Ken Schrader was also a top Midwest talent. Ricky Rudd was a very successful competitor in Virginia. Both of them started modestly in NASCAR but progressed to bigger and better things. There were several like them – as we know from the often-told story of Dale Earnhardt.

Perhaps the most notable was Jeff Gordon. He was a racing star almost from the time he could walk. He was well on his way to Indianapolis when a stint at the Buck Baker Driving School led him to NASCAR.

As most others Gordon started out modestly with owner Bill Davis. His all-attack driving style drew the attention of Rick Hendrick who quickly broke the mold and signed Gordon.

That was in 1992 and, as you know, Gordon went on to become a superstar – and he spent his entire career with Hendrick.

It was Gordon that changed owners’ minds. They saw for themselves how a team could benefit with the employment of young talent that would only become better with experience.

Owners searched for the next Gordon. They signed young drivers and either put them in NASCAR’s minor leagues or lent them out to other Cup organizations for development.

NASCAR increased the scope of its diversity program. And I trust you remember Jack Roush’s “Gong Show” method of discovering young talent.

The NASCAR world has changed. It is no longer soaking in money. Sponsorship, once relatively easy to find because of the sport’s popularity, is now scarce. Where a team could race with a tidy sum from a single financial backer, it now requires dollars from multiple sources.

The theory is that in order to save money, owners hire the less-expensive younger drivers, several of whom are barely in their 20s.

In my opinion it’s paying off.

You are doubtless already aware of the strong presence, and in some cases success, of the likes of Ryan Blaney, Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Daniel Suarez, Austin Dillon, Chris Buescher – and now, Erik Jones.

Others already signed by major teams wait in the wings.

Yes it is a different NASCAR. Where doors were virtually closed to young drivers they are now wide open.

And that is a good thing.

EMAIL STEVE AT steve.waid@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW STEVE ON TWITTER: @SteveWaid

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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Alternate Reality: Chase for the Winston Cup

By Matt Weaver (MIAMI) — Imagine for a moment an alternate reality where the Chase for the Championship was introduced at the beginning of the Modern Era in 1972 and utilized the elimination format right from the start.

Who would have been the stars of the Chase for the Winston Cup championship in this parallel universe and would the stars of that era have enjoyed competing under the high-pressure format that has produced compelling action both on and off the track?

Rusty Wallace, Dale Jarrett, Terry Labonte — three Hall of Fame champions from the 1980s and 1990s enjoyed a lot of success under the full-season campaign that the sport once utilized but all expressed a desire to have raced under the current format.

Wallace won 50 times in Sprint Cup competition but scored only one championship back in 1989. He believes that his propensity for winning multiple races each season would have translated to multiple championships if the Chase Grid were around during the course of his 25-year career.

“If they had this format when I was racing, I would have won three championships with the amount of wins we had during my career,” Wallace said on Friday at Homestead Miami Speedway. “I feel like we would have been able to advance even if we had some bad luck during some of the rounds.

“Because of that, I like this format a lot.”

Dale Jarrett won 32 races and the 1999 Cup Series championship. He doesn’t know how a Chase would have affected his battles with Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, Mark Martin, Jeff Burton and Bobby Labonte but he wishes he had the opportunity to find out.

“I would have loved to have been a part of it,” Jarrett said. “All your champions would tell you that one of the reasons why they are champions is how they performed while under pressure. I think we’re seeing that this year. I get amped up just doing the broadcasts so I can’t even imagine what it would have been like to participate in the Chase.”

Labonte concurred.

“I don’t know how many times we finished in the top 10 in points over the years, but it was several times and normally you had to be real consistent to be in the championship,” Labonte said. “The way it is today, you still have to be consistent but if you win the races you naturally get to advance.

“I think it brings some excitement to it for sure and a lot more pressure also. It’s definitely kind of interesting to watch, but we’ll just have to wait and see how it all plays out. It’s definitely different and puts a lot of teams under a lot of pressure.”

Certainly Gordon, Earnhardt and Bill Elliott would have won championships under the format but perhaps Mark Martin with his legendary consistency and 40 wins would have also made several Championship Fours and have won a crown. Imagine the Winston Cup garage rolling into Atlanta Motor Speedway for the season-ending event with Earnhardt, Gordon, Martin and Elliott all having an equal shot at the Winston Cup Championship.

The action on the track and off would have been legendary.

Jarrett believes Labonte would have made countless number of Championship Four appearances and likely would have won more than just his 1984 and 1996 championships too. He compared Labonte and his consistency to the way that Ryan Newman advanced his way into the championship race this season, adding credence to the format in the process.

“I think a guy like Terry Labonte could have won even more championships because he was always winning but he was consistent too,” Jarrett said. “As a result of both of those elements, he would have put him in the championship hunt all the time too.”

With that said, Elliott believes the same drivers that dominated in the 1980s and 1990s would have won out under the new format.

“If you’re saying we were going to run the Chase like they have now with the eliminations, I really believe the same guys would win the championships,” Elliott said. “I think you would see guys end up with a different number of  championships but I don’t think it would have made us drive differently. We all raced very hard back then and we just raced whatever system they gave us. From my perspective, I raced to win and let the points take care of themselves.”

Jarrett believes a format like the Chase Grid is timeless and would have worked regardless of the roster or decade.

“Look even further back to guys like Junior Johnson and Fireball Roberts and how they would have responded to this format,” Jarrett said. “The thought is just incredible. This would have fit in many different eras in my opinion.”

Go ahead and toss Richard Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough and Joe Weatherly in there too. The possibilities are endless and the results would have been priceless.

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Extensive Interview with Terry Labonte

By Matt Weaver — Terry Labonte will make his final NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start on Sunday afternoon in the GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. For 37 years, the Ice Man has represented the epitome of class and respect, earning widespread respect by virtually everyone in the sport, including his peers, the media, fans and NASCAR officials.

Without a doubt, Labonte will soon be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame and is one of the most decorated contenders and ambassadors to ever turn a lap.

Popular Speed executive editor Matt Weaver sat down with Labonte on Saturday afternoon prior to qualifying to discuss his favorite memories from four decades of going fast. They even ventured into a few of his more embarrassing as well.

The complete transcript of that conversation can be viewed below.

Popular Speed: After 890 starts, is this REALLY it?

Terry Labonte: Yeah (Laughs). As far as I know, this is it.

PS: As far as you know?! (Laughs) But seriously, why now?

TL: Oh, I don’t know. I only planned to run the four restrictor plate races this year and this was the last one on my schedule. I told them at the beginning of the year that this was probably my last year so this wasn’t a surprise by any means.

PS: We’ve seen you retire two or three times. Did you plan on continuing part-time after you first called it quits in 2004?

TL: I really never planned to do this for as long as I did. The opportunity to drive for Michael Waltrip presented itself and I did that and really enjoyed myself. It was a lot of fun. I ran that car and ran a few other cars and I still enjoy being out there.

It was a really cool experience to be able to run those cars. It was awesome to be able to go out there and keep racing without feeling like I was committed to the full deal, because that is so grueling. It’s a grueling schedule that these guys have.

So I was able to do it just enough to enjoy what I was doing and still have fun and that’s where I’m at. I told them that I was done last year and then I came back anyway. But this time, I need to stick to it, so really, I’m done.

PS: Your accomplishments from the first half of your career speak for itself. You’re a Hall of Famer. But is there anything from this second half of your career with Waltrip, Hall of Fame and Go FAS that really stick out to you?

TL: Oh I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about it. You do the best with what you can and that’s the way I’ve always looked at it. It’s been a thrilling challenge to take this car with a small team, that has only eight or nine employees, and outrun the big budget teams.

At the same time, I don’t want to try it on a mile and a half because I’ve been around long enough to know what would happen. But these restrictor plate races are the great equalizer and I think we always have had a good chance when we’ve stayed out of trouble and on the lead lap. That’s what I’ve had fun doing.

PS: Absolutely. You guys finished 11th at Daytona in July so you can certainly run with anyone.

TL: Yeah, you can. We actually ran better in February and just got tangled up in a wreck at the end of the race with some other guys. But that was a lot of fun too.

PS: When was the first time you heard yourself referred to as the Ice Man?

TL: Oh God, I don’t remember. That was some newspaper guy or a reporter from Charlotte who came up with it but I don’t remember.

PS: It caught fire pretty quickly, didn’t it? Did you embrace it or empathize with it?

TL: Not really. It was … I guess that happened in like, 1984 or 1985, when we were running for the championship. I didn’t get too excited and when things were going well and I didn’t get too down. So I guess that’s why they said that.

PS: This is a bit of a convoluted question but what if I gave you one more race and it was a one-off against any five drivers that you ever raced against. Which drivers would you choose and which track would you pick to race on?

TL: That is a convoluted question.

PS: Okay. (Laughs) Fair enough. So which five drivers did you enjoy racing against the most?

TL: I really feel blessed to have been able to drive against all the drivers that I have — Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, Donnie Allison, Cale Yarborough, David Pearson and those guys. And then I got the chance to race against Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt and Tony Stewart and the guys that are still running today.

I don’t know how to answer that.

PS: How about a track?

TL: I think my favorite track was the Richmond Fairgrounds. That was ONE of my favorites at least. Of couse, any track that you’ve won at inherently becomes your favorite, right? Another one was the track at North Wilkesboro. You had to be smooth to run at Wilkesboro. So North Wilkesboro and Richmond were two of the most perfect size short tracks where you had room to race but still could run side-by-side. I just think they were well-suited for our cars.

PS: I’m going to embarrass you a little bit. Play word association with me. How about your song, The Ice Man is Hot?

TL: Terrible. God, that was horrible.

PS: How did that come about?

TL: Somebody put that deal together but I can’t remember who. They conned all the drivers into it and paid them a royalty. Everyone made like 32 cent off it or something but, God was that was terrible.

PS: When was the last time you heard it?

TL: It’s been several years. I try to stay away from it.

PS: Did Dale Earnhardt really rattle your cage at Bristol or was that just short track racing?

TL: Well it was it was just one of those deals. If I had gotten into the corner at a better angle then he wouldn’t have got the chance to hit me. But I was passing him low and couldn’t carry the speed into the corner and he took advantage of it and got into the back of me.

I don’t think he really intended to wreck me. He wanted to move me out of the way. That was his only shot. I had four new tires and he didn’t. It was just one of those deals.

PS: In 37 years in NASCAR, what is one thing that you think NASCAR has done really well and what is an aspect of the sport you think we have lost for the worst?

TL: I think enhancing safety is the one thing they’ve done exceptionally well during my time in the spot. There is always work to be done on that front but they’ve done a good job of continually chasing it.

PS: And the thing we’ve lost?

TL: Well, conversely, the one thing that I feel has been lost is how much it costs to compete in the sport. I think that has eliminated many of the teams that don’t have an opportunity to race. I think you see it more in the Nationwide Series too.

You used to have Cup guys that owned Nationwide cars and they would drive their own. Dale Jr. is the only guy now. He’s the only guy that can get the sponsorship to do it. A lot of the Cup drivers own dirt cars instead because that’s what they can afford.

So the cost of it has gone up too much and they have done a terrible job of trying to control that. I think it has had a bad impact on this series but even more so in the Nationwide Series. It’s just tough when you have these Cup teams racing in the Nationwide Series because they have all these resources. It took the mom and pop operations completely out and that’s where this sport comes from.

So as a result, you have these kids entering with money from either mom and dad or a sponsor that’s willing to pay for it and that’s not a good thing.

PS: What do you think about this new Chase format?

TL: Oh, I don’t know. Typically, I don’t know how many times we finished in the top 10 in points over the years, but it was several times and normally you had to be real consistent to be in the championship. The way it is today, you still have to be consistent but if you win the races you naturally get to advance. I think it brings some excitement to it for sure and a lot more pressure also. It’s definitely kind of interesting to watch, but we’ll just have to wait and see how it all plays out. It’s definitely different and puts a lot of teams under a lot of pressure. Now it really focuses on one race. If you get a flat tire in one event or get tangled up, it could pretty much eliminate you from moving to the next stage, so it’s definitely different.

PS: Would you want to be a part of it?

TL: Sure. I wouldn’t have a problem with it. The only thing I don’t secretly care about is I think they should take the last race and move it around to different tracks, kind of like the Super Bowl does. They want to be like football and they don’t play the Super Bowl in the same place every year, so I think it would be really cool because when you’ve got three or four guys that are really good at that track, and if I was never very good there, I would look forward to that last event going down there up against some of the guys that are so good there. That way if they moved it around to some different facilities it might be a little bit better for some of the competitors.

PS: Do you have a way you want to be remembered — a legacy?

TL: No. Not really. I hadn’t really thought about it. No. I was just an ordinary guy that went out there and did my best and that’s all you can do. I have a lot of pride in that I was just one of the guys. We won together and we lost together and I was never one to point fingers and make excuses. I just looked at this sport as a team sport and I was just a member of a lot of good teams.

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Terry Labonte To Call It a Career After Sunday

By Kelly Crandall – It took 890 starts, but Terry Labonte is finally at peace with being able to walk away from Sprint Cup Series competition.

Labonte will make his final start on Sunday at Talladega in the GEICO 500. It will be his fourth start of the season and 61st career start at the Alabama superspeedway. He’s a two-time Talladega winner.

“After I came here the first time I didn’t know if I’d have the opportunity to come back a second time much less 61 times, but it’s been a lot of fun,” Labonte said on Saturday at the speedway.

While he’s run limited races since removing himself from full-time competition after the 2004 season, Labonte admitted that this would be the end of his career. There will be no more popping up when the itch arises.

“It’s only about the third time I’ve said this is gonna be my last race, but this is really gonna be the last one. It’s been fun. I’ve enjoying running a few races on and off here the past few years with Frank (Stoddard) and his team and C&J Energy as a sponsor,” Labonte said.

“Those guys, C&J, are originally from Corpus Christi and headquartered in Houston now, so they’re guys I’ve known for a long time and it’s been fun to run a few races with them. I’ve always looked forward to coming to Talladega. We have a couple of wins down here and it’s a track, as everybody knows, if you stay out of trouble and stay on the lead lap you’ve got an opportunity for a decent finish.”

Much has changed in the sport through Labonte’s 37 years, but he’s been a staple. It started with the years partnered with Billy Hagan where he won his first championship in 1984 to Junior Johnson and then Rick Hendrick. It was there that Labonte became a two-time NASCAR champion when he took home the honor in 1996.

The Texas native’s resume consists of 22 Sprint Cup wins, 182 top-fives and 361 top-10s. Labonte captured 27 career poles while leading over 7,000 laps. His first (19800 career as well as his final (2003) Sprint Cup win occurred at Darlington Raceway.

His Nationwide Series resume as well as the rest of his time spent behind the wheel in Trucks, K&N, or IROC (the International Race of Champions) is equally impressive. And though now he will disconnect from participating in the racing aspect of NASCAR, Labonte will remain interested in the sport.

He’s watched it evolve over the years, from the money spent, research and development, equipment. He’ll also remain visible. And no, Labonte won’t be running for political office like a rumor circulating states.

Instead, he’s looking forward to the real world.

“I’ll probably come to a few races, that’s for sure. Actually, I have a real job besides this one,” he said about his future. “We have a marketing company and have been in business for like 21 years, so we do a lot of things around the racetrack.

“We’ve got some people working for us here this weekend and typically we go to several events. Sometimes I go to the racetracks and don’t come in the garage area, but to just check on things that we’re doing. You’ll probably see me around every now and then, but not a whole lot.”

EMAIL KELLY AT kelly.crandall@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @KellyCrandall