Al Thomy, Speedway Scene
Sorry Big Guys, Brian’s Got It Right
This is going to shock you.
Brian France is right.
One hundred per cent right.
That admission should shock you and I don’t have to tell you why, but regular (semi-regular? occasional?) readers of this column will verify that I seldom agree with anything Brian proposes. He’s young, sort of, and he’s learning, and the obstacle course of life is dead-ahead, but, once in a while, thanks to the law of averages, he’s right on target, and this time he’s right.
He’s right when he says NASCAR should put a cap on the number of cars one team can own in NASCAR and/or the Nextel Cup. And from all indications, that number is three. Naturally there was an outcry from the Big Boys, the owners of multi-car teams, the heavyweights such as Jack Roush and Rick Hendrick. Not so much from the second and third tiers of multi-car owners, the Richard Childresses, Ray Evenhams, Roberts Yateses and the Joe Gibbses. There is big and there is bigger and there is biggest, the Yankees, the Enrons, the Halliburtons.
Roush, who has more cars than hats, is the most conspicuous offender. Five of the 10 cars in The Chase belong to his Ford stable, but horror of all horrors, only one (Greg Biffle) has a realistic shot at the top prize. There are two ways of looking at Roush’s colors in The Chase, to wit: (1) It is the sign of a budding dynasty, or (2) the five little Roushes are good enough to get into The Chase but not good enough to win it.
On the flip side, consider…
• Of Rick Hendrick’s four Nextel Cup cars, only one, Jimmie Johnson, made The Chase and he stands an excellent chance of winning it.
• Of Gibbs’ two major contributions to Nextel, only Tony Stewart made the ride-off round, and, he, along with Johnson, is co-favorite, a strong contender. (It is a bit of irony that his teammate, Bobby Labonte, a former Nextel champion, is, at long last, having his best rides of the season, although long eliminated from the Race to The Chase. That brings up an interesting hypothetical situation: Suppose, in the future, that a non-qualifier wins all 10 of The Chase races or, say, nine or eight of them. What then? It could happen and then someone might be forced to grab a bar napkin and outline another form of “playoff” for NASCAR racing.)
A couple of months ago Kyle Petty let an old NASCAR cat out of a bag when he said the sanctioning body frequently launches test balloons to gauge public and media opinion on major proposals, and some indicated that was what Brian France was doing with his press conference on the future of multi-car teams. It has been further suggested that because NASCAR insists on labeling teams, owners and drivers as “independent contractors,” it has little flexibility in making them conform to major changes in rules and regulations in any form. Most regard that as a legal question.
I don’t know about all that.
Here’s what I do know.
I know it’s wrong for wealthy Kentucky breeders to enter five or 10 thoroughbreds in the Kentucky Derby. Otherwise, some years we’d have two stables owning the entire Derby field.
I think it’s wrong for, say, a George Steinbrenner, to own both of the teams playing in the World Series. And evidently, MLB, which has been suspected of “rabbitizing” balls and “corking” bats, thinks it’s wrong also. That would be a conflict of interest. (I won’t even mention “steroidizing” bodies.)
(Right now Georgie would settle for one team in the Series.)
I think it would be wrong for the Big Ten to have four of its teams playing in the BCS for the national football championship.
You know the old saw about “every kid in the U.S.A. can be president.” Don’t believe it. Nowadays, you’ve got to belong to a group or a team. Don’t expect to ever see another Alan Kulwicki in racing. Or Bill Elliott. Or Richard Petty. Or for that matter, don’t ever expect another Marilyn Monroe to be discovered jerking soda in a Schwab’s Drug Store.
You’ve got to belong, come through the approved channels, be a member.
Remember Mom and Pop who used to run that corner grocery story. Pop is that old fellow saying, “Welcome to Wal-Mart,” and Mom is that sweet old woman standing at the door checking your receipts to see that you didn’t steal anything. That old grocery store is now a porn shop. And if you have any complaints, we have electronic experts in New Delhi and Cambodia awaiting your calls.
Rugged individualism? What’s that? That used to be hill country racing, and later NASCAR, the poster child. But now it’s the team, it’s the group, it’s circle the wagons and fight off those people who think they can be president or do it by themselves. Either you’re with us or you’re up to your elbows in alligators.
So should we cap the number of race teams for any single owner?
Jimmie Johnson comes with a different perspective.
He says, “In my mind, there is sort of a cap out there right now where a team owner can own only two vehicles. Rick Hendrick owns the No. 24 (Jeff Gordon) and No. 5 (Kyle Busch). Papa Joe owned the No. 25 (Brian Vickers) and now his wife does. And Jeff Gordon owns the No. 48 (Johnson’s). And so, one, I don’t know how they’re going to police this, and, two, we kind of have something in place to protect that, and, granted there are ways around that, but what is to stop an affiliation with another team?
“Say, Hendrick has an affiliation with MB2. Where is the line going to be drawn? This is the question I have. The five cars that Jack has, he’d done a good job. He’s worked hard to put that stuff in place. I know it’s tougher on the smaller teams, but right now, if you limit Jack Roush and other teams down to three, you might not have enough cars to field.”
It’s all a matter of perspective. On the flip side of what Johnson said, if you don’t do something to aid all the single car and independent owners, and they drop out, what will you have left?
Jack Roush racing against Rick Hendrick, Joe Gibbs, Robert Yates, Richard Childress, Roger Penske, Ray Evernham…and how many are those?
What NASCAR is doing now, in effect, is paying all those single-car and secondary teams appearance money to fill out the field.
And how long can we say that is racing?
If Drivers On Steroids, It Ain’t Showing
Look at Mark Martin.
I mean really look at him.
He’s about 5-6 and l25 pounds, or somewhere in that vicinity.
He’s tiny and light. If he were a boxer, he’d be somewhere below the featherweight division.
Does he look anything like Bobby Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Jose Canseco or Mark McGwire, baseball players who allegedly bulked up on steroids? Compared with the size of former Carolina Panther offensive tackle Todd Steussie, another steroid suspect, Martin would come up to his shoelaces.
Oh sure, Martin is an extreme example.
But, on looks alone, I’d say that NASCAR race drivers are clean when it comes to the use of steroids. That brings us back to the old charge that racers are not athletes, which is not quite true. Bulging muscles and pure physical strength are not absolute requirements for driving fast around a closed course, especially since the installation of power steering. Instead, what is required are stamina, concentration and hand-eye coordination.
Okay, you say, what about pit crewmen? What about a 250-pound jack man who has to lift a 35-pound jack? Or a tire changer who must handle a 65-pound wheel? Or a gas man who must hoist 22 gallons of fuel?
My answer: I don’t think strength and bottle muscles are necessarily the same. Often too many muscles can make you awkward, or, to put it in the vernacular, muscle-bound. You’re not going to save one or two seconds by bulking up.
I’ve tried hard to conjure up a race driver with the “build” of those steroid-structured athletes in baseball and football and I find it hard to do. Come to think of it, I can’t think of a single driver who has rippling muscles and a huge chest. Jimmy Spencer has the size, but not the muscle definition. Closest I could come to the steroid stereotype was an old race driver from the 1960s, Larry Frank, a reformed boxer with tattoos that danced when his huge biceps twitched. He had weightlifter looks. Other than Frank, I would have to say that Curtis Turner and Harry Gant were the closest prototypes of the body types we’re speaking of, and they weren’t exactly Arnold Schwarzeneggers.
Why am I bringing up the subject of steroids at this particular time?
I think NASCAR flatters itself by linking its problems to those of baseball, football and basketball, the ball-and-stick sports. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I haven’t heard a word out of the Sports Congressional Hearings about automobile racing. The sports flap de jour is all been about baseball and the employment of steroids to challenge the time-honored records of Babes Ruth and Henry Aaron, and, to no one’s surprise, “the usual suspects” are Bobby Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Jose Canseco.
Pro football has its own alleged steroid scandal in Todd Sauerbrun, Todd Steussie and Jeff Mitchell of the Panthers. (I guess if your name is Todd, you’re twice as likely to get involved.)
Things got so ridiculous that major newspapers were calling Panther General Manager Marty Hurley and asking if he thought steroid use by his players “tainted the 2003 Super Bowl.” (Frankly, I don’t think drugs were the reason that Steussie was offsides more than any lineman in the NFL.)
Still, despite not being charged with anything, NASCAR stepped up and insisted it was “clean,” and racing writers bombarded the House Committee on Government Reform with queries on whether it planned to include stock car racing in its investigation of performance-enhancing drugs. A startled spokesman said the committee hadn’t thought about it, but now it might.
This all reminds me of a M-A-S-H-like experience I had in the Army.
As NCO in charge of the post newspaper at Ft. Jackson, I bunked down in a back room of the small frame building, and, for all intents and purposes, I was lost to the Army and the world. So isolated were we that no one ever thought to inspect us, that is, until I made a colossal error. An old acquaintance from Atlanta, commissioned an officer, was horrified at the prospect of fighting in Korea and begged me to recommend his transfer to our little post paper. To my dismay, I did, and lived to regret it.
He turned out to be a nervous Nelly, and in one phone call brought down the best deal in the Army since Hawkeye and Sweet Lips Hooligan.
It started with the annual Third Army Inspection, which never found us. As it drew near, our brave officer became a basket case. We assured him that they’d never inspect us because they had never done it in the past. He began to bite his fingernails, a la Capt.Queeg, and finally broke altogether. He picked up the phone and screamed into it, “This is Lt. so-and-so at the Jackson Journal, when are you going to inspect us?”
The headquarters officer replied, “Who? Where? Oh, we’ll be over there tomorrow.”
Our secret was out. We spent the next 24 hours scrubbing the baseboards and walls. It didn’t work. We flunked the inspection anyway and got visited until we passed. We could have choked that idiotic officer. Suddenly, I realized why so many 2nd lieutenants are picked off by their own troops.
Why does that remind me of NASCAR? No one suspects the sport of using steroids, and yet here they are screaming, hey, look at us, we want to be up there with the big boys. When are you going to inspect us?
For the record, NASCAR has disclosed that it has conducted 40 to 45 drug tests over the past two years, and young Shane Hmiel was involved in 12 to 15 of them. He was suspended for a year and required to attend counseling for violation of a NASCAR’s substance abuse policy. The drug of choice was never disclosed.
Let’s go back and review the very nature of NASCAR racing. It was born, bred and raised in the moonshine culture, and I can vouch that the early drug of choice was alcohol. I can’t say that I ever saw, or smelled, alcohol on an active driver, but I do know for a fact that in those early days drivers partied until 4 and 5 a.m. and then went out and drove 500 miles that afternoon. I know because I also partied until the wee hours.
Also, in those infant days of the sport, there were frequent rumors of the use of amphetamines, or bennies, as the truck drivers called them, or speed, as others call them. If you saw a driver with eyes as big as saucers, he was a suspect.
There is another point to be made here, and, it concerns the evolution of the entire drug problem.
At one time, amphetamines and, yes, even steroids, were not illegal. Upon personal requests of players, team trainers passed out bennies before pro football games, and, from what I understand, the intended result was increased energy, albeit false energy, and the masking of pain, bruises and ailments. Job insecurity was a motivating factor. If you vacated your position, somebody else would fill it, perhaps permanently.
Me, I wonder why so many young and strong athletes are going down with heart irregularities these days. Could it be …
How About ‘1’ For Big ‘3’ Movie?
The advantage of human seasoning, otherwise known as aging, is that you gain the insight to dissect history and see just how erroneous the so-called historians are when they turn perception into what they consider fact.
We are surrounded by literary hacks cranking out TV biographies, city “confidentials,” old murder cases and profiles by the dozens and the hundreds. They are not biographies at all; simply, clip and paste old newspaper stories strung together in uncertain order, but always with a touch of scandal.
No sooner than a controversial celebrity passes away than you see his story told on the Biography Channel. I don’t know about you, but to me it seems that the writers and film editors put it all together overnight. This morbid commerce also applies to old movie stars who are bigger in death than in life. The movie channel drags out all their old movies and shows them over and over ad infinitum.
I don’t know many old movie stars, so I can’t tell you much about them, but I do know some old and departed race drivers and I think I can speak, at least in a modest way, of perception versus reality.
I have just viewed the ESPN movie ‘3’, a cheap imitation of the life of Dale Earnhardt. As far as I can tell from the flick, Dale Earnhardt spent his entire life being mad and hugging girls, from the back, at racetracks. If he is one of the greatest stock car racers of all time, you’d never know it. He was too busy being mad, mainly at his redneck dad, and hugging girls, mainly from the back, at old dirt tracks.
All the while he was mumbling in North Carolina redneck dialect and looking for approval from his hard-hearted father, and like his dad, he was terrified of spending his life in Cannon Mills of Kannapolis, N. C.
I also know something of Cannon Mills, which supported an entire unincorporated town in the years just beyond the Great Depression. I don’t recall it was a torture chamber or anything like that.
The townspeople so loved the mills that they refused to incorporate the town. It belonged to the Cannon family, and it took care of its own. If there was a squabble or any kind of confrontation, you didn’t call the police; you called the mill office and they settled matters. You shopped at the mill grocery store and sought medical treatments at the mill medical offices.
To tell the truth, Kannapolis wasn’t known as a hotbed of racing; instead, it was one of the best baseball communities in the state and the South, and its American Legion team once played for the national championship. Many of its Legion players, among them Buck Riddle of the Atlanta Braves, went on to play major league baseball. I covered many of the tournaments in Kannapolis, along with Dick Pierce of the Charlotte Observer, and we witnessed some of the South’s premier baseball prospects when the South was the prime producer of major league talent.
My favorite was a left-handed pitcher named Gerald Blackburn, who was compared to Whitey Ford, Hal Newhouser and the likes of Sandy Koufax, all wrapped in one. The kid was close to being unbeatable.
Well, we were all there for signing day for Blackburn. He was one of the original bonus babies, picking up a check of $50,000 from the Cincinnati Reds (I think, memory a little shaky here). But think about it, $50,000 for a mill kid who was used to Pepsis and Moon Pies, it was comparable to today’s Million Dollar Lottery. Why, few had seen such a financial windfall.
“What are you going to do with that all that money?” we asked Blackburn.
Rubbing his slight pouch, Blackburn replied, “Buy me a hamburger stand!”
Evidently, Gerald was serious. Two years later he was back in Kannapolis running the elevator at Cannon Mills.
Riddle went on to have more success, playing first base and wielding a big bat for the early Atlanta Braves.
I don’t know if it was Riddle or what, but the untold story in “3” was Dale Earnhardt’s passion for the Braves and baseball in general. In this regard, we met on common ground. I had served as the Braves’ first Atlanta-based PR man and I knew the respect was mutual. It was as if Dale was the Braves’ official race driver and they were his team. He hunted with bullpen coach Ned Yost and others, and Manager Bobby Cox admitted to me that the team gathered around the locker room TV and watched Dale during NASCAR races on Sunday.
It’s true Earnhardt had racing in his blood, but it’s also true, that as a native of Kannapolis, which was famous for baseball before anyone thought anything of car racing, he loved the diamond sport and socializing with the bat-and-ball crowd. I didn’t see any of that in “3.”
I guess what I’m trying to say is that the movie Earnhardt was one-dimensional, always with a mad on and hugging a girl, from behind, at the racetracks.
Instead of telling us all those things about Dale Earnhardt, the movie dwells on his conflict with his father, Ralph, his almost non-existent relationship with first son Kerry, his awkward relationship with Dale Jr. and daughter Kelly and his friendship with Neil Bonnett. Actor Barry Pepper does a commendable job as Earnhardt, though he lacks the Big E aura, and J. K. Simmons is a believable Ralph Earnhardt, though more on the Ward Bond mold. As Teresa Earnhardt, Elizabeth Mitchell almost looks the part. Chad McCumbie hasn’t got much script to work with as Dale Jr.
Whoever played Bonnett, was nowhere near the mark.
The moviemakers are fortunate that most viewers know the Earnhardt story, otherwise they’d never figure out his vast importance to the sport from the disjointed scenes in the ESPN production.
ESPN is not a total loser in this production. Its biographical precede to the movie is much better than the movie itself and admirably fills in the many gaps the flick leaves to the imagination.
The whole deal reminds me of the old joke, to wit:
“How’s your wife?”
“Better than nothing.”
Well, “3” ain’t no Golden Globe movie or anything like that, but it’s better than nothing. You’ve got to know Kannapolis before you know the lives of the Earnhardts, and of that, the moviemakers know zilch.
P.S. I didn’t miss anything. ESPN showed “3” every night for two weeks. That’s when I finished the 10-count and called it a TKO.
Carl Edwards: Throwback To Past Legends
He exited ol’ 99 doing a back flip.
He was so exited, even giddy, he could not remember his sponsors.
There was more boyish exuberance than adult cool.
He was natural, not artificially programmed.
Value to NASCAR and Nextel Cup: Priceless.
You can be modest only so long. As Mae West used to say, if you’ve got it, flaunt it.
I’m not going to go that far. But I’ve got to tell you that, in April of 2003, I saw it coming; I saw the potential in a young race driver named Carl Edwards. Then he was a faceless and anonymous kid out of Columbia, MO, driving No. 99 in the Craftsman Truck Series. Martinsville CEO Clay Campbell and public relations director Mike Smith had brought him to the NASCAR Café in Greensboro, N.C., for promotional interviews, and I sat down with him and a steak sandwich for an intriguing 30 minutes. It was the first time in a long while that I didn’t feel conned after talking to one of the modern race drivers.
We’re always writing about the kid next door and most of the time, it’s just filling space, but in Carl Edwards, I felt he was one of the most natural, and normal, athletes that I had ever interviewed. It was clear at that moment that he was pursuing a profession that he loved, and I reflected that in the headline over my column, “When There’s A Carl Edwards, There’s Hope.”
Fact was, Edwards wasn’t even supposed to be in the No. 99 pickup. That ride, in the Roush stable, had been reserved for Kyle Busch, young brother of Kurt Busch. Then something unfunny happened to 16-year old Kyle between classes in his high school. NASCAR, stunned by the deaths of several young prospects, raised the eligibility age to 18.
Okay, nodded Roush, pulling his hat over his eyes, he’d wait.
Then something else funny happened. When he reached 18, Kyle Busch swerved into a U-turn and signed with Rick Hendrick as a sure future star. Jack Roush was left with his hat in his hand looking for a replacement. On his check-list, he found the name Carl Edwards, a cousin of Ken Schrader who’d been hell-on-wheels in dirt country and had finished eighth at Kansas City in the truck that the late Tony Roper had driven.
Edwards picks up the story…
“Jack Roush called and said Kyle Busch was out and if I wanted to drive the No. 99 Ford, I could come and do it. To me, it was the world’s greatest feeling. I had worked from Day One, hoping to get a call like that, but I never legitimately thought I had a chance.”
But to be safe, Edwards made sure to throw himself into the path of opportunity.
First of all, he had the bloodline. His father Mike accumulated more than 200 wins racing stock cars and USAC midgets over four decades. A small Carl started small in a Volkswagen (pun intended).
In that 2003 interview, Edwards recalled his first win.
“I was real nervous when they interviewed me on the first turn and reporters wanted to know why I was jittery. I told them I was not nervous because I won. It was because I had slipped into the pits under a blanket and was afraid security was going to catch me and throw me out.”
The Kid from the Show-Me State had another trick up his sleeve. He figured he’d move in with cousin Kenny Schrader, hang around the shop and sweet-talk Schrader into letting him drive his ARCA car. It didn’t work.
Schrader was older and knew more tricks.
He asked Edwards what he was doing loitering in the shop and Carl put it on the line.
“I’m here to drive that race car,” he said.
“It doesn’t work that way, kid.” replied a stern Schrader. “Go home and learn to drive a race car and then come back.”
Good advice and Carl took it. But since he was only 15 and without a driver’s license, he and Papa Mike did what every red-bloodied American racing family would do. They forged one. Properly carded, the unshaven Edwards went on a three-year dune buggy holiday.
The Carl Edwards story is a throwback to old NASCAR. It is also a love story, a story of an all-American kid who studied and schemed and pestered friends and relatives until he got the break he wanted in a profession that was his passion. And, quite frankly, I can’t remember any rookie winning his first race the way he did, by sticking his nose outside of the hottest driver in Nextel Cup racing – Jimmie Johnson – and metal-whipping him to the finish line.
And I loved his unrehearsed manner in the winner’s circle, where he did one of his patented back flips and couldn’t remember his sponsors or anybody else. That was pure exuberance and joy, something we don’t see much of.
Even Jack The Hat was impressed.
“(His enthusiasm), it’s contagious,” he said. “The first time I saw him do his back flip, I thought it was luck. I went over said, ‘We’re going to be doing this a long time, and if you keep doing that, and relying on luck to get you around, it’s not going to work.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry about it. When I was in college, I had a girl friend help me with it. I had a padded room and I fell down a lot, but I’m not going to fall down. I can do it.’ I guess it’s not bragging if you can do it and he’s been doing it well.”
The back flip is nice, and amusing, but it’s not just that. It’s more the effervescence and passion that Edwards brings to NASCAR racing.
I’ve got to say this.
It’s a nice change from the clones who’ve been seeded and trained from childhood and enter the world of derring-do mouthing the same clichés and platitudes so prevalent among Young Guns and Old Pistols. If there is one thing that turns me off, it’s hearing a teen-age or slightly older driver repeating tired lines taught him in “charm school” or by some PR type.
In that 2003 column, I closed with this line: “I hope he (Edwards) stays as refreshingly innocent as he is and doesn’t learn to hide out in a mobile home.”
That still goes.
And, oh, by the way, in Nextel Cup wins, the score is now Edwards 1, Kyle Busch 0.
Labontes Do It Their Way – The Clean Way
It was a lazy Sunday mid-morning and Bob Labonte Sr. was watching, and enjoying, a race.
That was nothing unusual – racing is his life – but it was not your everyday-kind-of-race. It was on television. ESPN Classics.
It was the 1993 North Wilkesboro race.
His wife, Martha, paused in her morning chores to sit and rest for a while, as we say in the South, and soon she was totally involved in a race that was held 12 years ago. “This is exciting,” she said, moving to the edge of her seat.
“Sure is,” agreed the patriarch of the Labonte racing clan.
“We forget what racing we had back then until we see re-runs on television,” said Bob Jr. recently. “I try to watch all those races I can on the ESPN Classic station.”
I would say that Labonte is a racing purist. Not only does he watch the old re-runs on ESPN, he spends a lot of time at Caraway Raceway, one of the old Saturday night bullrings in North Carolina. He calls it getting back to the grassroots. And he’s there to help a lot of young drivers who’re getting their first tastes of the professional racing world. He even finds time to serve as a serious member of the Trinity, N.C., city council, “where some people agree with me and some don’t.”
That reminds me of a conversation I had with Darrell Waltrip about eight or 10 years ago, and what he’d said. We were talking about the changes in the sport, and he said that everybody didn’t look at the sport the way we did. “I’m a purist and you’re a purist, and not everyone is,” was the way he put it. Modern racing can be hard on purists, and, sadly, many are moving on to other interests.
Even for the Labontes, things are changing. Eldest son Terry, now 49, is phasing out his brilliant career with 10 or so selected Nextel Cup races this season. Bobby, 41, is not having his kind of season, and, for sure, we know it is not because of a lack of effort on his part. Young Justin, 21, Terry’s son, is doing as well as anyone, but faces overwhelming opposition from the big money, power teams. It’s amazing when you consider that Terry and Bobby, between them, posted three Nextel Cup championships against the best cars that money can buy.
In more than one way, the Labontes are special.
They’re special race drivers, but they’re more than that. They’re special people. They’re a special family. NASCAR racing is said to be a family sport, but I think that can be misleading. Many race drivers belong to the same families, but that does not mean they are families in the old-fashioned way. I don’t count owners of super teams and corporations. They are businesses. Among the real families, I’d list the Labontes, the Pettys, the Allisons and perhaps one or two others. I mean, if you challenged one of those, you challenged them all. I can see them all in their log cabins firing at the Hatfields across the way. It’s a matter of family honor.
I loved that press conference in Dallas where Texas natives Terry, Bobby and Justin got up and answered questions for media types who tried to get them to say discouraging words about each other. Asked about their competitiveness, each agreed that it was different competing against others than against themselves. If you were looking for an answer like that of the late Bill Vukovich, who said he’s run over his grandmother to win, you’d come to the wrong place.
Terry put it this way: “I know a lot of you don’t know our Dad, but for those of you who do know our Dad, he would not be very happy with us if we came home on a Sunday night and ran into each other. We’re not that fierce against each other.”
Bobby laughed and added, “If it happened, it would be the last time that happened. We’re smart enough to know not to do that. But we’d never raced against each other until 1989 or 1990. Probably 1989, it was, in Charlotte. So we didn’t race against each other when we were growing up and there was not that rivalry between us. So when we race against each other now, it doesn’t come down to, ‘Hey, I beat you, you beat me.’ Sorry, there’s no story there. I tried, though.”
As young as he is, Justin hasn’t formed any kind of rivalry yet, with brothers or strangers, but he knows that he has one of the most impressive support systems in the sport. He’s got Dad in the spotter’s stand, Bobby to answer questions, and Grandpa to keep him on the straight and narrow.
“I just try to get better and without them I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today,” he said, sounding he just got out of racer’s charm school.
That brought another laugh from Bobby.
“Well, yeah, he’s probably not telling everything,” he said. “He’s probably thinking that these guys have been around a long time and they’re not telling me enough. No, it’s a neat deal that we’ve been able to see Justin grow up in the sport. I worked for Terry’s team for years and we raced against each other. Terry helped my career out when I was starting out by loaning me racecars and trucks and stuff like that. So I guess we’re three guys who’d rather help each other out than be competitive. Now, that might be different on a go-kart.
“But on a big track, we definitely help each other out as much as possible and help each other’s career out..”
When the last chapter is closed on the Labontes, the most important part will be that they were almost invisible on the raceways of America until they drove into the winner’s circles. They don’t bang and clang and they don’t play dirty. Even young Justin says, “When you race someone to beat them, you want to be able to race side by side for 20 laps and not touch them and be ahead of them at the finish line. That’s the way I race. I know some guys kinda don’t like that, but I have a lot of respect for the people I run around, whether they’re veterans or not.
“I know some are different and will knock you out of the way and do whatever they can. And some are great racers. It’s more important for me to race them clean and not take them out. I would feel terrible about it if I wrecked a guy like my Dad to win a race.”
Bobby allowed there might be other reasons.
“You don’t know my Dad,” he said. “If he (Justin) came home doing something like that, he’d get his butt whipped. It’s just a reminder of how it works down the food chain.”
A light goes off and now I remember who the Labontes reminds me of – the Cartwrights! They’re morally and ethically straight, with a strong family code of honor, and they do things their way and prove that, contrary to what Leo Durocher said, good guys do win.