As his NASCAR Cup career was coming to an end, Bobby Labonte began thinking about what his post-racing future would be like.
“I told myself I can’t wait until I turn 50: I’m going to go to the beach, put my feet in the sand, drink beer all day and watch the sun come up and go down,” Labonte told NASCAR.com. “Well, I tried it and don’t think I lasted a couple hours.”
Ever since his last Cup race in 2016, Labonte has been anything but retired. What’s more, he’s still racing these days, albeit not in NASCAR, but still competing on his own terms primarily in modified and late model racing.
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“I have never used the retirement word, never mentioned it,” Labonte said. “I just said, ‘Well, you’ve got to get to this point.’ I like being busy. Sometimes, whenever I think of doing less, I don’t enjoy that.
“Being busy and staying busy, I guess I’m either a glutton for punishment or something because I just enjoy doing things. So put it in that perspective. I like to be on the go and like to be doing stuff. Sure there’s time to slow down. But right now, I feel like I’m still good enough to keep going.”
And that means still going behind the wheel of a race car.
Even though his last Cup race was more than five years ago, Labonte never really stopped racing. He went on a leisure trip to Europe in 2017 that resulted in his competing in the NASCAR Whelen Euro Elite 1 Series for parts of three seasons, including a podium finish in 2018.
“I ran several races, sometimes two a weekend,” Labonte said. “That was the most fun, getting to meet people from all over the world.
“In the garage area, I made friends from England, Spain, Germany, Italy, France. To me was just so much fun.”
He even learned a very valuable lesson on how racing in Europe is markedly different from in the U.S. You might say racing in Europe is more gentle.
“I was in France and I was coming up on a guy’s bumper and I thought, ‘Well, I could do the old shove him out of the way – or no,’ ” Labonte said. “I decided not to because I thought to myself that I really don’t need to show these guys that this is how you raced. It’s not how you really race. If I would have shoved him out of the way and wrecked him, well, OK, it must be normal, but that’s not what you want to do.
“I went over there (to Europe) something like nine times in 11 months. That was really, really cool. I mean, I just really enjoyed that. I really got to spend some quality time or good time and fun time with people.”
Speaking of having a good and fun time with people, six years before he called it quits from NASCAR, Labonte began planning for his post-racing career by forming a company with his wife Kristin called Breaking Limits. In its 11 years, the firm has become quite successful in both the public relations and marketing genres, including working with a number of current IndyCar teams such as Arrow McLaren SP and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing for sponsor activation, hospitality experiences and more.
The Labontes are also exploring the possibility of starting a subsidiary that will manage athletes, much like Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. are currently doing.
Labonte’s European experience laid the foundation for a return to racing back in the U.S., particularly in the Modified class. He was only able to compete in a handful of races last season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but plans to compete in at least 11 races this season, along with likely competing in at least one Late Model race later this year.
He’ll also take part in all six of the upcoming Ray Evernham/Tony Stewart-led Superstar Racing Experience series races that begin in mid-June and run through the end of July.
“Last year was kind of a bummer,” Labonte said. “I started the year off running a race at Sebring. I’d never been there before. Then I ran a vintage race and an enduro race and won it. Then COVID hit and I didn’t get a chance to run again until last fall. But that’s my competitive juices. I still want to do this.
“So I took the year off not by wanting to, but it kind of just happened that way. Then I realized how much more I missed it.”
Labonte is a happy man, doing what he’s doing these days. He still watches NASCAR Cup, Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series races on TV and occasionally shows up at a few race tracks including Martinsville, Darlington, Bristol and Charlotte, as well as his regular duties as an in-studio analyst for FOX Sports.
But even though former competitors such as Greg Biffle have dipped their toes back in NASCAR racing a few times, particularly in the Truck Series, Labonte has no desire to do so – one of the few acknowledgements that he truly is retired from NASCAR competition.
“I think there’s a part of me that says, ‘Hey, I feel pretty good and pretty healthy. I don’t feel like I’m as old as I am,’ ” Labonte said wistfully.
But then he added with a chuckle: “Bottom line is I am as old as I am. Doing what I’m doing now is all the fun that I need to get so, really, I am 99.9 percent sure that that ship has sailed, and I’m OK with that. I’m getting to do what I get to do with a great group of guys, I get to race and do some fun stuff and I get home Saturday night. I don’t have to stop to fuel up my plane. I can just drive right home after a race. Not a bad deal.”
While the lure of NASCAR’s top series may not be there, racing at fabled locations such as Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, gives more than enough of a challenge to Labonte – not to mention the sometimes outlandish type of racing that takes place there.
“(Bowman Gray) is an example of crazy,” he said with a laugh, adding, “Who came up with the idea of putting 32 cars on a quarter-mile track around a football field? That’s not too crazy, right?”
Labonte has countless memories from his NASCAR career. Among the high points include the 2000 Cup championship, where he wound up with a massive 265-point lead over Dale Earnhardt after the season-ending race at Atlanta. Sadly, Earnhardt would be killed just three months later in a last-lap crash in the 2001 season-opening Daytona 500.
As for individual races, none is any bigger than Labonte’s win on the way to the 2000 championship in the Brickyard 400 that August.
“That win was unbelievable,” Labonte said. “We kind of knew on Saturday night how good the car was. It was like the best I’ve ever had on a Saturday night going into a Sunday. That was pretty amazing, but there’s all kinds of stories for me in different races.
“There was Darlington on Friday (early March 1999), I broke my shoulder blade in a (Busch Series) practice crash. I ran like the first 100 laps on Sunday. And then when the rain came and Matt Kenseth filled in for me. He got in the car and finished 10th.
“To win at Pocono against Dale Jr. (July 2001) was crazy. And (a couple) years before, when we won and beat Jeff Gordon (June 1999). I mean we just trumped old Gordon. We were so fast and didn’t just beat him, we beat him by a ton. We had to slow down because we were going so fast.
“And then Homestead, I was leading Bill Elliott and blew out a tire on the last lap. … And then winning the race the same year (his older brother) Terry won the Cup championship at Atlanta (November 1996), that was a great weekend.
“Yeah, there were some lowlights, but there was a lot of highlights, even in races I didn’t win.”
While happy overall at his career, Labonte admits to one regret: when he left Joe Gibbs Racing after the 2005 season.
“I honestly thought that Joe Gibbs Racing, that whole time span that I had, was really the best there was,” Labonte said. “Looking back on it, I thought the grass would have been greener on the other side of the fence, and I could have done something to rekindle what I wasn’t doing right at Gibbs.
“After all was said and done, I’m like, ‘How could I have done better if I stayed at Gibbs?’ I needed to do something different either there or somewhere else. I think that at the end of the day, I probably wish I would probably (have) told myself to stay there and keep doing what I’m doing, better than I’m doing it.
“Knowing what I know now, I wish I could have done that before moving on.”
And then there’s the greatest accomplishment of all: his induction last year into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, joining Terry as one of three brother combinations in the Hall (Richard and Maurice Petty, and Glen and Leonard Wood are the other siblings inducted).
“It’s crazy how you race your whole life, and I didn’t think at all of I’m working towards the Hall of Fame,” Labonte said. “But at the same time, definitely, you worked really hard to get there.
“When you get to a point you’re like your career is about over, and you’re going to get accolades of some type and I still didn’t know that (his career) was going to be worthy enough (for the Hall). And when it happened and I was able to get inducted into it, it’s just like, wow, what an honor that whole night with Tony (Stewart) and coach (Joe Gibbs), Waddell (Wilson) and Buddy (Baker), and Jeff Gordon talking to me, telling me what my night’s going to be like, Roger Penske sent me a text. It’s like, wow, this is way bigger deal than just racing on a Sunday. So yeah, that’s a really cool, cool deal, the biggest honor, you know?
“How do you put it into words, what it means to you and what it did to me? All that time and effort, my parents and all the time and effort we put into (racing as) a family, kind of put all of it full circle and made it all make sense. It just put it all together.
“Obviously, a lot of guys might not get that opportunity. When I was growing up in racing, my parents could have easily said, ‘Hey, we need to do something (else). We can’t either afford it or it was too much work, too much of a headache, the decision could have been made or thinking what could have been, or the transition could have been a little bit different, we never would have known.”
The Bobby Labonte file
* Age: 57
* Hometown: Corpus Christi, Texas (has lived in North Carolina for more than 30 years)
* Finished second to Jeff Gordon for 1993 Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors
* NASCAR Hall of Fame: Inducted in 2020 along with Joe Gibbs, Tony Stewart, Waddell Wilson and Buddy Baker.
* Notable: Is first and only driver thus far to have won races in all three NASCAR premier series at same track – Martinsville Speedway. … Also became the first of just six drivers who have won championships in both the Cup and Xfinity Series.
* NASCAR Cup career: 25 years, 729 starts, 21 wins, 115 top-five and 203 top-10 finishes. Also 26 poles. Won 2000 championship.
* NASCAR Xfinity Series career: 20 years, 203 starts, 10 wins, 51 top-five and 100 top-10 finishes. Also 10 poles. Won 1991 championship.
* NASCAR Camping World Truck Series career: 10 starts, 1 win, 5 top-five and 5 top-10 finishes.
* Best NASCAR Cup season finish: 2000 – four wins, 19 top-five and 24 top-10 finishes, plus two poles. Won first and only Cup championship of his career.
* Best overall NASCAR Cup season statistically: 1999 – earned five wins, 23 top-five and 26 top-10 finishes, all career bests. Finished second in championship to Dale Jarrett.
Veteran motorsports writer Jerry Bonkowski is writing a number of Where Are They Now? stories this year for NASCAR.com. Check out stories he’s already done on Greg Biffle, Ricky Rudd, Darrell Waltrip, Mark Martin, Marcos Ambrose and Juan Pablo Montoya. Also, follow Jerry on Twitter @JerryBonkowski, @TheRacingBeat podcast and his email newsletter, TheRacingBeat.substack.com.