There is no dispute: Terry Labonte was one of the best drivers in NASCAR history.
The Corpus Christi, Texas, native competed in 890 NASCAR Cup Series events, winning 22 of them, and earned 182 top-five and 361 top-10 finishes. He also won two Cup championships in one of the most difficult ways there is: 12 years apart (1984 and 1996).
He drove for some of the biggest owners in the sport, some for several seasons, others for only a handful of races, including Billy Hagen, Junior Johnson, Rick Hendrick, Joe Gibbs and Richard Petty. He also was named one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers in 1998.
He achieved the sport’s highest honor when he was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2016, followed four years later by younger brother Bobby, making them one of only two pairs of siblings to reach the sport’s pinnacle, the other being Richard and Maurice Petty.
But there’s also one non-racing part of Terry’s life that few people know about, one that brings a smile to his face when he tells the story: he’s also been kind of the “boss” of Tony The Tiger – as in Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes “They’re GREAT!” cereal fame – for a quarter-century.
An explanation is in order:
Labonte used to be sponsored by Kellogg’s back in the 1990s. Out of that relationship, he began a sports and event marketing firm that came to include Kellogg’s as a corporate partner. One of the elements of that partnership is Labonte’s firm manages Kellogg’s “Tony The Tiger” appearance business across North America, where the friendly tiger shows up at various events.
“We’ve probably got over 100 costumes that we manage for Kellogg’s,” Labonte said. “We get requests from Kellogg’s and then our people line up the talent (to wear the costume) and where the costumes are shipped to. It takes two people to do an event.”
The reason why there must be a duo at each event got Labonte chuckling again: “You have to have the person in the costume and then you have to have a handler to make sure (“Tony”) doesn’t run into something or someone doesn’t run up and tackle him.”
When asked if he was ever tempted to climb into a Tony The Tiger costume, especially when he retired from NASCAR, Labonte quickly quipped, “No, uh-uh. You’ve got to be a certain size and certain weight to fit (into the costume) perfectly. … No, I’m never going to get into one of ’em.”
Labonte got into racing thanks to his father, who was a noted race mechanic in south Texas. Terry was behind the wheel by 5 years old, racing quarter midgets at 7, won a national championship at 9, and then spent the next decade or so capturing numerous track championships both on dirt and asphalt throughout his home state of Texas.
It was a chance meeting with Hagan, a Louisiana businessman, that prompted Labonte to leave The Lone Star State after 1977 to pursue fame and fortune in NASCAR.
“That was just kind of one of those deals, I was in the right place, the right time and met the right guy in Billy,” Labonte said. “It was just the chance of a lifetime.”
But rather than try his hand at some of NASCAR’s lower rungs first, Labonte went straight to the top, the Cup Series.
In his first-ever start in 1978, the then-21-year-old qualified 19th, but more importantly finished in fourth place. And he accomplished that feat at one of the most difficult tracks there is: Darlington Raceway, otherwise known as the track “Too Tough to Tame.”
It would be at Darlington where Labonte became almost legendary, going on to tame the “Lady in Black” with two wins (both coming in the Southern 500), 11 top-five and 20 top-10 finishes in 54 career starts on the 1.366-mile egg-shaped oval.
The Labonte-Hagan partnership lasted through the 1986 season and included six wins, as well as a championship together in 1984, before Junior Johnson lured Labonte away from 1987 through 1989.
Johnson once joked that he was so tired of losing to Labonte, that he figured the only way to beat him was to hire him. Their three-year tenure produced four wins and a third-place finish in 1987 and fourth-place in 1988.
Labonte joined Richard Jackson, who formed a new Cup team in 1990, but the relationship lasted just one season. Labonte returned to Hagan for 1991-1993 before joining Rick Hendrick in 1984. The partnership would prove to be the most successful of Labonte’s career – producing 12 wins and Labonte’s second Cup crown in 1996 – and would run through 2006 (that final year being a part-time effort that Labonte split between Hendrick and the upstart Hall of Fame Racing team owned by NFL greats Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman).
From that point, Labonte raced a part-time schedule the rest of his career, finally retiring in 2014 at age 57.
When you’ve competed in 1,017 NASCAR races – 890 in Cup, 124 in Xfinity and three in Trucks – you amass a number of great memories. But there are two things in particular that Labonte says best define his racing career.
“To me, it was winning the two championships,” he said. “That’s what you race for, what you want to do, to win championships. In 1984, I really felt like we had a great team, just an awesome team. And I felt like man, we could do it again the next year. We came up with the lead in the points and then came up short, finishing seventh. Then, the next year, we started off well again, then had some more trouble (and ultimately finished 12th). It just seemed like for that ‘next year’ to win the next championship, it wound up taking a long time (12 years).
“When I had the opportunity to join Hendrick Motorsports in ’94, I knew that that was a place that could win championships, and they hadn’t won one at the time. (Jeff Gordon would win the first in 1995, followed by Labonte in 1996.) I knew that if I was going to win a championship, that that would be a great opportunity for me to try to win another championship. It was kind of a dream come true to get that second championship. That was extremely satisfying.”
Labonte perhaps could have won more championships, but he also competed in what was arguably NASCAR’s greatest era ever. The level of competition made it perhaps the most difficult time for drivers to win multiple championships, unless your name was Petty or Earnhardt.
“I was so lucky to race in the era that I was in,” Labonte said. “I got to race against David Pearson, Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, Donnie Allison. Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Buddy Baker, all the way to Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, just so many guys in there. …
“And then for my career to last as long as it did was really pretty amazing. I have to credit that to the people that I was with. I was lucky enough to have good people I was always surrounded by, because good people make you look good (he said with a laugh).”
Labonte’s toughest competitor – but also one of his closest friends off-track – was the late Dale Earnhardt. Their legendary battles, particularly at places like Bristol and Darlington, make up some of NASCAR’s greatest racing lore.
“At the race track, he was The Intimidator and was a tough, tough racer, that’s for sure,” Labonte said. “Dale was a different person, I felt, away from the track. Deep down he was a really good guy, had a big heart for a lot of people and helped out a lot of people, doing things that nobody knew about. That’s just kind of the guy he was.”
Labonte then went on to tell one of his favorite stories about Earnhardt.
“We had a couple of run-ins at Bristol and the second one we had, I passed him for the lead, and he ran into the back of me and spun me off Turn 2 and I hit the wall,” Labonte said. “As he came back around and I was sitting on the straightaway, I had decided that he might be going to Victory Lane, but this 5 car was going to be stuck in the side of that 3 car in a second. I started my car back up, I had it in reverse and I was going to T-bone him backwards because I was nosed into the wall.
“I had it timed perfectly, I let the clutch out, hit the gas and it tore the reverse gear out of that car and it moved about two inches. After the race, he said, ‘God, you were so calm and cool.’ I thought to myself, ‘if that reverse gear hadn’t got torn out of that car, you wouldn’t be saying that.’ So, I got out of the car, went into the trailer and changed clothes and went home.”
But that wasn’t the end of it.
“The next week, we’re at Darlington and it always happens this way where you have a run-in with somebody like that,” Labonte said. “I went to the driver introductions, everybody is standing around waiting to be introduced, I turned around and there was Dale and John Andretti was between us. John looks at me and then looks at Dale and says, ‘I’m standing in the wrong place.’ That just broke the ice and we all laughed about it.”
Labonte turns 65 in November and splits his time between Texas and North Carolina. While he’s long retired from racing, he’s still very active with a number of business interests, including his event marketing company – which is now 25 years old – as well as co-owning a Chevrolet car dealership with Hendrick in Greensboro, North Carolina.
The event marketing firm has been particularly satisfying for Labonte, with present and past relationships within the IndyCar and NASCAR communities. Bobby borrowed a page from his older brother’s playbook and started his own sports and event marketing firm about 15 years ago that is also involved with a variety of motorsports clients.
The COVID-19 pandemic significantly hurt both brothers’ operations last year. Terry’s firm was especially hard-hit.
“Before COVID, we used to do about 1,600 to 2,000 events a year,” he said. “But when COVID hit, it went from that number to about 10. It really took a big hit. Unfortunately, we don’t have as many people as we used to have. Now, we’re just starting things back up (although the uptick in the Delta variant is an increasingly significant concern).”
But Labonte hasn’t lost his sense of humor despite the COVID setbacks.
“I’ve got some really good people that work for me and they can manage everything,” Terry said before adding with a hearty laugh, “The only time they call me is if something goes wrong.”
The pinnacle of Labonte’s career was his induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame five years ago. He still finds it a bit surreal but is also humbled by the highest honor a driver can achieve.
“Being in the Hall of Fame means a lot, it really does,” Terry said. “It’s certainly nothing that you ever set out as a goal, like, ‘Oh God, I’m going to be in the Hall of Fame someday’ or something like that. It’s kind of the last thing you ever really think about. Of course, when I started, they didn’t have a NASCAR Hall of Fame. It’s quite an honor to be with just so many people that are just real legends in our sport and that have done so much for our sport over the years.”
Another thing Labonte is happy to see this year is the success Kyle Larson is having in Labonte’s old No. 5 Chevrolet, offering high praise of Larson’s move to Hendrick Motorsports this season.
“I think (Larson’s) one of the greatest drivers in America, by far,” Labonte said. “There’s only a couple guys in that category that I think he’s in right now. It’s fun to watch that 5 car, so I’ve been watching more races, probably more this year than I have the past few years.”
But one thing you will never see again is Terry back behind the wheel of a race car. While brother Bobby competed in the full six-race inaugural season of the Superstar Racing Experience this year, Terry says count him out.
“I’ve been offered some opportunities but I really have no desire to do it,” he said. “I’m just enjoying doing everything right now. I’ve got four grandkids and we’re able to do a lot of fun things with them and things like that. I’m just an ordinary guy, I guess.”
The Terry Labonte file:
* Age: 64 (turns 65 on Nov. 16)
* Hometown: Corpus Christi, Texas.
* Personal: Married to wife Kim since 1978. Two children: son Justin, a former race car driver, and daughter Kristy. Four grandchildren.
* NASCAR Cup career: 890 starts, 22 wins, 182 top-five and 361 top-10 finishes. Also 27 poles. Best season finish: 1st (1984, 1996).
* NASCAR Xfinity Series career: 124 starts, 11 wins, 47 top-five and 68 top-10 finishes. Also 4 poles. Best season finish: 13th (1996).
* NASCAR Camping World Truck Series career: 3 starts, 1 win, 3 top-five and 3 top-10 finishes. Also 1 pole.
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 Kenny Wallace, Trevor Bayne, Ken Schrader, Shawna Robinson, Sam Hornish Jr., Bobby Labonte, Greg Biffle, Ricky Rudd, Darrell Waltrip, Mark Martin, Marcos Ambrose and Juan Pablo Montoya. Follow Jerry on Twitter @JerryBonkowski and @TheRacingBeat, as well as The Racing Beat podcast, available on most podcast platforms.