Jockeying for position with Bobby Labonte
NASCAR driver Bobby Labonte leads the Winston Cup standings. A condensed version of this interview appears in the Oct. 16 edition of ESPN the Magazine.
Dan Patrick: I hear you love the Weather Channel. Please explain.
Bobby Labonte: There's always something happening. If you go away for an hour and come back there's always something building up or now it's raining or snowing. The weather is always moving.
DP: You're a weatherman groupie, huh?
||DP: What's the one question you get from non-racing fans?
BL: How do you stay in the car so long without having to use the bathroom?
DP: And your
BL: I just don't go. ”
BL: Well, I know Jim Cantore personally. We've had dinner a few times and he's been to a couple of races. I get up in the morning with Heather Tesch. I'm not going to name the rest of them but...
DP: You've got some problems, I think.
BL: I'm a sick person.
DP: Aside from rain, what weather conditions do you not want to see. ... Is it just the oppressive heat? Or sunshine? Would you rather have it overcast? What are you looking for?
BL: I don't mind hot, sunny days at a racetrack. You know, if you want to get down to it, that's what I like the most. I mean, rain is definitely not any fun at a racetrack. But I like it better when it's hot and sunny over overcast skies.
DP: What do you do during a rain delay?
BL: During a rain delay, we sit in the truck and watch the Weather Channel.
DP: Back to that Weather Channel again.
BL: Yes, exactly.
DP: Terry traded nicknames from Iceman to Ironman. Why don't you even have one nickname?
BL: Nobody's ever given me a nickname. I think the Ironman's Little Brother isn't bad.
DP: You don't want to be the little brother.
BL: When you've got an older brother that you look up to and you get along with, it's OK.
DP: But you couldn't look at yourself in the mirror and say, "I'm the Rainbow Warrior"?
BL: No, that would get on my nerves. I think of those candies you buy with the different colors in it.
DP: Life Savers?
BL: Not really Life Savers. Fruit Twists or whatever they're called. ... My kids eat them.
DP: Who drives when you and Terry are in the same car?
BL: I usually do.
DP: Is that just out of habit? I mean, how does that work? You just say, "I'll drive"?
BL: Usually it's, "Come over here and pick me up and let's go somewhere." "OK, I'll drive."
DP: Does he still treat you as a little brother? Does he do things that piss you off?
BL: No, no. We're eight years apart but it doesn't seem like that. In fact, the older that we get ... it seems like the closer we are [age-wise]. You know, the gap seems to be closer now than it used to be. You know, 36 to 42 isn't as much as 8 to 16.
DP: Yes, but 36 and 8 is 44.
BL: Maybe we're seven years apart. I don't know, it's seven or eight.
DP: Come on, you're supposed to be giving NASCAR a good name and there you go. You blew the math.
BL: OK, so the nickname won't be Smarty or Smart.
DP: Or Math.
DP: Put me in your car. You're running second to Dale Earnhardt. Last lap at Bristol. What are you doing?
BL: Payback, Dale ... this is for my brother. Terry always invites me to ride with him to keep reminding me of that. Maybe his eyes would be in the mirror and he'll forget to turn. Be too worried about me.
DP: How do you convince somebody you're an athlete?
BL: Uh, make them sit in that car beside me for 4½ hours and not use the restroom.
DP: I make my kids do that. They don't get to go when we go on those cross-country trips. I say, "Sit there and shut up."
BL: You're mean.
DP: What's the one question you get from non-racing fans?
BL: How do you stay in the car so long without having to use the bathroom?
DP: And your response is?
BL: I just don't go.
DP: That's not true.
BL: It is.
DP: You can go for three or four hours without...
DP: But you're taking in liquids at the same time.
BL: Yes. I sweat it off.
DP: You know what? Jeff Gordon said he just went in his suit.
BL: Really. ... I wouldn't do that. Somebody's got to clean it up, and I'd hate to have to tell them that they've got to clean that up.
DP: Do you have a funny potty-break story?
BL: Uh, let's see. Using the bathroom, right?
DP: You either have one you don't want to tell or you're trying to figure out one to tell.
BL: Yes ... I've been to about six or eight Jimmy Buffett concerts, and you stand in line waiting to use the bathroom, and the whole time you're thinking that $10 you just spent sure is going through fast.
DP: If you could listen to music during a race, what would you be listening to?
BL: Probably Jimmy Buffett.
DP: Anything in particular? And why Buffett?
BL: He's a cool guy. I got to meet him this year. ... I like his songs. Been to the concerts, like I said ... I probably don't really have a favorite song of his other than "Fins to the Left, Fins to the Right" -- which wouldn't make sense in a race car ... but I'd probably have his CD in there.
DP: Does your little girl understand what dad does?
BL: Yes, she says we're going to the races.
DP: Does she understand what's at risk when you're out there?
||My son knew Adam (Petty) pretty good. ... They always talked whenever they saw each other, and the biggest thing my son said was he didn't even have a chance to have kids. ... And he talks about that today. Still today. ”
DP: And how old is she?
BL: She's only 2½.
DP: Is she your oldest?
BL: No, my little boy is 6 years old.
DP: And he understands it.
BL: Yes. When Adam (Petty) got killed -- he knew Adam pretty good. ... They always talked whenever they saw each other, and the biggest thing my son said was he didn't even have a chance to have kids. And I said, "You're right." And he talks about that today. Still today.
DP: Does he understand, then, what dad is doing? And did it take Adam Petty dying for him to understand ... the risk that dad takes?
BL: I think he gets it but ... he doesn't say much about it, so I'm not sure how much he understands it. ... (he's) really close to the age of really understanding it, but not really saying a lot about it.
DP: How are NASCAR car numbers determined?
BL: They give them to you. You ask for them and they'll give them to you...
DP: Yes, but what if you had this problem with certain numbers and they gave you -- like if Earnhardt didn't like 3, you know, he may say, "I don't want 3." And they may say, "Well, that's tough. We gave it to you." It's like a coach handing out jerseys ... that's what you get.
BL: Right. ... I think that ... if you don't like it bad enough you can probably get another one, just as long as it's not a famous one.
DP: But you don't want to whine, either. You don't want to be a guy who whines.
BL: No. Heck, no.
DP: How's it feel to be leading the pack?
BL: Pretty cool. Actually, a lot of fun.
DP: Did you expect it?
BL: I don't know if I expected it, but I felt like we were gaining towards it and ... it's been pretty comfortable.
DP: You're good at left turns. What's the problem with the right turns?
BL: I don't know. We finished fourth at Sears Point, which wasn't too bad. ... Just something I ain't never really done a lot of, I guess.
DP: Does it take a special driver to win on a road course? A different driver?
BL: Well, I don't know. I think a good short-track racer probably can win on a road course, and that's what you see with Jeff and Rusty and those guys. I mean, they're really good at short tracks, so for whatever reason, I'm decent on short tracks but not as good as those guys and that might be where that comes into play.
DP: Do you have to follow football now that coach Gibbs is leading the crew?
BL: Yes I do, but I follow the Dallas Cowboys.
DP: Oh, that must upset him.
BL: When I started driving for him, it was like, "Oh, well, I guess you don't want to know that we used to pull against you every Sunday."
DP: A favorite Cowboy.
BL: Uh, Roger Staubach.
DP: I knew you were going there.
BL: Yep. I mean, I was still pretty young when he was playing, but ... he was pretty much hero material.
DP: So why didn't you take No. 12 as your car?
BL: Because that's what he already had, so I couldn't take it.
DP: Well, you can take Roger Staubach's number.
BL: Well, there might be a 12 now, but way too much money involved in a team. We can't change now. It would be like changing in midstream.
DP: Is Mark Martin now sponsored by Viagra?
BL: He will be next year.
DP: The jokes are going to start, aren't they?
BL: They started this year, but they might continue.
DP: When's the last time you were pulled over for speeding?
BL: Last year in Sonoma, Calif., before the race.
DP: What happened? Set the scene.
BL: Well ... (I) moved from a 35 to a 25 speed zone, right? And I'm up there talking and I'm driving and ... I see that it's 25 and I was probably still going 35 -- and it's kind of like a speed trap.
Well, sure enough, there he is over there in the corner, so I slowed down. Here he comes. I knew he was coming. I get to the stop sign, take a left, sure enough, he throws on the lights so I pull over to the right. He gets my license out and it's a rent-a-car, so I told him it was a rent-a-car. I don't have the registration -- I'd have to find it. He gets back in (his car) and he's gone for, like, five to seven minutes. So at this point in time I'm like, OK, am I going to try to get out of this ticket. But no, here, hurry up -- just give me the ticket. I've got to go. And as it turned out, when he came up there he just said, "OK, that's all we need. Thanks. Have a good day and be careful." And I said, "All right." And ... I don't know that he even knew who I was -- or he didn't make any comment that he knew. He just said, "that's all" -- but I was getting to the point when he came to the window, I was like, "OK, where do I sign." And I guess it was a good thing I didn't say that, because I'd have been saying, "Here, give me the ticket."
||The officer came up to me and said, 'Here -- what are you doing running so slow? You need to be going faster than that.' ”
DP: Have you talked yourself out of a ticket by dropping the, "I'm Bobby Labonte, NASCAR driver."
BL: Uh, no. Uh-uh. No. I had a guy stop me back at New Year's Day a couple of years ago ... and I probably wasn't running but five miles over the speed limit. I think he was just going to get somebody that day. ... I gave him my license. He got halfway back to his car and he came up to me and said, "Here -- what are you doing running so slow? You need to be going faster than that." I said, "Thank you, sir. Thank you. Anytime you want to come by and have lunch, let's go."
DP: What's in your race car that would surprise me?
BL: We got a window net on the right side which is not very normal. Usually the window net's on the left, but we've got one on both sides.
DP: I need something sexier than that.
BL: OK. Let's see. ... Always have cameras. Always looking at me. ... That could be sexy if I was wearing a little skimpy thing or something. But not in a fire suit.
DP: Do you have a picture of your family in the car?
BL: No, I sure don't.
DP: Why not?
BL: A good point. I should have one ... shouldn't I?
DP: Well, if you love your family. I don't know. Maybe you're trying to run away from them.
BL: Well ... see, there's walls all the way around the racetrack. You can't get out.
DP: You're just figuring that out.
BL: Yes -- 500 miles every weekend. I'm still trying to get out.
DP: Give me another driver (aside from your brother) you would allow to drive you on a cross-country road trip. ... Who would you trust?
BL: Who would I trust. Uh, let's see. Mark Martin.
DP: Back to that Viagra thing again, aren't we.
BL: Well, the way I look at it is, he's had a back operation. His knees have been banged up. I figure he ain't going to get very far. He'll want to take an airplane flight, so he'd probably be the best one to ride with.
DP: Why is it NASCAR drivers, to me, are hockey players behind the wheel? ... You know, so what if you break your sternum or you have a broken leg.
DP: You know, no big deal. You just get in there and fire up the car and go.
BL: I can vouch for I've been there and done that. So, I don't know. I guess it's -- I wouldn't be lying if I said it's for the passion for the sport, to do what you want to do. ... But it does hurt sometimes. ... I mean, I think you just want to do it, and maybe you're just scared if somebody drives and they go faster than you...
DP: Did you know the Bobby Labonte matching pewter-key-chain-and-money-clip set is only $12.50 on NASCAR.com?
BL: Really. ... Is that all?
DP: That may be a lot, I think.
BL: Well, compared to other guys -- how much are theirs?
DP: I'm not sure. I didn't check for Jeff Gordon or Dale Earnhardt.
BL: Well, if theirs is more I'll be upset.
DP: Let me see you go up to Dale Earnhardt and say something.
BL: Yes. "Hey, listen -- I don't like that key chain price, so let's change this."
DP: Would you have a conversation with Earnhardt?
BL: Would I?
DP: Yes ... give me a conversation that you would have. What would it be about, because he strikes me as a guy that ... doesn't really want to socialize.
BL: You get him away from the track (with) not too many things on his mind, he'll socialize with you. I've done a few things with him and, I mean it's, you know ... pretty good conversation.
DP: Yes, but what would you talk about?
BL: Whatever he wants to talk about. And then if you get a chance every now and then, you might throw something in.
DP: But he just -- he has that -- I did one of these with him and ... he lived up to the nickname the Intimidator.
BL: Uh huh.
DP: Yes, he was just tough. I didn't enjoy it. You know, I can just imagine with you guys, that you're trying to steal money from him, the way he probably looks at it, so why even talk to you guys.
BL: Yes. You ever seen that commercial with the Tasmanian Devil in his car?
BL: That could be him if you get him at the wrong time.
DP: OK. Well, now you tell me.
BL: Well, you should have called me and asked for advice before he talked to you.
DP: Are you still upset at Jeff Gordon because he won Rookie of the Year?
BL: Uh, no. Uh-uh. No.
DP: See, I want you guys to start trashing some of the other NASCAR guys. ... You guys always give the impression ... that you all like each other, but then deep down you really don't like each other.
||You race with everybody 36 weekends a year ... so there's no sense in making enemies, not that you want to anyway. But if you made an enemy, you don't want to be an enemy for a long period of time because you're around him 36 weekends a year. ”
BL: Well ... you figure that you race with everybody 36 weekends a year. ... So there's no sense in making enemies, not that you want to anyway. But if you made an enemy, you don't want to be an enemy for a long period of time because if you're around him 36 weekends a year, you might see him more than your best friend down the street. So, I don't know. That's just kind of the way I look at it.
DP: Does Gordon bother you because he's good-looking?
DP: He's kind of a Ken doll.
DP: Yes, that has to bother you a little bit. ... He's a Tom Cruise kind of guy. That has to bother NASCAR guys.
BL: He probably wouldn't be sitting here -- I'm out here fishing in the pond right now and I've got worm guts all over my hands. That probably wouldn't fit his style, would it.
DP: What are we fishing for? Is that your relaxation?
BL: Yes, pretty much so. We're out here with the kids and my wife and we're just fishing a little bit.
DP: And that's all ... if you get away, it's going to be fishing.
BL: Well, that's one thing. But we might go the beach, a family vacation or the mountains or something like that -- but this is in the neighborhood so this is an afternoon thing.
DP: Are you guys really the good old boys?
BL: Yes, I think so.
DP: But you kind of have to live up to that, don't you? That's a reminder. You can't really be an ass with somebody because you're the good old boys.
BL: Well, I know everybody's done this. I mean football players, basketball players, everybody's played in somebody's back yard or somebody's court behind somebody's house that was on dirt or something like that. You know, we're no different. I (went) to the race track in 1987 trying to make enough money to go to the next race and couldn't afford to, you know -- I wasn't paying myself and couldn't afford anything. ... I think all of us got into the sport because you worked hard to get into it. ... I wouldn't have thought, you know, years later I'd be racing for a living or making money doing what I want to do. When I started racing ... it wasn't about the money. It was about the driving-the-race-car part of it.
DP: What do you think of the gas prices?
BL: Way too high. Somebody needs to work on that. Janet Reno or somebody like that.
DP: Last book you read?
BL: Uh, let's see ... that would be "Fitness for Dummies."
DP: Did you learn anything?
BL: No, I'm going to go get the video.
DP: Last movie you saw?
BL: "Rocky and Bullwinkle" -- yesterday.
DP: Did you cry?
BL: Uh, no.