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Terry Labonte Will Start His 617th Consecutive Winston Cup Race Sunday, a Streak That Rivals Ripken's

April 28, 1999|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was 1982 when Cal Ripken Jr. began his remarkable string of 2,632 consecutive games of major league baseball.

On Jan. 14, 1979, Terry Labonte started a streak that, in its own way, may be even more impressive. And it is still going.

When Labonte takes the green flag Sunday in the California 500 at California Speedway, it will be the 617th consecutive Winston Cup race for the quiet man from Corpus Christi, Texas.

The streak began 20 years ago at the old Riverside International Raceway when Labonte, a 23-year-old rookie driving for fellow Texan Billy Hagen, finished dead last in the Winston Western 500. He went out with a blown engine on the seventh lap.

"It doesn't seem like it's been that long," Labonte said recently. "I don't think much about it except when somebody brings it up. Like when I broke Richard [Petty's] streak, a lot of people wanted to talk about it."

Petty, whose record of 513 consecutive starts once seemed as unreachable as Lou Gehrig's 2,130-game baseball standard, was reached and passed in 1996, the year Labonte won his second Winston Cup championship. He reached 600 last year at Phoenix and 616 last Sunday at Talladega, Ala.

"I haven't thought much about how far I'll go," he said. "I sure don't think it will be soon. I expect I'll still be racing when I'm 50, maybe even a year or two after that. Harry Gant was winning races when he was 52."

The man with two nicknames, "the Iron Man," for his record, and "the Ice Man" for his on-track persona, will not be 43 until Nov. 16.

That means he could have more than 800 consecutive starts by 2006.

Labonte's record started at Riverside and it almost ended there.

In the 1982 Winston Western 500, Labonte smacked the wall at Turn 9 and was hospitalized with facial cuts, a broken nose and a broken foot.

"If that hadn't been the last race of the season, the streak would have ended right there," Labonte said. "If it had been in the middle of the season, I would have missed five or six races, at least."

One of Labonte's staunchest rooters is his brother, Bobby, also a top Winston Cup driver.

"I hope he never quits, not as long as I'm still racing," said Bobby, eight years Terry's junior. "I think that streak is really amazing."

Among Terry's 616 races, he rates the 1996 Napa 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway as his favorite.

Bobby won the race and Terry finished fifth to clinch his second Winston Cup title by 37 points over Jeff Gordon, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate.

"Driving that victory lap with Bobby was the greatest moment of my racing life," he said. "If I could dream up another day like that, I would win the race and Bobby would win the championship and we could take another lap together."

The brothers grew up racing in Texas with their father, Bob Labonte, a Navy man from Maine who settled in Corpus Christi after being stationed at the naval base there.

"Dad raced a little at home in Maine and then he met some people in the Navy who owned race cars and he started racing on a little asphalt track near home," Labonte said.

"Because of my dad's involvement, I grew up around racing and became interested. I couldn't do much with the cars, but they let me knock dents out of them. I probably put more dents in them than I did out of them. When I grew up, my dad was my best friend.

"He's pretty intense. Whatever he does, he does the best he can and expects everybody to do the best they can. When things go wrong, he's not happy. He's probably the toughest guy I've ever been around, or seen, but he's got a nice side too. You don't ever have to wonder what he's thinking because he's going to tell you . . . whether you like it or not.

"He's so outspoken you never know what he's going to say, so I bribe the MRN [Motor Racing Network] guys covering our pits so they won't interview my dad."

Terry made $2 million and Bobby made $2.9 million last year, Terry driving for Rick Hendrick and Bobby for former football coach Joe Gibbs. But it wasn't always that sweet.

"I remember the first time Terry ran Darlington," Bobby said. "He was driving a '73 Monte Carlo [as his personal car]. Somebody pushed him to a gas station because he ran out of gas. My mom and dad gave him enough money to stay an extra night.

"Now we're sleeping in $750,000 buses. I haven't changed the oil in my [personal] car since I was 17 because I don't drive them long enough anymore. You get free cars to drive, and you don't appreciate it as much, but you would miss them if they weren't there. I guess you could say we're spoiled now."

Terry, who won his 21st Winston Cup race last month at Texas Motor Speedway in the No. 5 Kellogg's Corn Flakes Chevy, has another slant on the family's fortunes:

"Who would have ever thought there would 30,000 cereal boxes with my picture on them?"

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Ironmen

Some of the longest streaks in sports:

NASCAR

Terry Labonte: 616 races

1979-present

BASEBALL

Cal Ripken Jr.: 2,632 games

1982-1998

NFL

Jim Marshall: 282 games

1960-1979

NBA

A.C. Green: 1,022 games

1986-present

NHL

Doug Jarvis: 1,964 games

1975-1987

GOLF

Jack Nicklaus: 146 consecutive majors

1962-1998

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