Labonte is relishing his return to OPS

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OXFORD – If racing was always like this, Terry Labonte might not retire at all.

The Texas native with Rumford roots returned to Oxford Plains Speedway this weekend and was thrilled to be back racing at its purest level.

“I was telling someone a while ago, I said ‘You won’t believe how much more fun this is than going to a Cup race,'” said Labonte. “It’s hard for a lot of people to believe that because everybody here would rather be at a Cup race. For me, I’ve been there for so long and done that for so long. I kind of know all the ins and outs and all the politics. This is a whole lot more fun.”

Labonte, who retired last year, has raced in one Cup race this year – filling in for Michael Waltrip at the road course at Sonoma. He’s been lured back into racing recently, with plans to compete at Indianapolis Motor Speedway next weekend, but he’s unsure how much racing he has left. He’s had discussions with various drivers about being a substitute – and he’s made it known which tracks he doesn’t want to race – but how much racing he’ll do in the future is uncertain.

“I haven’t decided,” said Labonte, who won stock car racing’s top prize in 1984 and 1996 and was named one of NASCAR’s 50 greatest drivers in 1998. “I don’t want to get back into it and do it full time. Sometimes when you’re at home, you wish you were at the track and sometimes when you’re at the track, you wish you were fishing.”

Labonte competed in the 250 for the fourth time Sunday. He qualified in 1983, 1986 and 1992. He ran a short-track race last year in Pennsylvania and had a great fun. He also has another one scheduled in Canada later this year.

“I never will forget the first time I came here,” he recalled. “I ran side-by-side with Bobby Allison for 75 laps. You couldn’t pass anybody because they were side-by-side in front of us and side-by-side behind us. That was my first experience up here. I couldn’t believe all the type of cars in the race. It was quite an event.”

Labonte didn’t have it much easier Sunday, when he needed a provisional to make the race. He challenged for the win in one of the last-chance races, but was spun out.

He started last and didn’t make much headway. A multiple-car crash on lap 102 damaged his car and ended his day. His car had to be pushed out of the way into the infield.

Labonte has ties to the state deeper than just the 250. His ancestors migrated from Canada and settled in Rumford. His father, Bob, eventually settled in Corpus Cristi, Texas, but Labonte has carried his ties to Rumford almost everywhere he’s driven. The No. 44 that adorns his car comes from the number his father wore as an athlete in Rumford.

“He played high school football,” said Labonte. “The first car I had when I was seven years old, that was the number I had. So I’ve had it all the time.”

Labonte was thrilled with the bright yellow No. 44 that Richard Moody Racing had prepared for him. He said it was easier to drive than the Busch car he drove last time he raced in the 250. He got some laps in during the practice session in the morning. Many of the other cars had been practicing all day Saturday.

“I was kidding them, ‘They practice more here than they do for the Daytona 500,'” said Labonte.

Labonte took time out to have an autograph session and take in all facets of the 250 atmosphere.

“It’s fun,” he said. “The people are fun. It’s nice to talk to the fans. You can’t really do that at a Cup race.”

Labonte’s fellow NASCAR veteran, Kevin Lepage, was also enjoying his return to the 250. Lepage last raced the 250 in 1993.

“The most enjoyable part of today is just seeing all the familiar faces that were here in the early 1990s when I was here,” said Lepage. “All the people I used to race with, now they’re kids are racing. It’s a lot of fun just to be here.”

Lepage was using a car provided by Archie St. Hilaire of B.B.I Industries in Old Orchard Beach and Todd Graffam, of Lyman. He had tried running the outside during last Thursday’s practice session, and he focused on the inside Saturday.

“The car is working really good on the bottom,” said Lepage. “I think we have a car that we can really be competitive with. We just have to see how it all goes.”

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