Cal Ripken took a victory lap after he broke Lou Gehrig's record for consecutive games. Terry Labonte hopes he gets a chance to do the same when he becomes the all-time iron man of stock car racing.
Labonte, who is on the verge of breaking Richard Petty's record for consecutive NASCAR starts, got a chance to compare notes with Ripken last night, when he visited Camden Yards and threw out the ceremonial first ball.
Ripken has played in 2,165 consecutive major-league games. Labonte, 39, has started 513 consecutive races, tying Petty last week at the First Union Bank 400 at Wilkesboro, N.C. Their sports couldn't be more different, and yet they found that they had a lot in common.
"It's great to have somebody answering the same streak questions in another sport," Ripken said. "There are some similarities to the answers. It's comforting to know that somebody else knows what that's all about."
Remember how Ripken used to say that the streak was just a by-product of his desire to play every day and his ability to produce enough to justify his place in the lineup. That's pretty much the way Labonte looks at it.
"I think a lot more has been made of the streak than should have been," he said. "I've been fortunate to be with some very good teams and we've been able to qualify and I haven't been injured."
The similarities don't end there. Ripken hit a home run in the record-tying game. Labonte qualified for the pole at Wilkesboro and went on to win the race. What better way to celebrate his little piece of history. He'll try to do the same this Sunday in the Goody's 500 at Martinsville, Va.
"The thing that excited me about the streak from my standpoint was that I got a chance to tie it with the best team I've had in my life. We had a chance to win that race. We weren't the fastest car in the race, but we worked hard and made adjustments and we were there at the end."
It is that kind of blue-collar philosophy that turned Ripken into a national hero last year and has made Labonte one of the most respected drivers on the NASCAR circuit. Both came by it honestly. The stories about Cal Ripken Sr.'s work ethic are legendary. Richard Labonte taught his son the same no-nonsense approach.
"I still work with my father," Labonte said. "He works overtime. I don't know anybody who works harder than he does and he expects people around him to work hard, too. He never gives up."
Does that sound familiar?
Labonte also knows what it's like to chase a legend -- in this case a living legend. Petty put the NASCAR circuit on the sporting map, and he's still a major force in the auto racing industry.
"Richard has done so much for our sport," Labonte said. "It's just an honor to be mentioned along with him. He's got a couple of other records I'd rather have than this one."
There was a lot of mutual respect exchanged when Ripken and Labonte got together yesterday, though Ripken claims he knows little about racing and Labonte said that he only played baseball once in his life.
"I don't have any inside appreciation of it," Ripken said, "but I do have some curiosity about it. I would imagine you can't really appreciate it unless you're there."
Labonte left a standing invitation for Ripken to ride along on a practice run if he really wants to know what it's like, an offer that Ripken might accept if he wasn't bound by a contractual prohibition against such hazardous activities. Labonte does not harbor the same curiosity about baseball. His one childhood experience with the game soured him for life.
"I was the smallest kid out there and they needed someone to pitch," he said. "I threw about three pitches to this big kid and he hit a line drive right into my chest. I went home crying and never played again."
Pub Date: 4/17/96