Hall of Famers are rookies now

THE BALTIMORE SUN

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman thought about his rookie year in pro football and paused.

Aikman is now co-owner of Hall of Fame Racing, a Nextel Cup team that debuts in the Daytona 500 tomorrow. He had just been asked how long he thinks it will take his team to be competitive.

"I hope it isn't as difficult as my rookie season was," he said. "I was 0-11 as a starter, but yet, if it is, I don't think anyone is going to be prepared to throw in the towel."

Aikman and another Cowboys Hall of Fame quarterback, Roger Staubach, have put together this team in the past six months, after working to find sponsorship for the past two years.

Since signing a technology company, they have signed two-time Cup champion Terry Labonte and Tony Raines, who ran full time in the series in 2003, as co-drivers, and crew chief Philippe Lopez, who last worked in that position at Richard Childress Racing with driver Dave Blaney.

Tomorrow, Labonte will start 43rd in the 43-car field.

Aikman said Labonte (who will drive seven of the 36 races) was chosen because of his skill and also because of the benefit a new team and its sponsors can get from having a former champion. And Labonte's "past champion exemption" for the 500 has already paid off. It got the team into the 500.

Labonte had to rely on his champion's exemption because his 18th-place finish in the Twin 150 race wasn't good enough to make the field and because his pole-day speed was disallowed due to an illegal carburetor.

"Obviously we were disappointed to not make the race on our own," Aikman said. "But we understand why it happened and why NASCAR had to do what they did. I think most people, if not everybody, in the garage and within the sport recognize the mistake that was made and that it wasn't an attempt on anyone's part to try to give us an unfair advantage on the race track."

Aikman, who grew up in California, got his first taste of racing as a boy, going to the races with his father at tracks in Riverside and the surrounding area.

"My father actually on weekends would race cars," Aikman said. "So I would go to the race track some with him ... but I never thought of getting into racing myself. I was always a stick and ball type guy."

Aikman said he believes ownership in the sport is appealing to former athletes because it allows them to have a stake in a competitive sport.

"Those opportunities aren't there for very many of us in football and some of the other major sports," he said. "So this is a great opportunity for me and Roger. . . We are excited about the opportunity and the competition of it all is what drove us to it."

Aikman's interest was kindled in 1994, when Sterling Marlin invited him to the race.

"I met Sterling Marlin in Nashville early in my career and he invited me to be his guest," said Aikman. "And then I got to drop the green flag. It was the first Daytona 500 Sterling won and I got to be in the winner's circle. It was a great experience, to be around that part of it early on and get a taste of what that is all about. It excites me."

Aikman and Staubach will be here for the race tomorrow, and Aikman said he is looking forward to being in on the action.

smm2me@aol.com

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