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Pomp and circumstance

Graduation forces Labonte, Petty to make tough choices

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Posted: Friday May 25, 2001 12:31 AM
  Terry Labonte Terry Labonte Craig Jones /Allsport

CONCORD, N.C. ( -- As students try on caps and gowns, drivers are having to squeeze graduations into their busy racing schedules.

Terry Labonte was able to do both Thursday night, but Kyle Petty could not.

Labonte's daughter, Kristy, and Petty's son, Austin, graduated from Trinity High School in Trinity, N.C., on Thursday night, with the ceremony starting around the same time as qualifying for the Coca-Cola 600 was supposed to begin.

Both hoped for early draws when the qualifying order was set, but neither got their wishes. Petty drew the 22nd spot and Labonte drew the 32nd.

But Labonte approached NASCAR officials and asked if he could be moved up in the order. NASCAR obliged, letting Labonte have the first spot.

It didn't matter, though.

Rain delayed the start of qualifying for two hours, 35 minutes, so Labonte hopped on a waiting helicopter and made the 17-minute flight to the ceremony.

He watched graduation then made it back to the track in time to make his qualifying run in his original spot.

"Family is important to me, I did my best to make it there and things worked out," Labonte said.

Petty didn't risk it, though.

Since he doesn't have any provisionals, he couldn't risk a poor qualifying run.

But Austin had assured him he didn't mind, so long as Petty made it to the graduation party before the night was over.

"I've talked to Austin four or five times today and he's cool with it," Petty said. "He told me not to worry, I bought him a stereo for his new car, so I guess that's how I made it up to him. I'm going to swing by the party when I leave here and see him, so everything's fine."

Last-minute reprieve

Kenny Wallace, who has raced the entire year without a full-time sponsor, was so close to shutting down his race team he actually interviewed for a new job.

Wallace auditioned Wednesday for NBC for a spot in the booth for the NBC-TNT telecasts in the second half of the season.

But C. F. Sauer, a Richmond, Va.-based company that markets spices and other food products, finalized a sponsorship deal with Wallace and Eel River Racing on Thursday that will keep the team going for 15 races. There are 25 races remaining this season.

"C.F. Sauer couldn't have come to us at a better time," team owner Jack Birmingham said. "We have been looking for a sponsor all season and we are mighty glad to have the chance to work with them."

Wallace was ecstatic once the deal was finalized.

"Now the team can really get down to business," he said. "To the people at C.F. Sauer, I am totally indebted to you and I can promise that we will sell your products well."

Wallace and Eel River ran without a primary sponsor for the first part of the season, and came close to shutting down after the race at California four weeks ago.

But Geico Insurance sponsored the car at Richmond and again last weekend in the Winston Open, keeping the team afloat.

Helping hand

Bill Simpson, the much-maligned seat belt maker, donated $12,000 worth of firesuits to Lowe's Motor Speedway Emergency Services on Thursday.

The suits, which are valued at $300 each, will be worn by the speedway's frontline firemen on pit road. Thirty will be used this weekend, with 10 more scheduled to arrive in time for track's October race.

"The donation goes a long way toward protecting our firemen in the line of duty," said Pit Road Safety director Jim Allison, who will present Simpson with a plaque Saturday to show his appreciation.

Simpson's company, Simpson Racing Products, makes various kinds of racing equipment, including seat belts. One of his belts was in Dale Earnhardt's car during his fatal accident at Daytona, and NASCAR officials said the belt broke. Simpson contends it was cut by an emergency worker.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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