CONCORD, N.C. — Richard “Slugger” Labbe was a fixture in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series garage area, but more than 30 years on the road every weekend took a toll on the Maine native.
Labbe worked for a number of NASCAR’s top teams, earning five victories as a crew chief in the Cup Series. Two of those came in two of the sport’s biggest events — the Daytona 500 with Michael Waltrip in 2003 and the Brickyard 400 with Paul Menard in 2011.
However, after losing his job at Richard Childress Racing midway through the 2017 season, Labbe decided it was time for a change.
“I’d been in NASCAR for 34 years, with the last 20 as a crew chief,” Labbe explained. “I just got to the point where the normal grind of being a crew chief and working 80 to 100 hours a week was too much for me. Being 50 years old, I finally had enough of the NASCAR grind every week.
“So I decided to kick back and slow down my work ethics. I really didn’t do anything for three months. I did a little work for NBC as an on-air analyst, I did some stuff for MRN, just trying to stay relevant in the sport.”
After a few months away from racing, an opportunity arose for Labbe to join Toyota Racing Development late in 2017.
“A good friend of mine, Andy Graves, who runs Toyota Racing Development, called me a couple of times about coming to work for TRD,” Labbe recalled.
The opportunity was far too good to pass up. Fast-forward two years and Labbe still works for Toyota Racing Development. His official title is Engineering Manager — Vehicle Support.
“Basically anything TRD offers up to the teams, if it’s NHRA, if it’s NASCAR Cup Series, NASCAR Xfinity Series, NASCAR Truck Series, ARCA Series, K&N, any support that TRD offers up kind of flows through me and I make sure teams get everything they need,” Labbe explained. “It could be anything from time on the simulator at the office to simulation data acquisitions, programs, so many things that we offer to our teams. I just make sure the teams are utilizing everything we have to offer to help them win races.”
While Labbe works with all of Toyota’s race teams across multiple disciplines, he focuses most of his time on Toyota Racing Development’s NHRA program.
“One of the main things was to look over the NHRA program,” Labbe said. “They’ve had good success, but they wanted someone to come in and just help the teams get better and make sure the teams are utilizing everything TRD had to offer.
“I try to go where there are issues, where I can offer up the most help, but the NHRA is my main objective.”
Labbe will be the first to admit there was a steep learning curve for him when it came to NHRA drag racing.
“The cool thing about NHRA is when I started two years ago, I didn’t know anything about it,” Labbe said. “I was very, very vague to it and I walked into a time bomb. I had to learn a lot quick. So I realized I needed to talk to a lot of the mechanics, the crew chiefs and all the crew members just to understand how it all works.”
Labbe’s work paid off last year when Toyota driver J.R. Todd earned his first Funny Car championship for Kalitta Motorsports. For Labbe, the chance to be a part of winning a championship is a testament to the work ethic he brought with him when he moved to North Carolina from Maine in 1989.
“I moved away from Maine in 1989. I was a dumbass kid with no college degree. I just knew that if I came South with my work ethic, that I could outwork everybody and I could learn really, really fast,” Labbe said. “So I took the chance. I moved away. I just wanted the opportunity to work and in NASCAR, it worked really, really well.
“To move over to NHRA and to be part of winning a championship was just something I never thought of,” he added. “I feel very lucky to be a kid from Maine with a high school education … if you put your mind to doing something, you can accomplish anything.”