Biddeford’s Richard ‘Slugger’ Labbe is a survivor.
He has been a crew chief for a race team that won the 2001 Daytona 500 with Michael Waltrip behind the wheel. He has tasted victory four times in the Sprint Cup Series.
He has also been involved in the Chase for the points series championship twice with driver Jeremy Mayfield.
He has worked with a variety of drivers in different series in recent years including Joe Nemechek, Sterling Marlin, Jacques Villenueve and Mike Skinner in the Cup Series and Villenueve and Scott Speed in the Camping World Truck Series.
Following the Daytona 500 this season, he was hired by TRG Motorsports to be the crew chief and all-purpose overseer of the program for driver David Gilliland in their under-funded single-car Sprint Cup series team.
“It’s tough to be the low man. We have three cars and five full-time employees and we’re racing against teams with 15 cars and 100 employees,” said the 40-year-old Labbe. “We’ve got some real good guys, racers who want to be here. We understand what we have. We have to make do with what we have. We do the best we can with what we have. We have to work hard, work smart and try to keep up with the other people. Making [qualifying for] the races is half the battle.”
He also noted that they are thankful to have jobs.
“We respect what we have and we’re happy to be here,” said Labbe.
Mike Wallace failed to qualify in the TRG No. 71 car for the Daytona 500 and Gilliland and Labbe came on board after that.
They have qualified for all six races since the opener and he is currently 36th in owners’ points. He is 23 points behind Gibbs Racing rookie Joey Logano for the coveted 35th spot. The top 35 drivers in points earn a spot in the next Cup race regardless of their qualifying performance.
In addition to their limited sponsorship and resources, their pit crew doesn’t join them until the day of the race. The pit crew has been with TRG for the last four races.
“It’s hard to get a [pit crew] team to keep up with teams that lift weights regularly and have pit practices every day,” said Labbe. “It is what it is.”
The limited number of cars is also a challenge.
“We’ve run one car in four races. We’ve beat it to death,” said Labbe.
“We’ve got a short track car and two intermediate cars and we swap parts and pieces and double our work [time] to get the back-up cars ready,” said Labbe.
He and the other employees are involved in all aspects of the program including the building and maintenance of the cars.
“Every day when we leave work, we’re all really tired,” said Labbe.
He also has two other jobs.
He is a spotter and mentor to rookies Tayler Malsam in the Camping World Truck Series and Michael Annett in the Nationwide Series.
Malsam is 15th in points but leads all rookies while Annett is 16th and fifth in points among the rookies.
“I’m working all the time,” said Labbe.
However, he knows it is important to stay involved in racing and he relishes the challenge.
“I enjoy it. I love to see success,” said Labbe. “When you spend a lot of time with someone and they have success, it’s very rewarding.”
He said he is looking forward to dispelling the notion that today’s crew chiefs have to have an engineering background.
“I don’t have an engineer on my team,” said Labbe. “I take a lot of notes and do a lot of things [necessary to compensate]. We haven’t been rewarded yet but when we are, I’ll prove that a dumb-ass kid from Maine can still get it done.”
Labbe is hoping team principal owner Kevin Buckler can land some sponsors so they can expand their race team and equipment.
He said sponsorship will be important because, after having this weekend off from the Sprint Cup Series for Easter, they will have a string of 14 consecutive weekends of racing beginning with a race at Phoenix International Raceway on April 18.
“He said he’s close on some things and, hopefully, it’ll come true,” said Labbe. “It’ll be rewarding for all the guys who stuck in here when we didn’t have much.”
Whether they obtain sponsorship or not, Labbe will keep doing the best he can.