by Tim Glover
AFTER FIVE DECADES, THE "LOOSE CABOOSE" IS STILL ON TRACK
Johnny Labbous, Sr. is now in his fifth decade of drag racing, and still going strong. He began his racing career in the late '60s, racing for trophies in Saturday night action at the original Brainerd Optimist club track near Hixson, Tennessee. (The track is now located near Interstate 24 just outside of Chattanooga.)
The name on the side of Labbous' race cars, "Loose Caboose," is probably better known than he is. When asked about the origin of the name, he said his friends in high school called him Caboose. A couple of years after he began racing, the Brainerd Optimist Club hired one of his former classmates, Gary Ridge, as their dragstrip announcer. That night Labbous had three cars entered (a '67 Barracuda, '68 GTX and '69 Roadrunner), and as the evening progressed, Ridge kept announcing, "The Caboose is loose!" When Labbous won with all three cars that evening, Ridge, who was also an artist, came over and told Labbous he really needed "Loose Caboose" on the car. He had some silver tape, which Ridge cut out that night and applied to the Roadrunner. The next day, Labbous went out and won with it at Paradise Dragway in Calhoun, GA, and the name has stuck ever since. Tommy Bollen in Rome, GA was then commissioned to paint the "Loose Caboose" logo seen on his race cars through the years.
He recalls the bracket classes he raced in his early days at Chattanooga were called Dial-In A and Dial-In B. He remembered the five amber tree from back then, along with the unique IHRA tree used at some tracks, which simply had one yellow and one green light on each side, similar to today's Pro Tree.
Early in his career, Labbous caught on to the importance of reaction time. After getting beaten by Roy Johnson's '62 Dodge in Super Stock class racing at English Mountain, and knowing he ran closer to the record than Johnson, Labbous started watching him. (Roy Johnson is the father of Allen Johnson, the 2002 Southern Nationals Pro Stock champ.) "I ran him and he beat me. He was killer. But he got me wise to what was going on," said Labbous. He noticed Johnson would go through the beams, then back up until he turned the stage bulb back on with the single yellow, single green "Pro Tree". Ah hah! Labbous preferred rolling in deep with a forward motion. He explained that before the days of transbrakes, it was very difficult to get a good reaction time when footbrake racing on the Pro Tree. Deep staging worked for a long time until it was not allowed any more by the sanctioning bodies. He recalled that same day the clocks broke, so the race was finished complete with "spotting" so many car lengths and a flagman. He won the race, remembering running the last two rounds against nearly identical '55 Chevys, which were spotted six to eight car lengths down the track.
One of his favorite accomplishments is the first Division Two ET Finals Championship, in Pro class, which was contested at Southeastern International Dragway in 1976. He also got down to three cars in Heavy at that race. Incidentally, it took two weekends to finish the race due to a rainout the first weekend. That year, 1976, was very good to him; he won somewhere between $35,000 and $40,000 racing. "I was lucky enough to be the first Division Champion in Bracket Racing. There was a year or two David Simmons won everything. But he didn't win the Division championship, along with other great racers like Don Young and Larry Doggett," added Labbous. "It means a lot more to me today than it did back then." He went on to win three more Division Two ET Finals championships, in 1978, 1980 and 1981. Division Two named him Driver of the Year in 1976, 1978 and 1980. He also won a couple of Division Two Super Gas championships in the early '80s.
Another good memory of his is when he won thirteen straight races in 1978 or 1979 with his '68 GTX. Labbous began the season at Brainerd Optimist with a win, and kept on winning each week with the car. His streak was snapped when someone stole it after he got home from the thirteenth race. Labbous and some of his friends found the car later about ten miles away, on the side of the road, with a couple of connecting rods hanging out of the crankcase. All the oil was pooled under the engine, and there was no oil trail leading up to where the car was parked, leading him to believe the car wasn't stolen simply for a joy ride. It took three weeks to get it back together, but Labbous went back to the track and won yet another one.
"I may have won a lot, but I've also been beaten more than anyone," said Labbous. He enjoys entering run two, three and sometimes four cars in the same race. "That was a lot harder on my crew than it was for me," he added. "I had the easy part."
He still owns his favorite cars, a '69 Roadrunner, and an '85 Laser, which began life as an '80 Omni. The Laser is a frequent visitor to bracket races, and Labbous said he occasionally takes the Roadrunner to Footbrake races at Music City Raceway. "The Roadrunner never had a delay box in it," he added.
In 1985, Dodge gave Labbous a new Daytona, so he went to the assembly line and guided the body through the plant, adding what he needed. John Livingston then used it to make fiberglass Daytona bodies. Not wanting to be like everyone else, Labbous converted his body into an '85 Laser. Labbous owned two Omni race cars, so he took one of the frames, widened it, and installed the Laser body. He still owns the other Omni.
"If you're going to make money racing, you have to race and win, and not spend money on your car. When I did all my winning in the early days, the total purse for all three cars might come to $200," said Labbous. He said he still runs his old cars because of the economics. "I do this for a living, and can't afford to spend a lot on a new race car every year."
When asked why he races Mopar products, his answer was, "I did drive Chevrolets, but I kind of liked the '68 GTX, and once I got started with Dodges, I just couldn't change. Chrysler and Mopar Performance have been good to me. Plus, I've accumulated so many parts now, I couldn't afford to switch to another brand."
"It's much harder to win today. The delay box made a lot of good drivers out of not so good ones. There's also good racers I know who never adapted, like Larry Doggett. He was a good bottom bulb racer." Labbous said he resisted delay boxes as long as he could stand it, and even finished runner up footbraking at the Gators in the early '80s against a transbrake equipped car. "I didn't believe in a delay box or transbrake then. I wasn't going to put a 'Glide (General Motors two speed Powerglide transmission) in. No transbrake. Finally, I had to get with the times." He tried a pinion brake, but it didn't work too well. He then installed a Powerglide. "I didn't even have a throttle stop until last year," he added. He went on to say that racers should realize that people like the late Ike Hamma, whose family has a patent on the delay box, helped make bracket racing as big as it is today simply because it enabled a much larger group of racers to win.
He has three NHRA National event wins, in Super Gas and Super Comp, that he won in the '80s. He tried some Super Stock racing, but said he couldn't get his car quick enough. "The 440s are all I wanted to run, but I couldn't make them run as quick as the Chevrolets."
He also has several IHRA national event wins. In addition to a late '70s event win, one of his more recent wins was at the 2001 IHRA Amalie Summer Nationals at Cordova, Illinois, where he beat Edmond Richardson in the Quick Rod final.
Labbous campaigned two cars (his dragster in Quick Rod and his '85 Laser in Super Rod) on the IHRA trail in 2001. He finished second in 2001 IHRA Quick Rod action (one round win shy of the championship) and third in Super Rod (three round wins short of the championship), skipping his last points race. He figured he had already accomplished what he wanted to, and since he wasn't planning to run the IHRA circuit in 2002, there was no point in spending the money to go to a far away race when "big bucks" bracket races were much closer to home. He pointed out he won $40,000 in 2000, but his 2001 winnings were $30,000, with a lot more travel expense because he was racing the IHRA circuit.
Although bracket racing has changed a bit over the years, Labbous' winning ways have stayed consistent. He has passed that legacy on to his son, John Labbous, Jr., (who has already been awarded Racer of the Month on DragRaceResults.com) as well. Junior has already won the '98 Super Pro track championship at Beech Bend and was the Five Day ET Points champion at Desoto in 1998. He has also won numerous Super Pro races.
In 2001, Senior entered his Omni and Laser at one of the weekly Music City bracket races. At the end of the evening, both cars were in the final. Since he obviously couldn't drive both, he put his son John in the Omni. Not knowing what to put in the box, Junior gambled on the tree, and went red. Although Senior didn't share the winnings with his son, he did pay for his trip to a ten grander race the following week, which John Jr. won. On April 27, 2002, he had the pleasure of meeting his son in the Super Pro final at Music City. Although Junior had a .512 light and went dead-on with a zero, Senior showed him how it's done with a .502 and dead-on with a one.
His day job is owning and operating Labbous Race Cars in Goodlettsville, Tennessee. He has owned a race shop since he began racing in the '70s. His first shop was the Rossville Speed Shop in Rossville, GA. The building is still there, but is now the home of Race Engine Design.
He credits Pat, his wife of 37 years, as a big part of his success. "She's been right there, every day, every race. She is 100 percent supportive." He also said his son John has been very supportive, helping him out through the years. John Junior's wife, Jennifer, is expecting a baby in October, so the role of grandparent is now coming in the picture.
Johnny ended with, "I will race forever? as long as I can travel and go to big bracket races. As long as I feel I am competitive, I'll keep doing it," he said. "If I get to the point where I can't win, I'll still be racing, but will keep it at the local level. I love the sport of drag racing."