One day last year, when Shawn Labelle was at a NASCAR Pinty’s Series race with his family, he brought up an idea to his two sons.
"I kind of asked my kids a stupid question. ‘Would you ever want to watch dad race?’" Labelle said. "And they said, ‘Yep!"
Racing NASCAR has been a lifelong dream for Labelle, but the 42-year-old didn’t finally jump at the chance to get into a car until this season. Six months after watching that first race, he and his family moved more than two hours from Calgary in Alberta, Canada, to Wetaskiwin, Alberta, so Labelle could finally live out his racing dreams at Edmonton International Raceway.
Labelle’s new home is about three minutes from Edmonton International, a quarter-mile, semi-banked asphalt oval that is Western Canada’s only NASCAR-sanctioned race track. He bought a shop and a car, compiled a crew, and competed in the track’s super stocks division this season.
His only previous driving experience came years ago when Labelle worked for Grand Touring Automobiles in Toronto. His job would often send him to California where he would race new Jaguars and Aston Martins, giving him limited experience driving high-powered vehicles on controlled courses. Other than that, the only time he’d been in a race car was a few practices here and there more than a decade ago.
But despite his very limited experience, Labelle podiumed two races this season, led 13 of 15 laps in a heat race, and finished fourth in points on his way to a Rookie of the Year win in Edmonton’s Division I super stocks class.
"My initial goals were to just kind of stick with the pack but I ended up being in the top two in qualifying the last race of the year," Labelle said.
Labelle grew up in Barrie, Ontario, near Sunset Speedway, which did not have NASCAR racing at the time. It wasn’t until he was in his mid-to-late 20s when the NASCAR Canadian Tire Series – now the Pinty’s Series – was started.
"Once I saw those I was like, ‘That’s what I want to do,’" he said
"I just fell in love with racing and I just knew there would come a day when I could do it."
It ended up that he was better at the sport than even he expected. He surprised a fellow Edmonton driver with how well he did in his first practice.
"When I went out practicing and I was turning like mid-14s on my first day, and having the former runner-up and former rookie of the year for NASCAR being at my practice and telling me, ‘Shawn, those are qualifying laps. If you’re in a class of 10 to 15 cars you’re qualifying in the middle of the pack, and this is your first time in the car.’
"For him to tell me that I was a natural lifted so much weight off my shoulders because my biggest fear was going out there my first race and getting lapped. And that never happened."
Labelle said the biggest learning curve was the terminology. At his first practice he heard a lot of new words like staggers and crossweight. Admittedly, he is not a car junkie and had never really tinkered around in a garage.
"I had no idea what they were talking about," he said. "I tried to take that comment made in Days of Thunder, ‘I race cars, I don’t need to know how to fix them.’ Well that only goes so far and then when your car’s not reacting properly you need to be able to come and tell your crew what’s wrong with it."
Thankfully, a lot of Labelle’s success came from a handful of people and competitors who took the time to help his learn.
Saying he had huge support at the track is an understatement, he said. Track owners Ron and Loretta Thiering helped him get ready, and track officials would explain his car to him while it was on the scales and going through inspection, telling him what needed to be done to make it faster.
Labelle also said that with the season shorted from 11 to seven races due to the coronavirus pandemic a lot of his education was "hurry up and learn."
"I’d make some adjustments, I’d go over to the track, I’d try to figure it out myself and then I would make calls to the other racers and say, ‘Hey, I’m practicing right now, my car is doing this, what do you suggest?’" he said.
"In no time at all I started learning. I think by the the fourth race I started to tell my crew what adjustments I needed to make."
While Labelle was learning the ins and outs of racing, his sons were as well. His oldest son, 13, was part of the action, talking on the radio, working on tires, and helping Labelle get strapped into his car. Labelle said it was amazing having him part of the team.
His youngest son, 11, had a flag with Labelle Motorsports he would wave from the stands.
"They absolutely love it," he said. "I’m allowing my kids to live my dreams through me because some of the things that I’m trying to teach them is, ‘Hey, it doesn’t matter how old you are, or even how young you are, don’t ever let your dreams slip by you.’ You can’t rush dreams."
Labelle Motorsports will grow by two cars next year. The youngest Labelle will race mini cups and Labelle’s older son will race in Edmonton’s NASCAR feature stocks division.
Seeing his kids fall in love with the sport coupled with the success he himself had secured to Labelle that he made the right decision chasing his dream. It also secured he was definitely going to race a second year.
"I knew I was going to race this year, but, I don’t know, there was a chance I wasn’t even going to like it. I would have been shocked if I didn’t like it, but there was still that chance," he said. "This year, with the support and the success I had, I’m already dreading the season is over and it just ended last Saturday.
"I have to wait all the way until May next year to race again and it’s just killing me."
Fellow competitors at Edmonton have told Labelle he could be a force to be reckoned with in his second season. That’s quite a jump from his initial fear of looking too much like a rookie. He wanted to be seen as a driver just like the rest of them, and that’s exactly how he was treated.
Next year, Labelle hopes to continue to impress, and pass, his competitors.
"It was a successful season, but I think next year I want to go for a championship," he said.
"I just turned 42 in March, and I’m living out my childhood dream. So it’s pretty cool."