Ward Burton returns to racing at Daytona International Speedway, but this time it’s a completely different experience.
First, the 2002 Daytona 500 champion is racing in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series this trip. And second, he’s doing so in part to help boost the effort of his son, Jeb.
The two are racing as teammates this season, sharing the Hillman Racing truck for the year. Jeb, 19, is not yet approved to run on all of NASCAR’s tracks – so his dad is aiding with sponsorship, helping the team run the full slate of races and adding a bit of star power to its debut effort.
Ward Burton spent most of his adult life making his way through the NASCAR ranks. He won five Cup races, including the prestigious Daytona 500 and Southern 500, as well as four in what is now the Nationwide Series. He last raced in 2007 – and has never run in a Truck race.
Yet, 10 years after hoisting the Daytona 500 trophy, he’s back chasing a win.
Instead of putting emphasis on his return, though, he sees this season as the perfect opportunity to launch his son’s career. Joining with team owner Mike Hillman Sr., and bringing along his own personal long-time sponsor State Water Heaters, he has Jeb ready to join NASCAR’s top ranks of racing.
“We’re excited about it,” he said. “We’ve worked really hard to get Jeb’s racing career to this point. We looked at (the) K&N, ARCA (series) and it started to get obvious to me that other kids Jeb’s age were making a lot of progress and getting notoriety and being in the Truck series and we were lucky enough to make a deal with Mike and have State Water Heaters on board who I have been doing customer relation events with the last four years.
“We’re not fully funded yet but we’re really working hard with State and other companies to get Jeb this opportunity.”
Jeb has been working to make a name for himself. He won five Late Model features at Ace Speedway in 2011, tying the track and ASA Home Track national champ Barry Beggarty for victories. In 2010, he was the rookie of the year at South Boston Speedway.
Now, his dad is helping him make the next step. As he does so, Ward Burton sees just how much things have changed since he made his Nationwide Series debut in 1990.
“It’s done a 180,” he said. “(I) started (in) Late Model, Humpy Wheeler created the Sportsman Division … had success in those first two races, phone rang, drove for Charlie Henderson in Busch Grand National, went to Alan Dillard and all the sudden I was full-time racing,” Ward Burton said. “But the phone rang every single time. My parents did for me just what I’m doing for Jeb, but the problem is now the phone doesn’t ring as often. There’s obviously a lot of guys who have had success and gotten opportunities to move up in their career, but somebody is helping them to get to this point, in maybe Jeb’s career, maybe it’s the Truck series to help him get to the Nationwide. But the problem is, I don’t financially have the means to do it by myself.”
Burton remembers his 1993 season, when he won three races, earned 10 top-10 finishes and finished sixth in the standings. The cost of that effort was well short of the estimated millions needed to complete a Nationwide season now.
“To run the full Busch (Nationwide) Series in ‘93 was under 400,000; we won everything but the championship,” Burton said. “You know what it is now. It’s really a lot harder for a car owner to make up that little bit of difference that a sponsor couldn’t do is the difference between then and now. It’s tough but we’re going to keep working and try to make it happen.”
Burton said that technology has dramatically changed the nature of the sport, and the costs associated with it. He sees dramatic moves in the sport since he was racing, saying that “it all boils down to the resources and the advancement of resources of knowing what to do with all the little things that make a car go fast. That part is kind of alarming to me, but nothing is going to change it.”
He’s resigned to that, and to the difficulty of fighting for sponsorship in this competitive economy.
Still, he’s doing all he can do to give his son a chance.
Jeb, who has watched both his father and his uncle, Jeff Burton, in the NASCAR ranks for years, knows just how much work it takes – and the expectations that will be attached to his last name.
“It puts a little bit of pressure on me, but I think it’s a good thing that they’ve done what they have and I’ve got two good role models that I can follow in their footsteps and help me a tremendous amount,” he said. “I just can’t think about the pressure; I can just go out there and perform and show everybody what I’m capable of.”
For his part, Ward Burton will do everything that he can to make this happen – to give his son the chance to race in NASCAR’s elite ranks the same way that he was able to do so.
A racer to the core, Burton admits that he’d also love to have the chance to be out here racing once more, that fans have made winning the Daytona 500 one of those lifetime accomplishments that simply stays with a driver.
As he looks over his career, he finds himself lucky in many ways – not the least of which is the ability to have balanced life while racing. His love of the outdoors fostered the Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation, which serves as an educational tool in conservations, and an ability to keep in touch with another childhood love.
So while he admits that he still feels that familiar tug to race, he is now more focused on helping another generation of Burtons take the wheel and find success – and to passing along the lessons he’s learned over the years.
“I’m one of the lucky ones that I had a life outside of racing,” he said. “That’s why I lived in a rural culture in Southern Virginia in Halifax County and got my Foundation. Leaving the sport was hard, watching the Cup guys practice was hard, but I’ve got a whole ‘nother life back there … racing is a career where that’s my lifetime endeavor. That’s the way I’ve raced my kids and that’s where my life is at.”
Still, though, that racer’s heart surfaces as he prepares to make his return.
“I could be up here at 80 years old and I’ll still miss it and I’ll still think I can go out there and do it,” he said.