Q&A: Jeff Burton
By: Dustin Long - @dustinlong on August 28, 2013 | 2:00 P.M. EST
Jeff Burton says NASCAR should consider moving the Sprint All-Star Race to a track like South Boston or Hickory to help the sport connect with its grassroots. (Photo: Getty Images)
The first NASCAR Sprint Cup race Jeff Burton ran featured four Hall of Famers and a few others likely to be enshrined some day. Burton finished ahead of none of them, placing 37th in the 40-car field at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 1993.
Better things would come. He would win Rookie of the Year honors in 1994 and 21 races, including a Southern 500 and two Coca-Cola 600s.
As he moves toward the close of his 20th full season racing in Cup, Burton ranks second in consecutive starts among active drivers with 616. To many fans, though, he’s known as much as an ambassador for the sport, pushing it forward when it needed it and defending it other times.
Listen to what he says and one is likely to hear fresh ideas. Maybe they all won’t work, but they are things to ponder.
Motor Racing Network spoke with Burton on a variety of topics last weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway. Here is an edited version of what Burton said from an idea he has for the sport ... to raising a driver ... to what frustrates him.
Q: You recently said the Sprint All-Star Race should run at a track like South Boston Speedway or Hickory Speedway. Why, and is that realistic?
BURTON: I think it’s exceptionally realistic. I don’t know why it’s not. I understand you can’t put in 50,000 people. But the people that were able to go, that could get tickets, I think, would be fascinated. I think the people watching on TV would be extremely excited about it. I think our sport would benefit from the excitement, much the way that I thought the Truck Series and our sport benefitted from having a race at Eldora. Going back to our roots of what this sport used to be shouldn’t be a far-fetched idea. I’m not suggesting that it’s in our best interest in the Cup level to run at South Boston-type racetracks all year long but to do it once a year at a special event, I think, would be a huge win for everybody.
Q: A perception among some fans is that the drivers, in general, get along well with each other, thus the racing isn't as fierce as it was perceived to have been in years past, when the drivers didn’t seem as friendly. Are drivers too chummy with each other?
BURTON: I think this is like any other business. When you build houses for a living, there is a competitor of yours that you enjoy and you bid against, and sometimes you win and sometimes you lose, but you respect him. There’s another contractor that you hate, that you just don’t see eye-to-eye (with). That’s the way I view this. This is a community. There are people in this community that get along, there are people in this community that don’t get along. There are people in this community that don’t race each other well.
First of all, I think history gets distorted, as I’ve told you several times. The best racers in the world, the best football players in the world, they’re not out here for the money. They might make every dollar that they can. They’re out here because this is what they want to do, this is their passion and this is their dedication. Jimmie Johnson hasn’t won the championships he’s won because of the money he was being paid. Dale Earnhardt didn’t win the championships he won because of the money he was being paid. The hunger has to come from the heart. There has to be motivation. Now, granted, back in the day if your motivation was, "If I don’t finish fifth versus sixth, I can’t buy tires," that’s motivation. Still, it has to come from the heart. You have to race these people every week. You have to have a relationship that works. You can’t have a relationship that is contentious with everybody. You can’t.
Q: Even though fans would like to see it.
BURTON: Fans would love to see it, but it’s not realistic. In football, the most that the Redskins and the Cowboys are going to play each other this year is three times. They cannot play each other any more. We're going to race 38 times against each other. That’s a big difference. We have to coexist. You can’t come into this garage with that attitude, "I don’t give a (darn) about anybody else, it’s all about me." You've got to have some of that, but there’s a balance. You can’t be successful if you come in here and you have the whole world against you. It won’t work. So fans and everybody need to understand that this is 38 races. It ain’t one year and 38 races, it’s a career of 38 races. You’ve got to be willing to give a little bit, you’ve got to be willing to take a little bit. But if you’re only willing to take all the time, these people in here will make it where you can’t be successful.
Q: And you guys never forget.
BURTON: Everybody is different. I know drivers that never, never forget. Something happens, they’ll say, "Three years ago at Michigan, you ran me in the wall." You’re like, "Really? I don’t even remember the last Michigan race." Some drivers never forget, especially when it’s somebody they don’t necessarily get along with. Those memories, they burn forever.
Q: Some parents want their children not to follow them into a profession because they want things to be better for them. Some parents are proud of their children following in their career path. Your 12-year-old son Harrison races. So how do you feel about that?
BURTON: My daughter never wanted to (race) and I never pushed her there. I didn’t not push her there because she was a girl. She just never wanted to. My son always wanted to. I want my children’s goals to be their goals, and then my wife and I support them.
My son, he pushed us. We were letting him race a little bit but not a lot. He came to us, essentially begging us to let him go race on this national touring series. It took a huge commitment from my wife to do it, but his desire is why we did it. That’s the way we approach it. I’m glad that they both have something that they care about. I love racing. It’s fun for me to help with the cars, and to kind of oversee the program and watch him grow as a racer.
More importantly, I’m trying not to raise a racecar driver, I’m trying to raise a human being. I do think that racing will make him a better human being. At 12 years old, he’s had to learn how to deal with a lot of situations that kids his age haven’t had to deal with. I think that when he’s 18, he’s going to be a stronger person for it even if he doesn’t make it as a racecar driver. He shows every bit of talent. He shows every bit of ability. He’s more talented than I was for sure, but he’s got to want it. It’s got to be a desire. To be successful in this sport, to make it in this sport, you’ve got to want it. As long as he shows a willingness to do what it takes, then I’m going to support him. His effort that he’s willing to put in will determine how much I support him. I’ll support him no matter what. If he’s putting in a little bit of effort, I’m going to support him a little bit. I just think that is good parenting.
Q: One of the challenges athletes face is having to retire from their profession at a younger age than most people do with regular jobs. As you look to the point when your career will end, are you more afraid of not racing or what will come after racing?
BURTON: Probably both. You don’t know what you have until you don’t have it anymore. I’ve been on the brink of being a Cup champion and I’ve been on the brink of being kicked out. I relish my opportunity here. Certainly, there is a whole lot less racing ahead of me than behind, no doubt about it. I still like what I do, I still enjoy it. I love being a part of the team. I love the way we’re working together and trying to accomplish a goal. Those things mean something to me.
I don’t sit in a racecar because I like to sit in something that is 140 degrees for four hours. It’s the competition. When I do decide, or when a decision gets made for me, that you can’t do this anymore, competition has still got to be part of my life.
I like to honor competing. I don’t get my thrills out of, like, being a fighter knocking a guy out and standing over top of him mocking him. I’d rather knock him out and help pick him up. My energy comes from getting the most out of me, not in tearing some things down. I enjoy that. I enjoy going to the gym and trying to push myself to another level. Those things, to me, are fun. I’ve been very lucky to do this. Competition means something to me.
Q: You made the Chase in four out of five years from 2006-10. When you look at yourself now compared to that period, where are you better, worse and different as a driver?
BURTON: That’s a really difficult question to answer. The hard part about this sport, not only for the people watching it but the people involved in it, is that analysis because the car matters. I feel like I’m smarter, but I’ve been in more wrecks this year than I have in any year in my career. Having said that, I’m not sure that I started any of them. I was behind them and I couldn’t find my way through them.
I do know when I have a good race and I have a bad race. A few weeks ago at Pocono, I didn’t do a very good job. We had a better car than I drove it. I made a few mistakes, but I knew them. It was hard for me to overcome those mistakes. Then at Michigan, I thought I got everything we could have gotten.
The one thing that has been frustrating to me is (that) I haven’t found a way to carry a bad car. When we aren’t running well, I have not been able to find a way to make something out of it. I don’t even know why. That’s been very frustrating, where we could go to a Michigan and run 20th, race 20th and me not find a way on a restart or something to pick up spots and not give them back. That’s been really frustrating. At the same time, I see it happen to other people, too. I don’t know if it’s a product of competition today. I just don’t know.