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Burton brings extensive portfolio to Hall

SoVaNow.com / April 01, 2013
Former NASCAR Sprint Cup veteran and 2002 Daytona 500 winner Ward Burton continues to be very much a man in motion.

The conservationist and an active player in a variety of local causes has a new game plan: boosting the local YMCA. It’s all part of the fast-paced life Burton leads these days, even if he’s not racing on the track anymore.

And Burton has another honor - he’s part of the six-person 2013 class of inductees for the Halifax County-South Boston Sports Hall of Fame, which will celebrate its 25th anniversary induction ceremonies on Saturday, at Halifax County Middle School. Tickets are still available.

The class includes former Virginia Tech baseball standout Todd Trickey, also a longtime Comet baseball and youth baseball coach; Richard Wilkins, who had a fine career at Mary Bethune and later went on to play college football at University of Maryland Eastern Shore before returning to become a successful local businessman, the late Everett Taylor, a respected baseball leadership figure; Lawson Osbourn Jr., a Comet football stalwart who played a key role in the revitalization of the program under Coleman Starnes; and Louis Seabolt, Jr, soon to be part of another father-son duo in the local sports Hall.

Burton is very appreciative of the induction honor.

“It’s a great honor. It means a lot to me to be one of the members of the Hall of Fame in Halifax County. This is where I was born and raised, and obviously, both of my parents live here, and one side of my grandparents, and the other side’s in Clarksville. Halifax County has always been home, and always will be,” said Burton.

Burton’s latest venture involves improvements for the local Y. “We’re having some meetings with some active board members with the Y, and have been meeting with (director) Marcus (Hargrave) on a regular basis. And Christian Roberts is on board,” said Burton.

“The Y needs a facelift, interior and exterior, and we’re going roll up our sleeves, with community help, going to get it done. The Y’s a great facility. We’re going to try to make it a little bit better to be a great reflection of what our county’s all about,” said Burton.

Burton, who has been involved in a variety of causes, comes to the Hall of Fame with tremendous credentials. His long career in NASCAR would certainly be enough, but the local businessman has essentially created, with other assistance, the Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation and a monumental record in conservation efforts.

He left racing on an active basis in 2007, although Burton did run one NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Daytona International Speedway last year as a stand-in for his son, Jeb, who was not certified to run on the track at that time.

Burton realizes the end of his NASCAR career wasn’t all that pleasant, but it’s an often-brutal business.

“My career didn’t end like I wanted it to, but at the same time, I felt like I always treated others the way I wanted to be treated and that was the way I was raised,” said Burton, who won five NASCAR Sprint Cup races in his career and more than $24 million in career earnings.

Burton had a nice career. He certainly did not reach the level of stalwarts like Tony Stewart or Jeff Gordon, but he did not have that kind of backing from his team or organization, either.

He had other regrets, some race day efforts that slipped away from his grasp. “I wish I could have gone back over the ones I should have won. I don’t know many races I should have won at Charlotte and Pocono, places like that,” said Burton.

Now, Ward is involved in his son Jeb’s racing career in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. “We are real excited for him. The neatest thing that’s ever happened in my life for my son, is Kathy Farley and her company (Arrowhead Racing) supporting Jeb. Who would have ever thought there would have been a company here successful enough to sponsor a local driver in one of the top three NASCAR series. We’re working hard to make it successful for them and Jeb,” said Burton.

The improbable win in the Daytona 500 in the 2002 season still resonates with Burton.

He recently was in the Pentagon lobbying with the U.S. Department of Defense for funds at Ft. Pickett with a project he’s involved with there. He was part of a pack lobbying for money, but Burton was introduced as a Daytona 500 winner and conservationist.

“It’s stuck, for better or worse. That’s the way it is,” said Burton.

Burton likely had the chance to make a move to stronger teams and a better overall position in the sport, but stayed put due to loyalty. “As an example, when A.G. Dillard gave me the opportunity to drive for a living, in the Busch series, I had two calls from car owners who were winning championships. For myself, I probably should have done it. But at the time, the sponsor would have left if I had left, and car owner would have basically gone bankrupt. I just couldn’t make decisions sometimes that my conscience wouldn’t have allowed me to,” said Burton.

“I tried to make decisions that were best for others as well as for me. That’s kind of like the way I was raised,” said Burton.

Burton started driving for Carl Newbill in street stock at South Boston Speedway around 1985, and made it to the top levels of this professional sport. He raced competitively for about 20 years.

“I think the biggest thing racing did for me, it gave me a focus, gave me a direction,” said Burton. “In a lot of ways that helped me when I didn’t have a lot of focus, other than working for my dad, J.E. Burton Construction.”

And the sport allowed him to protect an important piece of property in Halifax County that C.R. Saunders owned. Racing “also gave me a voice for things I’m very passionate about, and I owe the sport of auto racing and NASCAR a lot for that,” said Burton.

Burton’s tireless work in conservation may well become his most important legacy.

“As I was a kid, walking around the forest out there at the Cove, it got to be evident from watching what was happening in other places, in Southside, or where we live, is all it takes is one seller or one buyer and that land can be altered in a negative way for the natural environment,” said Burton.

Saunders was a dear friend and an inspiration for Burton, who eventually worked out a deal with his friend to purchase property for conservation efforts. Today, some 2,000 acres owned by the Wildlife Foundation at the Cove in Halifax County.

And Burton tries to help other conservation groups, including the Rocky Mount Elk Foundation, and more. “It’s all about not being in competition with conservation groups, but being an asset to each other,” said Burton.

Burton is also involved with outdoors competition and relaxation efforts for the Wounded Warriors and American Heroes events at the Cove. Twice a year, the Wildlife Foundation works to put on a special day to salute the efforts of our nation’s military veterans.

Burton said that effort is among the most humbling endeavors he has been involved with, and the veterans certainly appreciate Burton and his down-home style.

It’s all part of a central theme of Burton’s life - giving back.

“At the end of the day, when you have the means to do so, you should be giving back. And whatever small way ... or whatever big way somebody has means, if we can give back to whatever you’re passionate about, that’s what we should do as people that care about our communities. That’s what we should do as Americans,” said Burton.

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