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Burton thankful, humbled at NASCAR hall nomination

South Boston News
Jeff Burton / April 13, 2020

South Boston native Jeff Burton is thankful for his recent nomination to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Burton, a retired driver from NASCARS biggest series and currently an NBC sportscaster covering NASCAR races, is one of 10 current NASCAR drivers and crew chiefs vying for two available spots in the modern era division for induction into the 2021 NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Though Burton, who lives in Huntersville, N.C., would welcome the selection; if he doesn’t make it in this coming year he won’t be too disappointed. Burton says it’s the love of the sport that makes him feel like he’s already a winner.

He noted the way he found out about his nomination was not how he expected.

“Actually a funny story,” Burton said. “Steve Letarte that I work with at NBC he sent me a text congratulating me and the text was such that it really didn’t say congratulating me for what. Just you‘ve earned it, that kind of thing and I didn’t know what he was talking about.

“So I sent him a text back with just a big question mark and then he told me I’d been nominated. So that’s how I learned of that.”

Burton said when he began racing gokarts with his dad John and brothers Ward and Brian he had no idea at the time he would want to move up to the next level – racing cars.

“Both my brothers were racing go karts and my dad was racing go karts too and you know when you’re the youngest brother you want to do what they’re doing and dad was and still is super competitive” Burton continued. “I think he instilled that in all of us.

“And so we were go cart racing and then you know Ward and Brian had both quit driving because you know Brian was going to college and Ward was doing his thing and I was still young enough to be racing.”

Burton said he tried other sports, really wasn’t good at them but found he had a talent for racing.

“I just always loved racing,” Burton said. “I played other sports, not very well, but I played other sports and racing was always the thing that I really liked the most and was always better at. I wasn’t a great athlete by any means but I felt like I could be competitive racing and I love competing.”

The 1994 Winston Cup Rookie of the Year said moving up to racing cars actually is what first peaked his interest in not only driving the cars but learning everything about them.

“I didn’t in any way have a career in my mind you know at that point but as I got older I started getting more interested in the vehicles, the race cars themselves rather than just me just driving them,” Burton said. “That opened up another area for me to get interested in and I really got interested in the cars and how they worked and what made them go fast.”

Burton said thatwhen he looks back over his career his most defining moment in racing was when he teamed up with Jack Roush. He said having the ability to finally use his strengths to win a race was something he had always desired to do.

“Going to work for Jack Roush was for me the big moment in my career because what he wanted from a driver and what I was good at matched up,” Burton explained. “We started that team and he let me and Buddy Parrott do it however we wanted to do it. Buddy Parrott and I really had respect for each other and I was in the shop everyday actually working on race cars, helping design, build them and set them up.

“That was a marriage that matched two people looking to get the same results. But I could have gone and drove somewhere else and never had that same success because my strengths … Jack let me be involved in the team let me make calls what cars were we going to build, how we were going to set them up really let me be way more than just a driver.

“I don’t think I as necessarily a good as driver as many but I think my knowledge of the cars and understanding what the cars needed and what I needed to do to get them so I could get them to feel the way I needed them to feel so I could win with them; that was really my strength more so than driving.

“Matching up with Jack, that moment was honestly, well everything led up to it but to make that big step the timing of that. And I didn’t know it at the time but I look back on it now and realize how important that was just because of who I was at that time and what he was willing to let me do. That was the biggest moment,” Burton reflected.

Burton said he believes it has been his work with the cars and the safety aspects of his career in NASCAR that earned him his nomination – more so than his driving skills. He makes the point that he and his wife, Kim spent countless hours and not a little money trying to get the industry around NASCAR to change for the better.

“So I think my nomination has as much to do with that, my involvement in the sport as it does driving to be honest,” Burton said. “Actually pretty much my whole family has the same personality,” he says laughing.

“You know we get involved in something, we are in it. And we don’t kind of sit on the sidelines and kind of wait for stuff to happen we just kind of get in it and push and shove and do what we gotta do.”

Burton said that around the time he began to get heavily involved with the safety aspect of racing, several young drivers were killed racing. He believed the industry could do better and he worked tirelessly to see change happen.

“Several young drivers had gotten killed and the attitude around that didn’t seem right to me,” Burton said. “It was almost like it’s racing and these things happen in racing and I just didn’t think that was the way it had to be.

“I’d had enough success to have a voice and I had enough curiosity about things in regards to the race cars that it made me want to understand what was going on and then as I started getting educated on it and Kim and I were spending a fair amount of money learning things and trying to understand what was happening it became clear that there were some deficiencies that needed to be fixed.

“But to do that, mindsets had to change and the way of conducting business had to change and so I started talking about it and talking about it publicaly trying to push and move and needle and do whatever needed to happen because it was an industry problem, in my eyes it wasn’t NASCAR’s problem, the driver’s problem, it wasn’t the team owners’ problem - it was the industry.

“And I’m looking around thinking some of the smartest people in the world are in this garage. And we can do better. I just started talking about it and I kind of got a voice about it and things started happening. It wasn’t just because of me; I was part of the puzzle.

“But I think I was the one out front about it, the one that was in the media talking most about it. That’s kind of that happened. There were so many millions and millions and millions of dollars spent and manhours spent by the industry to get to where we are today but things had to change drastically from where we were to get to where we are today.”

And speaking of Kim and their family, Burton said he is proud of them. He said theirs is truly a “racing family”.

Kim and I met in South Boston when she was 14 and I was 15 and so she didn’t know anything about racing at all and I was learning,” Burton remembers. “So she’s been with me on that journey with me the whole way so she’s seen the good the bad the ugly. So she has a perspective that most people don’t have.

“My daughter (Paige) she works for a marketing company in Charlotte that does a lot of work in the NASCAR hospitality events, sponsor relations that type of stuff. She works in social media in sports so she’s heavily involved in the sport as well.

“And then Harrison of course he’s racing and doing his thing. You know racing has really turned into what we do a lot of different ways which is fun because you know a lot of times all four of us are on the road together all in different roles.”

With professional sports all having to adjust, cancel or play the wait and see game as far as getting back in action due to the CIVID-19 pandemic; Burton said he believes that sports offers some normalcy to people in a very difficult time. He stated he hopes NASCAR can get back to racing as soon as possible.

“So NASCAR is no different than any other business, we’re basically sitting on the sidelines waiting to get the green light to go,” said Burton. “I think it’s important for a lot of reasons to get back as soon as we can, obviously in the right situation.

“You know there’s a tremendous amount of value in just trying to create some normalcy that people are accustomed to and sports are so important to the fabric of our country. Who you pull for and who you pull against it’s just so ingrained in who we are as a country.

“I felt the same way about 9/11. After 9/11 I’m like we got to get back to the racetrack. We’ve got to give this country something to do. So I feel the same way about where we are now.

It will be such a great day for everybody to get back on the race track. Because fans want to see it they want to hear it, they want to smell it they want to be part of it. And you know there may be some races that fans can’t go to but could still be on TV and give some people something to cheer about, pull for your favorite driver and pull against your least favorite driver and that’s what sports are.

People are looking for something in their lives right now, a bit of normalcy so I hope we can get back sooner rather than later. Because I just think … it’s a whole business to it but the most important thing about sports is the emotion. The emotion that sports create and all the things that sports do for our society that are good for us. So I hope we get back soon as possible because of those things. Just so important for us.

“Every businesses that has shut down is sitting there saying we gotta go back to work, we’ve got to get our people back going, and we’re the same way from a business standpoint. But from an emotional standpoint, I just think that sports play such a role in our country. We just need to have sports on TV.”

As for his broadcasting career, Burton says he loves it. But he’ll be the first to confess he didn’t think he had a natural talent for it.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” Burton offered. “You know NBC approached me I’d worked with them in the past but they were on the TV side and I was on the racing side, to be honest I didn’t know anything about the TV side.

“And when they approached me they had confidence I could do it and their confidence in me gave me confidence. I think people think I went to some kind of school. Basically me and Steve Letarte had never done TV before. Rick Allen was the guy that had done TV and we had done a few practice broadcast.

We would go to a racetrack and pretend we were broadcasting races so we would understand how the truck worked and who was talking in your ear and that kind of stuff. But short of that we just did it. Steve and I didn’t know what to expect, we didn’t know anything. Rick was there for us but in a weird kind of way that gave us a lot of confidence.

“They weren’t going out of there way, creating this crazy way to get us prepared. They said we hired you guys because we know you’re going to work hard enough to be prepared, so be prepared to prepare. So that’s what we did and I love what I do.

Burton’s zest for racing is evident.

“I love the sport. I think our sport is special for a lot of reasons, it’s meant a lot to me and to be able to continue in the sport is a blessing. And people ask me all the time do I miss driving and the answer is no. Now I would miss driving if I didn’t have something else to do, like it would have been really hard for me just to walk away from this sport. Just to walk away would have been really, really, hard.

“Cause honestly most of everything I do - I don’t really have a lot of hobbies - revolves around racing and it would have been really hard to just walk away, but being able to do this and with people I like; we have fun.

“I hope that comes across on television because we don’t or I don’t leave the house on a Wednesday or Thursday thinking I gotta go to a racetrack. I leave the house thinking I get to go to a racetrack.

“You know I get to go to work. We just have a good time and we all love just love what we do. It takes a lot of people to put a race on, it’s not just the four people in the booth. And the whole team is fun to be with. Honestly it’s an amazing group. So I hope it comes across on TV because in real life it’s fun. My job is just full of fun.”

Burton said as for his future he’s happy with what he’s doing and doesn’t see any changes coming soon.

“I wasn’t looking to do this when the opportunity presented itself,” Burton said. “You know when I get into something I’m just all in it.

“But I love working and being part of a group and trying to achieve a goal. And I want to do this as long as I can do it, ‘cause I’m having so much fun.”

Burton said no matter what happens in life, his upbringing in South Boston and Halifax helped him establish principals he still uses in his everyday life. He said so many people helped him as he made his way from go cart racer to NASCAR competitor.

South Boston, Halifax County played a huge role my opportunities” Burton said. “I learned a lot growing up in South Boston, Virginia. I met so many good people and I met so many good people that played a role in my driving career, my racing career, and that influenced who I am.

“And you can’t separate that. There’s so many people that meant and mean something to me that helped shape my opportunities and helped all that. And I feel really fortunate to have grown up in that town and view South Boston as a great place with great people and it’s played a really, really, big role in my life.”

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