Mike Neff · Wednesday February 22, 2012
2002 Daytona 500 Champion Ward Burton is going to be getting back behind the wheel of a race vehicle at Daytona this weekend when he participates in the Camping World Truck Series race on Friday. Burton is going to be in the truck, fielded by Hillman Racing, because his son Jeb is not certified to race on superspeedways at this point in time. Jeb Burton has been running races at the local level at South Boston and Ace Speedway but is now stepping up to the Truck Series. After the rookie orientation meeting at Daytona on Wednesday, the Burtons took a little time to speak with Frontstretch’s own Mike Neff about the upcoming season, what they’ve been doing and how this all came about.
Mike Neff, Frontstretch.com: How did this whole thing come about? You’ve never been in a truck before so how did you end up getting hooked up with the Hillmans?
Ward Burton: Well, I was talking to some folks about doing something for Jeb. I was actually looking at doing either ARCA or K&N, but after I looked at the money, there wasn’t that much difference so felt like he could get more exposure for himself by going straight to the Truck Series. I think it has turned out to be a very positive decision. At the same time, we’re still working really hard to get some more support, but we’re really happy to have State Water Heaters on board. They’ve been a great relationship for me for the last four or five years and we’re glad to get them back on the truck.
Neff: You’ve had a relationship with them for a little while, how did that whole relationship come about?
Ward: Well, they were looking at how they could strengthen their brand and do more customer activation events and we’ve been real successful at working with their customers. They’re a lot of blue collar, hard working folks, just like my background y’know. It is all about making it work for them and we’re going to make that happen on and off of the track for them.
Neff: When it comes to Daytona, you’re a former champion there, since it has been a couple of years since you’ve been down there, did you have to go through a reorientation or was going through the rookie orientation with Jeb enough?
Ward: From what I understand, anyone who runs a truck race or who has not won one prior, doesn’t matter who it is, has to run rookie stripes so there’s a good chance I’ll be running rookie stripes on the back of my truck; it appears so, either way, I guess I’m a rookie in this class.
Neff: Trying to remember, I know there was some discussion about Mark Martin running rookie stripes in his first truck race. I don’t remember if he actually did or not.
Ward: Somebody told me that he did. I saw him today, briefly, but I forgot to ask him about it. It is no big deal either way. But you know, the whole event is going to be about missing the wrecks and staying out of trouble and not being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and getting that State Water Heaters Chevy truck up front. Have a little bit of luck and we’ll see what happens. I think luck is going to play a big part in it, being there at the end.
Neff: Have you done any testing in the truck yet or is your practice time tomorrow going to be your first time in the truck?
Ward: My first time will be in the truck on Thursday. We have a 50-minute practice Thursday morning and then an hour and 20 minutes Thursday night. Jeb actually went to Ace Speedway the week before last. Ran some really competitive laps and gave some really good information, so I’m real proud of how he adjusted to the truck, the different horsepower of the truck and the weight of the truck. We felt real good about that after the test. I’ll get my first feel of it here in about 35 hours.
Neff: You two have done a lot of work on Jeb’s Late Models. Have you ever jumped in the Late Model to get a feel for what Jeb was feeling in his car?
Ward: I did that a lot in the Limited Late Model. But Jeb had gotten so much more precise with his communication and, watching him progress through that, I almost did it a couple of times but they got it worked out. He’s come a long way in figuring out what the car needs to feel like and to communicate what it takes to fix it. I feel like he communicates pretty well so I didn’t feel like I needed to do it last year.
Neff: When this whole thing came about, was your getting into the truck for Daytona just about Jeb not being cleared to run at Daytona or did you really want to get back on the track?
Ward: It was all about Jeb. This is all about Jeb and State Water Heaters and Hillman racing. Hopefully providing a little excitement for the Truck Series and for the sponsor and y’know, Jeb would be running if NASCAR hadn’t changed the rules a couple of years back. It seemed to make logical sense, rather than putting someone else in the truck, since I’m kind of a part of the team, and just make things right in the truck for Jeb, I’ll jump back in the truck and we’ll see what happens. If a sponsor comes on board and they want us to run some companion events together, we’re certainly wide open for whatever they might want us to do together.
Neff: Outside of the truck and working with Jeb, are you still wide open working with the Ward Burton Foundation?
Ward: Definitely, that is my passion in life until I hit the dirt, giving back to our natural resources. That will never change. I was doing that while I was racing and I’ll continue doing it until I no longer can. Hopefully one of my children will take it on after I am gone.
Neff: I get the feeling Jeb just might do that. He lit up when we talked about it at Martinsville this past fall. It would not surprise me to see him take it over when you’re done.
Ward: You’ve got to have a passion about giving back. I care about a lot of things but between conservation and American Heroes, our veterans, they’re my two biggest passions and nothing is going to change on that.
Neff: Outside of your wildlife work do you ever think about getting back into a race car at the local level, at South Boston or Martinsville or something?
Ward: The problem is there aren’t many car owners out there who run for the love of the racing so, someone in my shoes, trying to help my son; racing has gotten quite expensive, even at that level. The problem with going out and having fun is the consequences that will happen at some times. Crashes, blown motors, somebody has to pay all of those bills. All I can do right now is what I’m doing for my son.
Neff: Speaking of sons, your brother Jeff’s son is getting into racing and is working on moving up from quarter midgets to late models. Are you and Jeff going to work together on helping his son get into the stuff that Jeb used to run?
Ward: They’re both at two different levels in their careers at this point in time. It would certainly be nice if Jeff had the time to work a little bit closer to what Jeb’s got and learn, in return we’d certainly do what we could to help Jeff help out Harrison. Right now, we’ve talked about it but haven’t really done anything. We’ll see what happens in the future with that though.
Neff: Are you going to run Talladega as well or is there a chance to get Jeb some ARCA time in order for him to be approved to run in time for Talladega?
Ward: As soon as Jeb runs the mile-and-a-half in Kansas then he’ll be approved to run any race. So, we just have to go to Martinsville, Rockingham and Kansas, and then he’ll be cleared to run any NASCAR event. It worked out with the Truck schedule. It was pretty lucky how that all panned out for Jeb.
Jeb Burton took over the phone to answer a couple of questions before the pair had to go to another interview.
Neff: You’re stepping up to the Truck series. After having some test time in a truck, is it much different from a Late Model or are they about the same?
Jeb Burton: It is a little bit of difference, you just have to adjust your driving style a little bit differently to the weight and the horsepower. It is another racing vehicle, if you can drive a Late Model you can drive a truck. Whoever can adjust and adapt and work with their guys the most and step up can do the best and get some experience and run like we need to.
Neff: What is it going to be like having to sit on the pit box and watch your dad drive your truck in the first race of the year?
Jeb: It is exciting but I’d rather be out there. I wish I could have run the ARCA race so that I could have been out there but it didn’t work out that way. It won’t do any good to dwell on it now. I’m excited for him but I really wish it was me.
Neff: You’re going to run the Rockingham race. Have you ever run on that track before?
Jeb: I’ve walked across it but I’ve never raced on it. I’ve raced at Martinsville and that is the first race we’ll go to so I‘m excited about that.
Neff: That was going to be my next question. You’ve been to Martinsville in a Late Model, do you think your experience there is going to help you when you get there in a truck?
Jeb: Absolutely; we had one of the fastest cars last year, I just started way too far back. I worked my way up to sixth and then got caught in a little incident there, then we came all of the way back to eighth. We had a good car, we just had a little bad luck, but I love Martinsville. I’m excited to get there and if the truck will turn and have some forward bite I think we’ll be really good.
Neff: Your dad said you may be doing some other racing this year if some things line up, is there a chance you’ll be going back to Martinsville for the Late Model race?
Jeb: Absolutely, we’re going to try and run Ace Speedway as much as possible with as much money as I can raise. I’d like to thank all of my sponsors for helping me run there, and if we don’t tear up too much stuff there, and we haven’t been, then we’ll certainly run Martinsville.
Neff: Did you hear about the Virginia Triple Crown and are you thinking about running that?
Jeb: I did, I just don’t have the money. If I had the money, or if someone wants me to run it, I’d do it in a heartbeat, but I don’t have the money to run the Triple Crown.
Neff: How do you feel about being in a Hillman truck? They’ve won a couple of titles with Todd Bodine. Do you feel like you can be competitive once you get in there?
Jeb: From what I’ve seen so far, and working around the guys, I feel that way. We’ll just have to see how it goes when we get to Martinsville.
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