MARTINSVILLE, Va. – The changing leaves and nip in the morning air are among the signs that have Ward Burton looking forward to the offseason just ahead.
“I’m getting ready to slow down here in the next couple of weeks,” the avid outdoorsman said between practices for the Subway 500 at Martinsville Speedway. “I’m enjoying getting ready to sight in a muzzleloader and walk around the woods.”
One year after making his return to stock car racing’s top series after nearly two years away, Burton is wrapping up the kind of season he once vowed he would never again endure, but without the sense of indignation that once characterized his racing persona.
“I’ve had a blast. I’ve really appreciated Morgan-McClure letting me come and drive their car,” Burton said. “I knew it was going to be up and down with the resources we have. It’s like taking a BB gun to a fire fight sometimes. Everybody has worked really hard and I feel like we’ve done more with little than anybody out here.”
Experience and almost two years away from driving have helped temper the expectations for Burton, who won the Daytona 500 in 2002 and has four other victories.
“I’m 45 years old, and when I was younger, I would have taken it really personally,” he said of going through a season in which he made only half of the first 32 races. “I would have been looking at my self-worth a little bit as a race car driver.”
Behind the wheel of the Morgan-McClure team’s race car, Burton’s passion for racing remains, but away from the track, his diverse interests keep him plenty busy, too. And a season that shows him 47th in points has given him loads of time for those outside pursuits.
“There have been moments certainly full of frustration and anxiety and being very upset about an outcome that happened on a Friday during qualifying, but I let it go on Saturday,” Burton said.
“And those weekends that I didn’t stay at the track, I went home and had a heck of a time working on some land with a tractor or spending time with my kids, or some of both. Being older, I let it go real quick and just look at the big picture and realize that there’s some things in life I can’t fix and can’t control.”
Before coming back to racing, Burton dove headlong into his work with the wildlife foundation that bears his name. Its mission is to preserve America’s land and wildlife and to teach children to enjoy the outdoors while learning to be good stewards.
Like racing, it’s a passion that helps define Burton. His interest in protecting hunters’ rights keeps him active with wildlife officials, and the foundation, and he knows his work racing cars has helped make it all possible.
“Racing as a career, the outdoors and connecting the children and the stuff we do with the game department, that’s a lifetime commitment,” he said.
“I separate the two, but racing, without question, has allowed me to make a difference in the other arena that I’m passionate about. But there will be one day that I don’t put on a helmet.”
When that comes is anyone’s guess. Burton signed a one-year contract with the team for this season, and the team is focusing on securing as much sponsorship as possible for next year. Then, team owner Larry McClure said, he’ll talk to Burton about 2008.
The team is based in Abingdon, Va., away from the NASCAR hub around Charlotte, N.C., and its struggles won’t get easier without some major rules changes. It already operates on a scant budget compared to the multicar teams that dominate the series.
The outspoken McClure thinks NASCAR could make things better for underfunded teams, and create added drama for race fans, by doing away with the rule that guarantees the top 35 teams in points a spot in races. The rule leaves the rest of the teams to battle for a few spots, and the ones that don’t make a race fall further behind.
He’d like the fastest 43 cars in qualifying to make the field each week.
“We need to put this back to where ‘Little E’ would have to qualify for the races just like Ward Burton’s got to qualify for the races,” he said, speaking of Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s most popular driver. “Let’s see how tough they are.
“Let’s see if Jeff Gordon has trouble, cuts a tire down or whatever and he couldn’t make a race. You think that wouldn’t bring some smoke and steam and interest from a race fan to fill up those seats? My goodness. It would be like dynamite going off.”
Without a major change in the rules, though, things are not likely to get easier.
“It’s hard to show up at a track with a one-and-a-half hour practice and compete with that, and that’s what we’ve done all year,” Burton said.
At Martinsville, his low points standing threatened to leave him out of the race when intermittent rain fell and it looked like qualifying could be washed out.
McClure, whose team has won 14 races, hopes the days on the edge will end.
“We used to smoke ‘em at Daytona, smoke ‘em at Talladega, all the road courses, short tracks. There wasn’t a race track that we couldn’t run good at and we weren’t a threat to win,” he said. “We never forgot how to win and we know what it takes.”
The hard part this year has been getting a chance to show it.