Burton says Winston Cup drivers have a great opportunity to lead by example and, in retur
Motorsports journalists know theyll get straight answers when dealing with Burton
Burton has taken a strong position in promoting safety in the sport. Here a crewman helps
The Citgo Ford team pulled together a strong ending to the 2001 season, leaving Burton hop
Only a handful of Winston Cup drivers will always say whats on their mind. Jeff Burton is one of them. Whether its safety or a competitive issue, Burton realizes that the sport benefits from a healthy debate. Burton recently spoke with Stock Car Racing about his evolution into a racing spokesman.
SCR: For starters, youve been lucky enough to experience success in your NASCAR Winston Cup career. As part of that, many fans and the media have really started to pay attention to your comments and what you have on your mind relating to a lot of issues in racing. How do you feel about the fact that you have become one of NASCARs leading spokesmen?
Burton: Early in my career, I tried to do the stereotypical driver thing by getting out of my car and thanking my sponsors and telling the fans what it is you think they want to hear. Thats just manipulating the people youre talking to as well as the fans because people want to know the truth and the real story. Figuring out how to do that in a manner that is not offensive can be tough at times. The rule I have is to always tell the truth as I see it, but also doing it in a way thats polished and not brash. Tony Stewart is a great race car driver and a good person, and Ive told him that. Ive told him he needs to keep telling the truth; he just needs to find a way to say it a little nicer. I truly respect Tony for standing up for what he believes in because there are a lot of drivers who dont do that. A lot of drivers are just toeing the company line. Its all a matter of being able to open up so the fans can really get to know who you are, and that means not always saying things that are politically correct.
SCR: How important is it for Winston Cup drivers to speak whats on their minds if there are valid issues, such as safety, that need to be addressed?
Burton: Brian France said something to me probably four years ago because he was perturbed that the announcers in the booth wouldnt call NASCAR when they made a mistake. He was also bothered by the fact that the drivers wouldnt admit it when they made mistakes. That took me by surprise. What Brian was saying was that for us to have credibility as a sport, we cant always worry about doing the politically correct things. It has to be about the truth. John Madden does a great job of calling NFL games and Dick Vitale does a great job of calling college basketball games. They give praise when and where praise is due, but they will also point the finger at somebody when they make a mistake. It is a fine balance because you cant always be critical and talk about the bad stuff, but you have to be willing to do it because it gives those sports credibility. If all race fans hear is just the good stuff and when people make mistakes nobody says anything, thats not helping to build our credibility.
SCR: Do you agree drivers have a balancing act when it comes to taking important issues to the media as opposed to NASCAR officials?
Burton: Whats gone on in Winston Cup racing since Ive been in itand it gets worse every yearis the owners, drivers and the manufacturers use the media to try to manipulate what NASCAR does. I dont like that approach. I think a straightforward, honest discussion can take place behind closed doors in privacy. Then we can inform the media whats going on so they can inform the fans. Its kind of like our military. We dont need to tell everybody in the media about all the details if it puts the troops at risk. Thats just not productive. So then it becomes a matter of deciding how much of the whole story we talk to the media about. When you start confusing all that, it can get confusing and everybody totally misses the point.
SCR: Over the last couple of years, youve become very active in the safety aspect of this sport. Is safety the biggest issue facing the Winston Cup Series?
Burton: I dont think safety is the biggest issue, but its certainly an issue that has come to the forefront because of tragedy. Safety has to be approached in one way, and that is its a never-ending goal. You cant make racing safe enough because theres always going to be something that comes along to make it even safer. So its a moving target. What we have to do is treat it as a moving target, with the understanding that the target always needs to be moving up. Its a process that will never stop. Safety will never get good enough. You cant fix safety; you can only continue to improve what you have.
SCR: Not only have you taken a vocal approach when it comes to safety, but youve also taken a very hands-on approach as well. What steps have you taken to better understand the subject?
Burton: You cant get in an argument with somebody without knowing the facts. You should never fight a fight without conviction and education. When Ford started having safety seminars, I wanted to know what it was talking about. If youre going to be involved in trying to understand and improve something, you have to learn about it. I made it a point that if I was going to be involved in talking about safety I was going to learn all I could about it. To me, that was the only way I could have been involved in all this talk about safety and be 100-percent sure of what I was talking about. You either have to be 100-percent involved or stay out of the way in whatever it is youre doing. I had to make myself smarter about safety. Thats the only way I could honestly talk about it.
SCR: Does NASCAR need to work harder to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to safety?
Burton: I dont put all this on the shoulders of NASCAR because this is a community issue. I will be the first to say that NASCAR has made a tremendous change in philosophy, and I couldnt be prouder it did. Im one of the first ones to criticize NASCAR, but I will also be the first one to praise it when I think it deserves it. I put my arm around Mike Helton not long ago and told him I really appreciated the work he and NASCAR were doing because they have led the charge to make a commitment to the ongoing process of safety. Its just been a change in mindset.
SCR: Youve been a driver who has never forgotten where you came from as far as your short-track roots. How does it feel to know there are guys racing across the country on Friday and Saturday nights that look up to you and listen when you have something to say that could enhance their safety?
Burton: It means a lot to me and I appreciate that. I just want those guys to know that safety is something that shouldnt be taken lightly. We, as Winston Cup drivers, have a tremendous opportunity to lead by example. If youre a guy whos racing on short tracks, you watch Winston Cup racing on Sundays and you read magazines like Stock Car Racing. We need to understand that and help set an example, not just for safety but a lot of issues. Thats an awesome task, and it means a lot to me that people look up to me for anything Ive done.
SCR: You won a pair of races in 2001 and finished 10th in the final Winston Cup standings, but that wasnt exactly what you were looking for at the start of the year, was it?
Burton: A good sign is the fact that that type of year isnt what we were looking for because thats really not a bad year. Everybody came up to me at some point last year and told me what a terrible year I was having. But we as a team won two races and finished 10th in the points. How many teams would love to have a season like that? Based on the fact there were 19 different winners last season, winning two races was very respectable. What Im really disappointed about is the fact we just werent as fast, at times, as we needed to be. The other times I was just dumb and got in wrecks I shouldnt have been in. Without those mistakes, wed have finished fifth in the points last year. For some reason, I was a dumber driver the first part of last season than I was the year before. In the first third of the season, I was just dumb. I cant do that again this year; I just cant.
SCR: Through all that, you and crew chief Frankie Stoddard weathered the storm pretty well, wouldnt you say? You ended up last year with nine Top 10s in the last 11 races. Thats a pretty good indicator the team was building consistency.
Burton: Ill put the last half of last season up against anybody as far comparing points and laps led. Frankie is a really intense person. He has a reputation of being too intense, but he stays calmer through the bad times than any other crew chief I can think of. Hes willing to hear me say something needs to be done better. Im able to hear him tell me there were some things I needed to be doing better as a driver. We just fight the fight together. If something on the No. 99 car doesnt work, its as much a fault of mine as it is Frankies. We are all in this thing together and we dont point the finger at each other.
SCR: Ive listened to you and Frankie on the radio, and when you have a bad day, youre the first to let him know you are not happy about it. How important is it for a driver and crew chief to be able to communicate to each other through both the good and bad times and not take the comments personally?
Burton: I think its critical because there are more days, by far, that you dont win than days when you do. You have to be able to stress what you feel like can make it better, whether its the driver or the crew chief. If you cant do that, youre not being productive. If youre willing to talk about it, youve also got to be willing to hear about it, too. We dont take things personally because this is an emotional sport. One rule Jack Roush taught me was I would not have a conversation with NASCAR after the races unless Im required to because emotions run high and you say things you dont mean later. Sitting here doing this interview, I wouldnt walk through my shop and yell at anybody. But if you put me in a 140-degree race car and somebody passes me, Im going to be yelling at somebody even if its myself. You have to have thick skin in this sport, and thats why egos will ruin you.
SCR: How close are you to your brother, Ward? You two are obviously at the racetracks together, but how limited is your time together because of your hectic schedules?
Burton: As we both have increasingly become busier, we have lacked the time to spend with each other that we should. That goes for all my friends and family, not just Ward. Its hard competing against your brother, and thats what I do for a living. Theres no way around the fact that we are two competitive people who love to see each other do well, but its Wards first intention to win himself. Thats my first intention, too, as it should be. So, I think we balance that pretty well even though it is difficult. Its very difficult.