Richard Childress Racing
August 20, 2012
Family first: NASCAR driver hustles to see son's debut at Ace Speedway
"You want to do the right thing as a parent and you want to do the right thing as a racer. And trying to juggle all of those things, sometimes it can be hard to know what the right decision to choose is."
ALTAMAHAW — A veteran driver in every sense, Jeff Burton is in his 19th full year on NASCAR’s elite level and striving to turn the corner on a season of struggles.
He’s also a father.
Commitment to both duties demands a dedicated balancing act, of course, and last week became a study in the unique lengths — quite literally — that he’s willing to travel.
On Friday night, Harrison Burton, his 11-year-old son, debuted in a full-bodied stock car, racing Limited Late Models at Ace Speedway.
Jeff Burton hustled that afternoon, a dad trying to wrap up the work day to be there for one of his children’s big moments, which carried with it the proverbial next rung on the driving development ladder.
Here’s the thing: the Sprint Cup Series was at the twisty road course in Watkins Glen, N.Y.
And a crash during practice — Patrick Long’s engine expired, spewing oil that wrecked Denny Hamlin and Burton — certainly didn’t speed along the preparatory process.
“We had one delay after the other,” Burton said. “Then as luck would have it, I was one of the random drivers that had to be drug tested.”
Burton finally hopped aboard a private plane that took off at about 6:30 p.m. and landed some 75 to 80 minutes later at Burlington-Alamance Regional Airport.
The 565-mile flight down the East Coast provided time to ponder what would be waiting on the ground at Ace, the new challenges zooming into play for his youngest child, a rising sixth grader.
“A lot of emotions on the way there,” he said. “You want to do the right thing as a parent and you want to do the right thing as a racer. And trying to juggle all of those things, sometimes it can be hard to know what the right decision to choose is.”
Harrison Burton cannot earn his driver’s license until October 2016.
But already he has won two national championships in United States Auto Club (USAC) Quarter Midgets, a series geared toward training youngsters to rise through the racing ranks.
Quarter Midgets, essentially one-fourth-scale race cars, weigh about 300 pounds — 2,800 pounds less than the significantly more powerful Limited Late Models car he climbed in last week at Ace.
“It’s definitely a big difference,” he said. “It’s a lot harder to drive these cars. I think these cars have more components, and you need to be a better driver to finish in the top three, than you would in the USAC races.”
The soon-to-be middle-schooler qualified fourth in the 14-car field Friday night, completing his two-lap timed run minutes prior to his dad’s arrival at Ace.
Harrison Burton hung among the top five positions during the early portions of the 35-lap race. Ultimately, he finished seventh in his Limited Late Models debut.
“My goal was to have fun, and I accomplished that,” he said. “The race went good. I was nervous, because obviously it’s my first one.
“But I had a good time racing with all these really good drivers. I’m proud to be running with them. And to finish seventh, I’m happy.”
It marked his fourth time ever behind the wheel of the No. 12 car, which got branded by a tire smudge, a typical result of closely packed competition.
Most significantly, this was his first experience navigating traffic in a Limited Late Model. No more test sessions on empty tracks.
And that became a situation of inescapable worry for Kim Burton, his mother, too anxious to remain seated atop the family’s race car hauler, both hands squeezing a choke hold on her smartphone.
“I was sitting down, but then I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to jump up,” she said. “That’s my baby, you know?”
At the other end of the spectrum, there was Jeff Burton, his stoic expression a picture of composure amid Ace’s always bustling infield pit area.
“My role was to keep everything calm,” he said. “So if I was going to keep everything calm, I had to be calm myself, outwardly anyway, because I was nervous, I’m not going to lie about it.
“There was a lot going on for an 11-year-old. A lot going on for an adult, too. But at the same time, he had a good time. He had fun. He had a smile on his face.”
Before bolting to the Burlington airport and jetting back to Watkins Glen — where an 8 a.m. practice preceded qualifying Saturday — Burton spent two hours soaking up the Friday night scene in northwest Alamance County.
The NASCAR driver, who grew up in South Boston, Va., thoroughly enjoyed visiting Ace and returning, albeit briefly, to the grassroots level.
“I had a great time. I love short-track racing. I think it’s the backbone of our sport,” he said. “You walk through those pits and those people are there because they love it, and they have a passion for it. They could be a doing a lot of different things, but they’re there.”
Burton was able to reconnect with Barry Beggarly, the four-time Late Models champ at Ace, a friendly racing adversary from some 20 years ago.
He also had a chance to watch 19-year-old nephew Jeb Burton compete in person for the first time. Jeb Burton finished fourth in last week’s Late Models feature. Beggarly, who’s 62, was the winner.
“Ace has a nice mixture of veterans and young people,” Jeff Burton said. “It just makes the most sense for us to go there.
“I like the way they run their program, too. I was really impressed.”
So was his son, who, after one night, called Ace “my favorite track.”
The family’s hope is to have young Harrison Burton back for the speedway’s 50-lap Limited Late Models on Aug. 24.
That aligns well with his dad’s schedule. He could come parachuting into Ace again, with the Cup series in Bristol, Tenn., that weekend.
“We’re trying to map out these first couple races,” Jeff Burton said. “Me being there right now is a good thing. He’s young enough that he thinks that I still know what I’m doing.”