NASCAR's Ward Burton has passion for outdoors

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Racing, outdoors passions for Burton

David Rainer, Mobile Register

02/02/02



When Ward Burton isn't strapped inside his Caterpillar Dodge race car, he can likely be found pursuing his other "passion" -- the outdoors.


The Virginian, who is preparing for this week's start of Speedweeks at Daytona, took time off from testing his No. 22 Intrepid in the middle of January to join in the Buckmasters Classic Disabled Hunt at Sedgefield Plantation southwest of Selma.

Famous for his stoic demeanor, Burton did exhibit a little excitement when he showed up for the hunt.

The day before he had been behind the wheel for the fastest lap at Daytona, a smooth 183.748 miles per hour.

The next morning he was even grinning a bit more. Burton was able to take a wide-antlered buck at close range.

"It was an exciting morning," said Burton as he relived the hunt. "We got to the stand a little before light. Actually, we saw the buck about 15 or 20 minutes before sunrise. My guide hit the rattle one time and brought him right over to us.

"It was pretty easy. It doesn't happen that way very often. It was one of the cull bucks, one of the bucks they want to get out of the herd. I was happy to help them, and at the same time have a fun hunt."

The buck, later determined to be well past his prime, came in with hair bristled, looking for a fight.

"He was about 35 steps or closer," Burton said. "He was searching for who was making that racket. He was wanting to tangle."

Those kinds of adventures of outdoors are special to Burton, who founded the Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation in 1996.

"It came about because of my passion for the outdoors," said Burton of the foundation. "As a child, I was always fascinated by the outdoors. I spent a lot of time outdoors and learned about wilderness. My grandfather spent a lot of time with me, and his philosophy rubbed off on me at an early age.

"I wanted to figure out a way to give back instead of just take. My way of doing it was to form the Ward Burton Wildlife Founda tion. I'm real excited about what it's done and where it's going down the road."

The foundation (P.O. Box 519, Halifax, VA 24558) currently owns or co-owns about 2,500 acres in Virginia.

"Basically, the foundation was started to conserve and manage our natural resources," said Burton, whose younger brother, Jeff, drives the No. 99 CITGO Ford. "What that includes is buying land and setting it aside for the next generation. We're also helping others like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and we're working to educate of the next generation."

Burton sees an alliance with Buckmasters, the Montgomery-based organization founded by Jackie Bushman.

"Jackie and I have been talking about what we can do together, now that we've been able to talk in a stress-free environment," Burton said. "We always see each other at the racetrack and I'm always busy.

"I like what Jackie and his staff have done with these children. It's special. I think we can do some things together that will help Buckmasters and help conservation at the same time."

Now that deer season is over, Burton's focus returns to racing. The 40-year-old went through a tumultuous season in 2001, but he thinks the bumps have been smoothed out for 2002.

"Last year we switched to Dodge and Goodyear changed the tires on us," he said. "About every variable that could be thrown at us hit us last year."

And last year's Daytona 500 was definitely the worst. Burton was leading the race when Robby Gordon caused an 18-car wreck that included Burton, who ended up finishing 35th.

But the last lap of that race caused him the most anguish, when Dale Earnhardt was killed in a crash in turn four.

"Dale Earnhardt was NASCAR," Burton said. "He made the sport what it is today. One of the hardest things I've ever done was going to Rockingham. We spent a lot of times with our families, trying to make sense out of something we thought would never happen. When you lose some body like Dale, you realize it can happen to you."

However, Burton and the Caterpillar Racing Team managed to regroup by mid-season. He returned to Daytona in July and finished fourth in the Pepsi 400, won by Dale Earnhardt Jr.

After a sixth-place finish in the Brickyard 400, Burton finally made it to the winner's circle in the Moutain Dew Southern 500 at Darlington, outdueling eventual NASCAR points champion Jeff Gordon for the victory. Burton ended up 14th in the points race after the inauspicious start.

"By the middle of the season through the end of the season we were getting some good momentum," Burton said. "I think we can carry that over into 2002.

"We were the fastest car at Daytona out of half the field. I just think we're really prepared. We're real excited about our year."
 


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