Ward Burton is building on a good foundation

ESPN Outdoors: This is the second year racing a Dodge, but your Daytona win, coupled with your Darlington win last season, indicates that the Bill Davis Racing Team/Caterpillar will be in the thick of the 2002 championship.

Ward Burton: If we do what we're capable of doing we could be there at the end of the year. It's just that there are so many factors involved. But I know the team is up for it. It's just that you've got to have some luck and you can't have misfortune-getting into wrecks here and there--there's just so many factors that dictate if you're going to be there ten months down the road.

ESPN: It's never bad to win the first race of the season-particularly a race that pays more the $1.4 million-but that has to put a lot of extra demands on your time.

Burton: It's busy alright. I didn't get to go up to my wildlife farm until yesterday [after a month-long virtually non-stop public relations tour of television talk shows and personal appearances following Daytona]. We did some burning-prescribed burning, about twelve acres. We're also in the middle of building a 10-12 acres pond, or lake, whatever you want to call it, for fisheries and soil conservation. I finally got to relax a little this week. When I get time to drive my pickup [a V-10 Dodge Ram] to work on the farm, that's my "relaxation."

ESPN: Have you always felt most comfortable in the outdoors?

Burton: When I was growing up, we lived about a half mile from my grandfather. He was semi-retired, and his activities in the winter were hunting and working with conservation groups. In the spring and the summer, he had a 5-acre garden he tended by himself, and he fished. Remember that book The Old Man and the Boy, by Robert Ruark? That was me and my granddad.

I was just fascinated with wildlife. We had a block of woods behind the house. By the time I was eight years old I knew every place where the crawfish hid, where the bears lived and where the squirrels were at. We had a couple of beagles an I taught--they taught me rather--how to rabbit hunt. That was my whole life… other than when we were racing go-karts.
I think I kind of inherited my grandad's involvement with environmental issues. That's part of why I've taken it to my level, by creating the Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation. I feel it's my responsibility to give something back.

Like this year, even before we went to Daytona, we went to four different states. Whether is was for a fund-raiser or to meet with some potential donors or to speak about wildlife conservation, we were crisscrossing the country from January 10th to February 6th. We went from Mississippi to Minnesota, where we did "The Wood Duck Challenge." It was a fund-raiser for 1,200 kids, who were Big Brother or Big Sister kids. They were going to build wood duck boxes and put them on Future Farmers of America lands. It was a collective effort [with another conservation group] that worked out because we were able to raise the money they needed. Then we went to Alabama a did a hunt with disabled and Make-A-Wish kids.

ESPN: I understand you started the Foundation back in 1996, when you had only made it into Winston Cup racing for a couple of years.

Burton: Yes, and up until this last year [the Foundation] was pretty much me. We had people from Canada to Florida who heard about us and sent in donations. But the Foundation was ready to grow and I figured maybe I was the one that was holding it back. That's when [Executive Director] Dennis Campbell came on board.

ESPN: He used to be with the National Wild Turkey Foundation, are you a turkey hunter yourself?

Burton: Every now and then I'll go a get a turkey. I make certain to shoot one for Thanksgiving every year. My racing and testing schedule keeps me busy most of the spring, but the land now has so many animals on it, I can make the most of the time I get on it. I remember the last spring gobbler I shot, about six years ago. I had on a pair of white tennis shoes and a white shirt, and he still came right up. Nowdays there are more turkeys in this part of the country than tweety birds.

ESPN: Is your brother Jeff a hunter?

Burton: No sir. He's just not interested in it.

ESPN: I know Jeff is six years younger than you, but you guys seem different in lots of ways. Like he drives a Ford in the Winston Cup while you used to drive a Pontiac and now the Number 22 Dodge. That puts you guys in different corners. And you have one of those soft Virginian accents but Jeff has very little drawl.

Burton: (chuckle) I guess I was born at the southern end of the house. I just can't do anything about it now.

ESPN: How about your own family? Do they enjoy the outdoors?

Burton: My boy Jeb is nine, and he's into it pretty heavy. Sarah, she's 15, and she enjoys it. She asks questions and she knows about wildlife. They had someone visiting her school and they brought a few snakes to show. Sarah surprised everyone by being able to identify them right off…black snake…garter snake, you know. She's around me enough to know I'm the guy that'll bring a black snake home and put it around his neck and ask her to hold it when she was a little girl.

The youngest boy isn't but about a few months old. Hopefully we'll have a few more wins, but I don't know about many more kids.

I've scheduled it with my wife that were going to get the kids out of school a bit early in midweek because were building that eight- to ten-acre lake and I want them to see the spot, and try to visualize a duck pond there before it all happens. The wildlife land is very special to me and I'm hoping they'll feel that same way when they get older. I want them to know what their daddy cares about when he isn't racing.

ESPN: Are you a fisherman as well as a hunter?

Burton: I don't know as much about fisheries as I do about wildlife, but I
I'm slowly getting there.

ESPN: How about big game?

Burton: We have quite a few whitetails on the farm and I've hunt them from time to time. This year I'm doing a charity bow hunt with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation in Montana. I have a great relationship with them. In my opinion Rocky Mountain Elk is one of the best conservation groups. They have the most willingness to work and create partnerships and they do it unselfishly. They are not just concerned for who gets credit for this or who gets credit for that…they just want to get conservation being practiced.

ESPN: I know that you have won a few Sporting Clays titles and that you were on a riflery team at school, but I didn't know that you're a bow hunter as well.

Burton: I've been shooting a bow for quite a few years. But to be honest with you, I've never actually hunted with it. And I've got to get ready before I go up to Montana. I've had a problem. I've gotten dead on with my field tips, but when I put in broadheads the thing goes all over the place. I don't know whether I'd hit an animal in the neck or in the tail.
I'm sure it's a tuning problem because I'm dead on a thirty yards, but all I do when I switch to broadheads is put arrows into the air. So there's no way in hell that I'm going to shoot at something when I'm that inconsistent. I'm not about to leave Montana just wounding an elk. That would be very depressing. I've got a couple of friends--Bill Jordan and some others who really understand bows--so they're going to look mine over and try to figure out what's going on.

ESPN: Are you a bird hunter as well?

Burton: I'm a big duck hunter. That's something my grandad and I did a lot.

ESPN: Do you ever hunt with anyone else from NASCAR. I know that Richard Childress [the late Dale Earnhardt's team owner) and Terry LaBonte [ 19tk Winston Cup champion] are sportsmen?

Burton: I like to go alone. You know what I call myself? I call myself "a hiker with a gun." I'm 40-years-old now and my philosophy has changed. Maybe when I was a kid, it was all about bagging the first buck, or the biggest buck, but that's changed. Now it's more important to me to give back. Then if I can enjoy some fishing or hunting I can do that secondly. To me, a "sportsman" also means to give something back.

Last year I found enough time to just walk the Foundation's land about 90 miles, and you know something? I didn't shoot a single deer all year. I took that turkey for Thanksgiving, but it's just as much fun for me watch an animal as it is to bag him. I love hunting, don't get me wrong, but I'm not into it just to get my hands bloody.

ESPN: Is the Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation going to concentrate its efforts in the mid-Atlantic and Southern states?

Burton: No. But, first, we're trying to get all the land together around here. We hope the farm and some land we're negotiating to buy in the next couple of months will be an eastern "showcase." We want it to demonstrate how the Foundation can profit wildlife.
We also bring in children an use it as an educational facility. We bring in a lot of youngsters that probably would not have the opportunity we had when we were growing up. They can fish, maybe do some shooting, and they can see deer and turkey in their natural setting, animals that aren't scared to death.

As soon as the land deal is done, then we'll start working with other organizations, branch out and start doing more things all over the country.

ESPN: Are you managing deer through the "Quality Deer Management" program.

Burton: We haven't shot a big buck in nine years, coming this year. We put some cameras and we could identify 24 to 26 eight-pointers or better this winter. But we still need to shoot some more does and "dwarf" bucks. The ratio is now about 4:1 does to bucks, we'd like it more 2:1 so that you better the health of the herd.

That's what some of these animal rights activists don't understand. When we're hunting, we're making the whole herd stronger and healthier. And when we're hunting with children, they experience something with their dad, or whomever, that will start to create a bond or a passion, so that they will carry on the torch for us down the road.

ESPN: You aren't going to be looking for something to do when you decide to hang up your helmet. You will be in the field every darn day.

Burton: I will. I mean it's theraputic for me to get on my tractor and disc a field or plant some corn. Or build a pond and dam it up. Or spread some duck feed in the swamp. I love doing that stuff. I',m outside, and I'm seeing things, learning things every day.
As I look back, I remember driving down the road with my parents and crossing the James River and seeing an area where they were building all kinds of new houses, and always wondering what it might have looked like. Experiences like that, more than anything, is what made me create the Wildlife Foundation. The Foundation is not trying to stop development-heck, there's plenty of place for development-but it's about trying to give back to the next generation.

There's no shortage of proof that conservation makes a difference. When I was a kid growing up in Virginia if you saw a turkey during the course of a year, it was a truly outstanding day. Now there are so many, that I was able to call one up this fall for my boy, nine years old and he shot his first jake.
Jab doesn't understand it right now, he can't envision that when I was nine years old there were no wild turkeys to be shot. Even if you did see one, the game department wouldn't allow it, there just wasn't enough of them.

Now, we've got black bear moving back in. Just 15 years ago there were no black bear. I bet we have eight or more bears just on the Foundation farm.
When we take children, or even adults, as we close the gate behind you it's just like going back a hundred years. You know they will come away impressed. And, heck, that child may do ten times what I'm capable of doing down the road.
Everything we're doing…it's nothing about me, it's nothing about Dennis [Campbell], it's about giving something back. We're going to make it go. It'd be a lot easier on me if I didn't have the Foundation, but I feel it's my responsibility. I know I can make a difference.

ESPN: …and winning the 500 doesn't hurt your efforts.

Burton: Oh, no. It sure doesn't. When I'm asked to speak or make an appearance, it usually gives me an opportunity to talk about wildlife.

Most people get the message right away, but I can't tell you how many times in a year I get asked "how can you be a hunter and a conservationist at the same time." I've got no problem answering that question. I just invite them to come out and spend a day with me on the Foundation's land.

To learn more about The Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation, or to join, write/call to:

P.O. Box 519

Halifax, VA 24558

Individual memberships are $25 (tax deductible) and include a decal and quarterly newsletter. In addition programs, are available for land donations, trusts, estate gifts, etc., with significant additional awards.