Ward Burton: Racing for conservation

In the fast-paced, bump-drafting, checkered-flag world of NASCAR, the word gentleman would seldom seem to apply.

Except, perhaps, in the case of Ward Burton.

Burton, the 43-year-old Virginian whose five NASCAR victories include the 2002 Daytona 500, lives as much for the quietness of the rural backwoods near his home as he does for the confetti-filled atmosphere in NASCAR's victory lane.

And just the day before his brother Jeff was to occupy the pole position at the 2006 Daytona 500, Burton was interviewed on "The Outdoors Show on ESPN Radio" about the two lives he leads — racing and conservation.

But racing — including Burton's current hiatus from the sport — won't be the only subject that Sanders will visit with Ward about.

That's because as much as Burton loves racing — he started racing go-karts at the age of 8 — he loves the outdoors world and caring for creation just as much, if not more.

"From my days as a child, I've always had both of these paths in front of me, so I took them both," Burton said.

"I've raced and I've stayed involved in the outdoors. I've always done them both because both are a part of me."

Notice that Burton's comment is in the present tense.

That's because while Burton's last full season on the Nextel Cup circuit was 2004, the fire to race still burns hot in Ward's soul on the eve of this year's Daytona 500 race.

"I do miss it and I'm longing to have an opportunity where I can go back to it," Burton said. "I think I miss it more this year than I did at this time last year."

In fact, don't be surprised if Ward is back behind the steering wheel at next year's "Great American Race."

"I probably haven't been as proactive as I need to be, but I'm working on some things right now," Burton said. "I still have the drive, the desire, and I know I have the ability to get it done on the track and off the track."

In the meantime, Burton has plenty to occupy his time off the track.

That's because his other passion — the outdoors world and the conservation of the critters that call such wild places home — has led Burton to be very proactive in recent months with the formation of The Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation.

With a mission "to conserve America's land and wildlife through wise stewardship while educating children and adults about the natural resources that will shape America's future," Burton's foundation has both local and national aspirations.

"On the local side, our foundation owns a little bit over 2,000 acres," Burton said. He notes that a couple of biologists and engineers are being hired for conservation work and management of this parcel and other lands.

"That's 7½ miles of river frontage around the Staunton River, which basically has every type of habitat that Virginia has with the exception of coastal (plains) and the mountains."

The work on this property includes the planting of trees and food plots, the hosting of workshops that can help local landowners in their own conservation efforts and, in the future, the building of a natural-resources center, for which Burton is attempting to secure funds.

The latter will help educate local schoolchildren about the value and need for conservation work on behalf of the land and its resident wildlife.

It also points squarely to Burton's national aspirations for his foundation.

"I think what we can do is serve as a national model if we can put this all together," Burton said. "Right now, it's local; but it could be national."

In both cases, Burton's work will center on educating young people.

"If we're ever going to connect with the next generation, we've got to start when they're young," he said.

That's exactly how it occurred in Burton's case, thanks to the mentoring efforts from various role models in his life, including his father, his grandfather and a Virginia gentleman named C.R. Sanders — who Burton compares to a character straight out of Robert Ruark's timeless classic, "The Old Man and the Boy."

"He had a real philosophy about the land, about land stewardship and being the caretaker of the land while you're on earth," Burton said of Sanders.

"He had about 1,200 acres that he let me and some other kids use while were growing up. That became a piece of land that I became real fond of."

In addition to providing the backdrop for Burton's youthful outdoor education — Ward's parents would drop him off on Friday and pick him up on Sunday after a weekend of activities that often included exploring, hunting, fishing, and camping — the property now serves as Sanders' final resting spot.

Burton says that some day he will join his longtime mentor and friend at this hallowed ground known as The Cove.

"The foundation owns that piece of property and one day I'm going to be buried in the same vicinity," Burton said.

Until then, Ward intends to pass on the rich conservation legacy that was passed on to him.

"I was just lucky enough as a boy to have a lot of different adults spend time with me," Burton said. "They didn't treat me like I was small, but they taught me as a man."

"It was kind of like 'The Old Man and the Boy' stories. The old man was teaching the boy things, and a lot of times he didn't even know he was being taught."

Today, Burton is doing plenty of woodsy teaching to young people, especially his own three children — Sarah (age 19), Jeb (13) and Ashton (4).

That means plenty of time spent together in the woods, especially during occasions like Virginia's upcoming spring-turkey season.

"During hunting season, to be honest with you, most of my time is spent with kids — my own, those of friends, or with kids who have some sort of illness," Burton said.

"The memories that are imprinted on a child's heart are there forever, just like those that were imprinted on me by those that mentored me."

"No amusement park in the world can compare with those memories," Burton said.

And that's exactly why Burton remains so focused and committed to his work off the track these days.

In a culture that Burton feels is becoming increasingly disconnected from a rural way of life, the NASCAR veteran is convinced that he and others must succeed in passing the torch on in order to preserve wild places, wildlife and natural resources.

"If we don't find ways to reach the grass roots, we're going to lose this fight," Burton said. "We'll lose the passion, we'll lose the leaders and we'll lose the fight, also.

"If we don't connect the kids and if we don't connect with the landowners, it's just a losing fight."

With such commitment, don't expect Burton or those joining with him to lose that battle.

To learn more about The Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation, click here.

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