Jeff Burton, a leading activist for safety and competitive changes in NASCAR, talked with reporters during a national conference call recently. He offered opinions on everything from his position with Richard Childress Racing, drug testing and his 16th-place position in the Nextel Cup Series standings.
Here are excerpts of that call:
Question: Why is the Richmond International Raceway considered the perfect racetrack?
Burton: I think it has a combination of everything. First of all, hello to everybody. But I think Richmond is almost the perfect balance of the size of the racetrack, how many grooves you can run. The fans are still close to the action, and it's not -- Bristol is fun to watch, but in all honesty it's a lot of wrecking and it's not as much racing as there is at Richmond. I just think it's the best compromise of all things, speed, competition, being close to the action, and to me, it just seems like the perfect fit.
Question: Have you brought some much-needed stability to Richard Childress Racing?
Burton: Well, I don't know. I mean, it's always difficult to ask somebody what they've done. It's difficult for me to answer it. I'll tell you what I've tried to do. I've tried to instill that we can win, that we can be successful. I've tried to let everybody know that just because Richard Childress Racing hasn't won a championship in the last X amount of years doesn't mean that we can't -- really, I think, it's just bringing confidence back to everybody. I mean, I think when you have a lot of success and then you don't have it, it's harder than if you never had it. And I think everybody's confidence was down a little bit. I've tried to be very open and very honest and very straightforward in the things that I think we need to do, and I've tried to be constructive in finding a way to make those things happen. I think that they lost that a little bit when we had so many different kinds of driver personalities, and it was very strong personalities, and we had a lot of strong personalities at the same time and everybody was always butting heads.
We just said, "We're not doing that anymore." It's just a struggle for everybody. It just kind of calmed things down a little bit.
The other thing that happens is that when you work at a company for a period of time, you know the things that not everybody else knows and you know what doesn't work. Well, I didn't worry about that. I didn't know anything about that, about Richard Childress Racing. So I came in, somebody said we can't do this and we can't do that; I wouldn't say, well, that's always been, I'd say, "Let's fix it," and I showed them how to fix it. I think that's a product of new -- it's good to have new people sometimes. I think that my willingness to get in there and not accept the way it's always been, to say we need to do it better and then sitting down with Richard Childress or Bobby Hutchinson or whatever and saying this is the concern, how can we be better at it, and then some don't have it. I think all those things helped us a lot.
Question: Drug testing in professional sports has obviously become a very hot topic with baseball's troubles. NASCAR obviously has to look for different things in their sports, but do you think NASCAR does a good job of catching violators, or is there something else that should be done, or should they be looking for something else?
Burton: The thing that I enjoy a great deal about our sport is that on a lot of issues, we're in front of them in comparison to other sports' competitors. We don't have a players' union that stands in the way of our sanctioning body doing the right thing. It's one of the things that I enjoy about our sport.
Having said that, I wish we would get further ahead of this than we are. I'd rather look back five years from now and say we were trying maybe a little too hard rather than saying we weren't trying hard enough.
I think it's our duty and our responsibility to show the youth that's watching this sport and the adults that are watching this sport that this is a drug-free environment because what we do -- we're operating vehicles at a high rate of speed. We're operating them around pit crew members. We are the perfect environment to have major problems, from whether it be drinking and driving or using drugs and driving.
We have that opportunity to take full advantage of the responsibility that we have, the same way that when Jack Daniels came in, I said that's a great thing because they're going to promote a responsible drinking message. I think we can, as a sport, do a better job of having a drug-free environment.
Question: Is there are problem?
Burton: I'm not aware of anybody using drugs in the sport, but I wish we were more proactive in testing. I wish we would do more testing without a doubt. Without a reason of suspicion, I wish we would do random drug testing.
When you subject yourself to this sport, whether you're a pit crew member or a driver, you owe it to the people that are doing it with you to be sober, straight and clean, and that's a minimum commitment that you make when you do this.
So I'd like to see us get further ahead of it. I know it's easier said than done because there's a lot of legal things that go into all of it, but I want us to have the best drug policy in all sports, the same way we do a lot of things better than all the other sports, so I wish we were a little more proactive in it.
Question: Greg Biffle is obviously having a great season. Can you talk about what it was like -- what he's like as a guy, as a driver, and has his success this year surprised you?
Burton: His success does not surprise me. Years ago when Biffle was running trucks I was testing Busch cars at Charlotte, and I invited him to come to Charlotte and run the Busch car some. The next year he was going to come down and do Busch cars and we got done with that test and I went to Jack, and I said, "You can't put a half-hearted effort together around this guy." He's like, "What do you mean?"
He can win the championship next year. Don't wait. Don't treat this like it's a rookie development. Treat this as if he's going out to win championships. He's a fierce competitor. If you watch him, he's aggressive, but he's a clean driver. He's on a mission, and that's about all I can say. He's very talented and that goes without saying. He's on a mission and he's out to do what he can do, and you can see it.
Question: Talk about if there's one thing you could put your finger on this year, what has kept you from getting into the winner's circle?
Burton: Not taking advantage of situations has been our biggest downfall. And I'll be perfectly blunt and perfectly honest; we haven't been fast enough consistently to put ourselves in position to win races. You've got to be knocking on that door a lot of times before the thing might open or you might run well one day and everything will work your way and you win. But the way you win consistently in this business is to keep continually putting yourself in position to win. We haven't done that enough.
Our downfall ... is because we have let so many points slip away. We are in position for a top-5 finish, a wheel will come loose. In Martinsville, we have a wheel that's loose; at Daytona, we break a part. The first three races of the year in the last ten laps, we lost like 18 spots in the last 10 laps of those races. So we haven't taken advantage of the opportunity that we've had in most cases. We did in Phoenix and we had good fortune at Talladega. We missed a wreck and we finished top-10. But we've got to do a better job of taking advantage of opportunities, and we've got to have a little faster cars so we can continue to put ourselves in position to win races.
Question: Do you like racing on Saturday nights?
Burton: I like it in some regard. I enjoy having the Sunday, having some flexibility with it. The thing I don't like about it is there's a lot of waiting around on these night races without a whole lot to do. The more we have them, the more we're learning how to deal with that. But in general I like them. I think for the spectators at the track, it's a great environment. It gives us an opportunity to create that environment that you have at ballgames; that pre-race atmosphere I think is a lot of fun. It's much more important for the fans to enjoy it than it is for the teams. That's just how it is. The fans do seem to enjoy it, so I'm good with it.