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Q&A with NASCAR on NBC analyst Jeff Burton, Part 1

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With testing and occasional race duties coming up this NASCAR Sprint Cup season for Michael Waltrip Racing, Jeff Burton is still very much involved in the competition side of the sport.

But this year will also see Burton – universally respected and known among fans and media as “The Mayor” of the Sprint Cup garage – contribute to NBCSN’s new “NASCAR AMERICA” daily show that debuts on Monday at 5 p.m. ET.

Come 2015, he’ll move into a full-time analyst role with NBC Sports Group as it officially begins coverage of Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series racing.

Recently, MotorSportsTalk had the privilege of talking with him about a variety of topics. Today, you’ll see his thoughts on transitioning into the broadcast booth, and tomorrow, you’ll read about his role with MWR and his insights on the upcoming season – which starts Sunday with the Daytona 500.

What sort of impact did the NBC position have on you pulling back to part-time driving? Or had the pulling back part been on your mind before it opened up?

“The NBC thing certainly moved the ball. I knew 2014 was going to be my last full year. I had made up my mind on that. And the timing of NBC – that was going to be real convenient. We had a lot of conversations about it and it felt like that was going to work out. But then the opportunity to do [NASCAR AMERICA], being involved with that and being able to actually spend the time I need to spend – all that felt right to me.

“It just felt like the timing was right and I’ll be honest – and I’m not saying this because I’m talking to [an writer] – the opportunity to work with NBC was very appealing to me. The reason I say that is I watch NBC Sports and I watch the way they cover sports, and I like it. It feels right to me. It feels very professional. It fits who I am…It’s not about self-promoting, it’s about what’s going on and that fits me. And that pushed me to make a decision that I wasn’t sure I was ready to make [laughs]! It became a lot easier to make it.”

How important is it to have the support of a company like NBC Sports as you transition from driving to the broadcast booth?

“We’re doing it first class and we’re doing it right. That’s been my belief forever – if you put an effort in to do it right, then there’s the opportunity for it to come out right. You go into it, put a half-hearted effort into it, and you can pretty sure you’re gonna get a half-hearted result. Sitting down with [NBC Sports/NBCSN executive producer] Sam Flood and [NBC Sports Group vice president of NASCAR production] Jeff Behnke and really understand how they wanted to cover the sport, I became very excited about it and was very energized and enthusiastic.

“And then the people they’ve gone out and gotten – I mean, going in with [Sprint Cup crew chief] Steve Letarte, that’s a big deal. He’s going to be unbelievably good. And [play-by-play announcer] Rick Allen – I mean, we’re 18 months away from doing our first [race] broadcast, but they knew who they wanted and they got ‘em. That shows you the kind of company they are: “This is what we want. We’re gonna go make it happen.”

“They’ve could’ve easily said, ‘Well, let’s just see what happens.’ But they went and said, ‘Hey, let’s jump on it now,’ and by doing that, they put something in Steve Letarte’s head…It just goes to show, if you’re dedicated and committed and you go after it, you can make good stuff happen. That’s the way I view it. They went head-first into this to get the best team they could and hopefully, we live up to it. We’ve got a lot of work to do. But they got all their No. 1 draft picks.”

A common refrain we’ve heard involving NASCAR in recent years is that the younger fans are leaving it behind. How do you, Rick and Steve intend to convey the excitement of the sport to those fans and have them maybe take another look?

“First of all, there are so many stories in the sport: We’re not gonna have to create stories. What we need to do is telling more stories, more about what’s going on and not just about the Top 5 guys running [in a race]. We need to talk about technology. We need to talk about the things going on in the car with the drivers in specific ways. We need to get creative in how we not only talk about it, but how we allow viewers to visually understand it from a technology standpoint, strategy standpoint, and driver’s standpoint. All those things create opportunities.

“I believe that young people still like cars. I’m around them all the time, as my son races and my daughter just turned 18 years old. She has a lot of friends that are buying their first cars and just started driving, and my son’s around kids that race. Kids love cars. Kids love to drive. They still do. Is it different? Yeah. It used to be we’d take the car, change the engine in it, and that’s not going on [as much] today, but they still love to drive and still love cars. We’ve gotta get them back to being excited about racing!

“We can do that. There’s a lot of ways to do that. There’s nothing about racing that kids don’t like. It’s exciting, it’s fun, it’s loud, it’s in your face, it’s action. We just need to find a better way to present it to them. I’m confident we can do this. But it’s going to take some work. If we try to do it the way everybody else has done it, we’re gonna get the same result and we need to go into this looking for better results.”

(NOTE: The following is part of the answer to the previous question, but it wound up focusing on the competitive drive of the on-air team. We think it’s a good look into Jeff’s personality, so we’ve kept it in. – MST)

“In regards to the competition, nothing personal, but we intend to be the best. NBC intends to cover racing better than everybody else. It’s a competition. And I’ve been in competition my whole life. Rick Allen’s been a competitor [three-time All-American decathlete, University of Nebraska]. Steve Letarte’s been a competitor. We’re competitive people! And Sam Flood, too [college hockey captain]. We want to be the best. We want to take it to ’em – nothing personal, but we want to take it to ‘em. And that’s what we intend to do.”

What would be a sign of success to you in this role?

“When fans say to me, ‘I understand more today that I ever have. Racing is more fun to watch. This is fun. I know more about the sport than I used to know. I understand the rules more, I understand the process more.’ That’s a success. When I run into fans – it’s not about promoting me. It’s about telling the story of the sport. I don’t want people walking up to me, telling me how great I am.

“I want to them to walk up to me and say, ‘This sport is awesome.’ Because if they do that, then we’re doing our job…We have a great sport. We’ve got to get some energy back into it. We’ve gotta get people understanding how great it is. And everybody’s trying. It’s not like we’re the ones going to be trying. But we’re going to try and bring a fresh approach to it, a new approach to it.”

Porsche wins, champs crowned in rain-shortened Petit Le Mans

Photo: IMSA
Photo: IMSA

BRASELTON, Ga. – One of the more bizarre races in recent sports car history was called just prior to the eight-hour mark, as IMSA Race Director Beaux Barfield made the decision to end the 2015 edition of the Petit Le Mans powered by Mazda early.

It produced a surprise winner, as the GT Le Mans class No. 911 Porsche 911 RSR secured an overall victory courtesy of a storming drive from Nick Tandy and co-driver Patrick Pilet. Third driver Richard Lietz did not get to drive in the race.

Pilet has now secured the GTLM class championship, too, as a result.

Meanwhile Action Express Racing stormed from behind to win its second consecutive Prototype class championship.

The No. 5 Corvette DP of Joao Barbosa, Christian Fittipaldi and Sebastien Bourdais finished third overall – behind both the No. 911 car and No. 24 BMW Z4 GTE – but the result was enough to give it a class win and the class championship.

Other class champions include Jon Bennett and Colin Braun in Prototype Challenge in the No. 54 CORE autosport Oreca FLM09 and NBCSN IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell and Bill Sweedler in the No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 458 Italia in GT Daytona. Like the Action Express pairing, Bell and Sweedler came from behind to win the title.

Other race winners were the No. 52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports Oreca FLM09 of Tom Kimber-Smith, Mike Guasch and Andrew Palmer in PC and the No. 73 Park Place Motorsports Porsche 911 GT America of Spencer Pumpelly, Patrick Lindsey and Madison Snow in GTD.

The race was slowed by 10 full-course cautions and a number of accidents, spins, and other off-course excursions.

It also featured a red flag of one hour and five minutes during the race, but the race was resumed.

Barfield explained the decision to call the race when he did in a post-race press conference with assembled reporters:

“So a big part of reconnecting with the drivers and competitors in this paddock has been really open communication,” Barfield said.

“For the basis of this decision, I go back to Watkins Glen. At Watkins Glen because of the imminent weather we had coming there and how it ended up being managed, we encouraged more open dialogue to gather as much information as possible for our decision process.

“As it turned out that was very successful how they communicated real time.

“So going into this event, with the weather being similarly predictably bad, we reestablished that. How we communicated and went about it the same way.

“Today was really similar to that with our attention to our attention to what was going on the track and on the TV screeens, and with looking at the radar. With my knowledge of this track having spent a lot of time here in the past. Having a quick car availbel for recon laps during the vents. All of our decisions were for gathering information from those different directions.

“Fast forward to the very end of the race, the last restart, I felt in my gut that with the visibility issues, you have to think about these issues that produce two problems.

“One is the grip, hydroplaning – whatever part of the world you’re from – where issues where drivers have less control. An often forgotten major issue is the visibility. Cars with downforce shoot up such a spray, it’s hard to see around.

“The grip issue was one and dealt with but we had some daylight. The visibility was a problem. But not as it great as it became in the last hour when we lost sunlight.

“The light with the track conditions gave me no comfort level to go back green that is. What I saw on track, the visibility issues I had with a Porsche on track, you had the speed they had, you’d have to drop into night with a sunset, I felt like I’d be putting driver out there completely blind.

“So this decision was made to pull the plug and do the checkered flag.”

Bottas: Williams turning focus to 2016 car

Williams driver Valtteri Bottas of Finland steers his car to set the third fastest time during the qualifying session at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit, Belgium, Saturday, Aug. 22, 2015. The Belgium Formula One Grand Prix will be held on Sunday. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)
© AP
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Valtteri Bottas has explained how Williams is beginning to turn its attention to the development of its car for the 2016 Formula 1 season as the team settles into third place in the constructors’ championship.

Williams has struggled to put up much of a fight to Mercedes and Ferrari at the front of the field in 2015, picking up just three podium finishes.

With five races to go in the season, the team sits comfortably in third place in the constructors’ standings, knowing that neither the 129 point gap to Ferrari ahead or the 69 point difference to Red Bull behind are likely to be bridged.

As a result, the team is now turning attention to its 2016 car, the FW38, as explained by Bottas in his post-Japanese Grand Prix blog.

“As we get to this stage of the season some of the focus is switching to next year’s car and for sure we’ve been developing the FW38 for a long time,” Bottas said.

“That’s the target until the end of the season – to look ahead and put us in the best place for 2016. But if we can also find something that benefits this year’s car then we’ll use it as we would like to get more podiums before the season finishes. And if we can get closer to Ferrari then all the better.”

Williams has looked most comfortable at the high-speed tracks so far this season, and with the likes of the Circuit of The Americas, the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez and the Yas Marina Circuit all to come, the team should be in good stead for the final leg of the year.

“Most of the tracks we’re still going to this year should be good for us, so that’s very positive,” Bottas said. “I believe the upgrades we introduced for Singapore gave us more downforce and worked well, so they definitively worked here too.

“We ran the same bits on the car at Suzuka and were competitive but, obviously, Red Bull and Ferrari have made improvements too and they’ll be very difficult to beat in the coming races.”