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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 NBCSports.com 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.”

Herta, Andretti continue ‘natural evolution’ of partnership into 2017

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 29:  Alexander Rossi of the United States, driver of the #98 Andretti Herta Autosport Honda Dallara, poses with team owners Michael Andretti and Bryan Herta during a photoshoot after winning the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 30, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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A year ago, Bryan Herta faced a quandary and a fork in the road.

A sponsor had pulled out, leaving the likable team owner and past driver needing a way to continue into the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season at the eleventh hour.

You should know the story from there. Herta and Michael Andretti struck a deal where the Bryan Herta Autosport team melded with the Andretti Autosport operation as the fourth Andretti entry for 2016. Alexander Rossi replaced Gabby Chaves as driver although the rest of the BHA crew shifted over unchanged.

Rossi promptly won the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil thanks in large part to Herta’s strategic gamble but Rossi’s own maturity beyond his years, while Chaves endured a nightmare season racing only part-time.

It’s natural to wonder where Herta might be now if the last-minute deal didn’t happen. Luckily, there was never a question that the Herta-Andretti partnership would continue into a second year, and as Herta explained, the melding is such that there’s not a divide of “BHA” and “Andretti Autosport” within the overall unit.

“I think it’s kind of cool how it’s evolved. A year ago this was all fresh,” Herta told NBC Sports. “Indy 500 aside was a great thing on its own, but overall it’s worked well for us and for his team. This was a natural evolution.

“You had the 98 car… and it was my original guys that came over on the car. Now the idea was, let’s do this for a year. At end of the year, really, we’d talk about how to continue it. We achieved the objective and didn’t need to go our own way again. We want to continue it.

“This year is a more thorough integration. It’s not the ’98 guys’ and ‘Andretti guys.’ There’s a mix; the BHA guys are mixed to different cars. I have a role in Marco (Andretti’s) car. It’s back to one team. The 98 yes, falls under the BHA entry, but really now we’re all in with Andretti Autosport.”

And that is the funny part of the year ahead. While Rossi’s No. 98 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda is still the Andretti-Herta Autosport entered car, Herta himself shifts to the strategist box for Marco Andretti, in an attempt to help bring the No. 27 hhgregg Honda’s performance – and results – forward. This also allows Michael Andretti to step off the box and be free to go to his other race team events, if needed, for conflict weekends.

MONTEREY, CA - OCTOBER 19:  Bryan Herta driver of the #26 Andretti Green Racing XM Satellite Radio Acura ARX-01a during practice for the American Le Mans Series Monterey Sports Car Championships at Laguna Seca Raceway on October 19, 2007 in Monterey, California.  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
MONTEREY, CA – OCTOBER 19: Bryan Herta during practice for the ALMS race at Laguna Seca Raceway in 2007. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

The relationship between Herta and Marco Andretti is a really intriguing one. Herta and Michael Andretti raced together first as rivals, then as teammates between 1994 and 2007. Marco Andretti’s debut in 2006 coincided with Herta’s last full-time year as a driver in IndyCar, before he shifted to Michael Andretti’s Acura LMP2 sports car program in 2007 (right).

Yet Herta can see both the father side (his son Colton, races for Andretti’s Indy Lights team in 2017) and the teammate side of Marco. He knows the talent is there, but it’s been inconsistent on whether it’s fully shone through or not.

“He’s got a really capable group of guys over there,” Herta explained. “Me moving over was just a case of freshening some things up. Also with Michael recognizing… given his role as a team owner in multiple championships, he’s better off, not handcuffed, but not being stuck in any particular place. Say he might be needed at FE, GRC, or here. This frees him up to be wherever he’s needed.

“The second point is the father-son dynamic is difficult. They’re both very similar and passionate. So it was, let’s try something different. Marco was up for it. I was up for it. I have known Marco since he was a kid and I believe there is more than enough ability there. He has all the tools he needs.”

RICHMOND, VA - JUNE 23: Marco Andretti, (L) driver of the #26 ArcaEx Andretti Green Racing Dallara Honda, and Bryan Herta driver of the #7 XM Satellite Andretti Green Racing Dallara Honda, and Marco's engineer Eddie Jones talk during practice for the IRL IndyCar Series SunTrust Indy challenge on June 23, 2006 at Richmond International Raceway in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Gavin Lawrence/Getty Images)
RICHMOND, VA – JUNE 23: Marco Andretti and Bryan Herta, and Marco’s engineer Eddie Jones talk during practice for IndyCar’s 2006 race at Richmond. (Photo by Gavin Lawrence/Getty Images)

Marco Andretti, for his part, is bullish on the move as well. “I’m really excited to be working with Bryan. Dad was great at calling races, but sometime it’s a hectic work environment, and no one wants to make mistakes. Every one of these guys is extremely talented,” he told NBC Sports in December.

Luckily for both parents, they just get to play “dad” this year at the track rather than be directly involved in their sons’ races. It’s a move that, in large part, has helped Graham Rahal develop the last two years at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, a team Herta used to race for. With Bobby Rahal off the box and Rico Nault stepping in, the younger Rahal has achieved his best two seasons the last two years.

Herta still has the “dad” component as Colton, 16, comes home for 2017 after two years abroad in Europe racing for Carlin. The Andretti Steinbrenner Racing entry Colton will drive for in Indy Lights matches the BHA No. 98, but features no Herta ownership involvement.

And being free to just watch the son of “Hertamania” compete is a freeing element for the senior Herta.

“It’s really nice having him home. We’ve enjoyed having him home,” he said. “On the race weekends it was hard to watch him… I only went to two races a year. I was always here.

“This year, I’m not going to watch every session. But just being here and keeping tabs on what’s going on is nice. I don’t have a role in Indy Lights program.

“For me, if I walk over there, it’s just me being dad. I’m not there to work.”

But work is something the senior Herta has done a good job of as one of IndyCar’s newest – and youngest – team owners at just 46 years old. He’s still got his own team name active as well, as the Bryan Herta Rallysport team continues into 2017 with new driver Cabot Bigham, who steps up to Supercars after winning the GRC Lites title.

The IndyCar season starts on March 12 at St. Petersburg and resumes on NBCSN on April 9 in Long Beach, while GRC kicks off at Memphis April 28-29, also on the NBC Sports Group networks.

Lando Norris joins McLaren F1 junior driver program

ESTORIL (POR) OCTOBER 21-23 2016 - Renault Sport Series at Autodromo Estoril. Lando Norris #02 Josef Kaufmann Racing. Portrait. © 2016 Sebastiaan Rozendaal / Dutch Photo Agency / LAT Photographic
© Sebastiaan Rozendaal / Dutch Photo Agency / LAT Photographic
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McLaren has announced that rising British racer Lando Norris has become the latest member of its junior driver program ahead of the 2017 season.

Norris, 17, was one of the most prolific racers in junior motorsport last year, claiming the Toyota Racing Series, Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0 and Formula Renault 2.0 NEC titles, as well as winning the McLaren BRDC Autosport Award.

Norris confirmed in December that he would be moving up to Formula 3 for 2017 with Carlin, but will also now link up with McLaren after being named as the newest member of the British marque’s young driver program.

“It’s definitely a step towards my dream of being in Formula 1,” Norris said.

“The facilities at McLaren are fantastic. I’ll be using the same simulator, the same gym, as some of the greatest F1 drivers in recent years.

“The team also has a lot of data that will be really valuable for me to compare myself with other drivers who have come through.

“I’ll know what level I need to be at to drive in F1 – so if that chance comes, I’ll be fit and ready to jump in straight away.”

McLarn executive director Zak Brown added: “I regard Lando as a fabulous prospect. he blew the doors off his rivals in not one but three highly competitive race series last year, then capped that by establishing himself as the clear winner of the McLaren Autosport BRDC Award.

“It was an impressively mature performance, and we’ll be developing him this year as part of our simulator team, whereby he’ll be contributing directly and importantly to our Formula 1 campaign at the same time as honing and improving his technical feedback capabilities.”

Norris joins existing McLaren juniors Nobuharu Matsushita and Nyck de Vries on its junior books, and will aim to follow in the footsteps of recent F1 graduates Kevin Magnussen and Stoffel Vandoorne in the near future.

‘McLaren’ documentary to honor a true pioneer of the sport (VIDEO)

Bruce McLaren drives the #11 McLaren BRM M4B during the Daily Mail Race of Champions on 12 March 1967 at the Brands Hatch circuit in Fawkham, Great Britain. (Photo by Getty Images)
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“To do something well is so worthwhile that to die trying to do it better cannot be foolhardy. It would be a waste of life to do nothing with one’s ability, for I feel that life is measured in achievement, not in years alone.”

The above quote came from racing driver and car designer Bruce McLaren, and if a life is measured in accomplishments and impact rather than length, very few have have ever done more than the man originally from New Zealand.

His driving statistics would be enough to stand on their own. He is one of only a few drivers to have won both the Monaco Grand Prix and the 24 Hours of Le Mans before achieving a string of victories in Can-Am during the 1960s.

However, perhaps his lasting legacy is as a designer. The founder of Bruce McLaren Motor Racing, now known as McLaren Racing Limited, he did more than hold his own while piloting his machinery in Formula 1, even winning the 1968 Belgian Grand Prix. But, his team’s stardom skyrocketing after entering Can-Am in the late 1960s. The group won five of their six races in 1967 and four of six races in 1968.

But those results pale in comparison to 1969, when his team won all 11 races in Can-Am with he, countryman Denny Hulme, Chris Amon and Dan Gurney as the drivers. They even finished an astounding 1-2-3 on three occasions that season, cementing McLaren’s status as one of the greatest drivers and designers who ever lived. In the decades since, the McLaren name has become synonymous with excellence, both in its racing cars and road cars.

Bruce McLaren’s life, sadly cut short at the age of 32 following a testing crash at Goodwood Circuit, is the focus of the upcoming documentary ‘McLaren.’ If the trailer is any indication, the film will serve as an epic tribute to a true pioneer, one who left an indelible mark on the entire racing community.

 

Penske, Detroit both announce new partnerships

DETROIT, MI - JUNE 01:  Helio Castroneves of Brazil, driver of the #3 Team Penske Dallara Chevrolet, crosses the finish line to win the Verizon IndyCar Series Chevrolet Indy Dual in Detroit - Dual II race at Belle Isle Park on June 1, 2014 in Detroit, Michigan.  (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)
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Team Penske and the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix, which operates under Penske’s ownership, both revealed new partnerships earlier today.

The Penske team announced a multi-year agreement with 3D printing and additive manufacturing solutions company Stratasys Ltd., which will provide equipment and support to assist the organization’s engineering and manufacturing efforts in both the NASCAR and IndyCar programs.

image001“Our strategic partnership with Stratasys should keep our manufacturing and engineering processes at the front of the pack,” Team Penske President Tim Cindric said of the new partnership. “Stratasys is on the cutting edge of additive manufacturing technology for automotive applications. Utilizing their equipment and technical support will provide us with another means to put our ideas on the race track first.”

For the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix, scheduled  for June 2-4, Lear Corporation will join as the presenting sponsor. The supplier of automotive seating and electrical systems maintains an active presence in the Detroit area. Quicken Loans had been the prior presenting sponsor.

800x50031“The Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix is so proud to welcome Lear Corporation as our presenting sponsor in 2017,” said Bud Denker, chairman of the newly dubbed Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear. “Lear and Matt Simoncini are great supporters of Detroit and our community. We could not ask for a better partner to team with Chevrolet and help us host world-class racing and a weekend full of fun and excitement in the Motor City.”

The event will continues its status the week following the Indianapolis 500 and remains the only double-header on the schedule.