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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.”

Red Bull GRC: Second New River race officially cancelled

Deegan's rattled Ford. Photo: Larry Chen/Red Bull GRC
Photo: Larry Chen/Red Bull GRC
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The second of two planned races at Red Bull Global Rallycross’ trip to MCAS New River was scrubbed on site due to heavy rain, lightning and unsafe track conditions.

And while the possibility existed Red Bull GRC could have gone with some sort of makeup round, in the end, the decision was made to cancel the race outright.

Here’s the official statement from Red Bull GRC:

“After the suspension of 2016 Championship Round 7 at Marine Corps Air Station New River due to severe weather, Red Bull Global Rallycross officials have announced the cancellation of the round in its entirety. Round 7 cannot be resumed due to the inability to replicate the race circumstances and facility at which it was originally contested. No points will be awarded for Round 7 and no make-up event will be scheduled.”

The series resumes this weekend at Washington, D.C. for the original Round 8, which will air LIVE, Saturday, July 30, at 2 p.m. ET on NBC.

Scott Speed won the lone race at New River as it turned out, and has now vaulted himself closer to Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross teammate Tanner Foust in the championship.

A number of 2017 race schedules are already coming into focus

LE MANS, FRANCE - JUNE 18:  The Porsche Team 919 Hybrid of Romain Dumas, Neel Jani and Marc Lieb leads the field at the start of the Le Mans 24 Hour race at the Circuit de la Sarthe on June 18, 2016 in Le Mans, France.  (Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images)
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As the summer of 2016 rolls into the final days of July and the beginning of August – a month in which several key non-NASCAR forms of motorsport, F1, IndyCar and Red Bull GRC go on extended breaks before the end of the month – it’s worth noting that many series already have a lot of ducks in a row for their 2017 schedules.

Let’s start first with the full 2016-2017 or 2017 schedules that have already been released, the FIA Formula E Championship and NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series calendars:

We’re then hearing of a couple other schedules which could be coming out in the next few weeks.

We hear the Pirelli World Challenge schedule might come out this weekend at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, which would make sense because Mid-Ohio is traditionally the event where series stakeholders get a lay of the land on how the year’s gone and what’s to come for the following year.

Similarly next week at Road America, there’s a good chance we’ll hear the 2017 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge calendars. Road America in August has been the place where the calendar’s come out each of the last two years.

And INDYCAR is shooting to have its 2017 and perhaps 2018 (yes, seriously) calendars out in August. Whether that’s before Road America, where it announced its INDYCAR return last year, or after when the racing season pauses for a couple weeks, remains to be seen.

There’s already a number of dates that have been released for IMSA and IndyCar. Here’s what we know, below:

INDYCAR

  • St. Petersburg, March 9-12, 2017
  • Long Beach, April 7-9, 2017
  • Grand Prix of Indianapolis, May 11-13, 2017
  • Indianapolis 500, May 28, 2017
  • Detroit, June 2-4, 2017
  • Road America, June 25, 2017
  • Iowa, July 8-9, 2017
  • Toronto, July 13-16, 2017

Phoenix and Barber would figure to be set for April returns but it was forecast earlier this year by AZCentral.com that Phoenix, which ran April 2 this year, could move to the end of the month owing to the fact the NCAA Men’s Final Four is in Phoenix the weekend of April 1-2 with the semifinal games on Saturday, April 1. If it moves to the end of the month, that could shift Barber forward to the start of the month.

Texas Motor Speedway’s race would figure to be back to its June date. Mid-Ohio and Sonoma have been on World Challenge schedules so if we get a World Challenge schedule this weekend, perhaps we’ll see those dates.

The leftovers from 2016 then would be Pocono and Watkins Glen, which are on year-to-year contracts. Watkins Glen was added this year as an eleventh hour replacement for Boston, and it was thanks to some tireless and quick work by INDYCAR’s Jay Frye and Watkins Glen president Michael Printup – and their staffs – that they’ve got it done.

Gateway Motorsports Park has expressed interest in hosting an IndyCar race and there was also talk about Surfers’ Paradise late last month.

IMSA

  • Rolex 24 at Daytona, January 28-29, 2017
  • Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, March 15-18, 2017

Add Long Beach and Detroit’s dates from INDYCAR to that.

FIA WEC

  • Silverstone, April 14-16, 2017
  • Spa, May 6, 2017 (provisional)
  • Le Mans Test Day, June 4, 2017
  • Le Mans, June 17-18, 2017
  • Nürburgring, July 14-16, 2017

As my MotorSportsTalk colleague Luke Smith noted yesterday, the Nürburgring round would clash with the Montreal FIA Formula E round on July 15-16, which makes it a likelihood at least one of the events would move.

The second of four FIA World Motor Sport Council meeting of 2016 was held last month and usually at the third meeting, if not sooner, a number of draft calendars are released.

These are several pieces to the puzzle then, ahead of that next meeting.

Corvette Racing’s 100 wins have spanned 16 years, multiple eras

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The benchmark for North American sports car racing teams this century, arguably, has been Corvette Racing.

And on Saturday, the Corvette Racing team hit the century-win landmark.

A 1-2 finish led by longtime Corvette Racing stalwart Oliver Gavin, the winningest driver in Corvette Racing history, and newish recruit Tommy Milner, now in his sixth season of the team, occurred during the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s Northeast Grand Prix at Lime Rock.

“It is pretty amazing to get the 100th,” Gavin said. “We have had some great wins this year.  When you look at Daytona, that was phenomenal; Sebring too. Our Le Mans win last year. But to get the 100th is pretty special. I have to thank the team and everybody involved.  I have had a few of the wins with the team, but I have to say this is a pretty special one. To fight off the No. 67 car and having our teammates on the podium. It is pretty special for everyone at Corvette Racing!”

“I feel very lucky to say I was in the car that got the 100th win for this team, but you think about all the people that have worked on this team; all of the drivers; the crew, the marketing and PR people, everybody that have contributed to this, I just feel fortunate to be a part of that. It is good to get that monkey off of our back. It was a small monkey, but it was lingering,” Milner added.

The pair of Corvette C7.Rs have soldiered on despite being hampered by certain Balance of Performance adjustments – most noticeably at this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans – and returned to the top step of the podium on Saturday following great drives from all four of the team’s drivers. Besides Gavin and Milner up front in the No. 4 car, the “King of Spain” Antonio Garcia and Jan Magnussen also scythed through the field to end second in the sister No. 3 car.

Corvette Racing first and foremost is a team though, and while it’s program manager Doug Fehan who has always been front-and-center for the Pratt & Miller outfit, the team’s crew is a huge reason why it has achieved the success it has since 1999.

“If you’re going to win your 100th race, you may as well do it with a 1-2 finish,” Fehan said after the race on Saturday.

“We never diminish the input the engineers have in giving the team great Corvettes, and the crew today just had  absolutely terrific pit stops. But today, this one goes to the drivers. On this race track and in these conditions, those guys brought it home. I’m tipping my hat to the drivers today.”

Added Jim Campbell, Chevrolet U.S. Vice President, Performance Vehicles and Motorsports, “Achieving 100 victories is a tremendous accomplishment for Corvette Racing. It’s a testament to the dedication of all the crew members, engineers, drivers and our engine team members over the past 17 years. We certainly couldn’t have achieved this milestone without the support of our partners at Pratt & Miller, Mobil 1 and Michelin. Everyone with Corvette Racing operates as one team and embodies the competitive spirit of Chevrolet. We’re happy to share this success with our passionate Corvette owners and supporters.”

Here’s a great salute from the FIA World Endurance Championship paddock, from DailySportsCar editor Graham Goodwin.

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From a team release, here’s the breakdown of wins:

The Corvette Racing team made its first start Jan. 31, 1999 at Daytona. Since that time, the program has claimed championships and victories on endurance racing’s most prominent stages:

  • Ten manufacturer and team championships in the American Le Mans Series, plus nine driver titles
  • Eight class wins at the 24 Hours of Le Mans
  • Three wins in the Rolex 24 including an overall victory in 2001
  • Ten class wins at the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring

Corvette Racing also claimed endurance racing’s Triple Crown in 2015 with wins at Daytona, Sebring and Le Mans. It was the first team in 15 years to accomplish the feat.

The tally of Corvette Racing victories spans a number of different series. In addition to its record at Le Mans, Corvette Racing has nine wins in the WeatherTech (formerly TUDOR) SportsCar Championship, 82 in the American Le Mans Series (a record for entrants) and one in the GRAND-AM Rolex Sports Car Series.

Here’s a recap video and congratulatory message from Corvette Racing’s longtime tire technical partner, Michelin:

“We are pleased that since Corvette Racing switched to Michelin for the 2004 racing season, the last 75 wins have been with us,” said Ken Payne, technical director motorsports, Michelin North America.

“We want to congratulate our friends at Chevrolet, GM Motorsports, Pratt & Miller, and the entire Corvette Racing teams and drivers on this milestone win.”

Here’s a congratulatory message from longtime oil partner Mobil 1:

And here’s a list of all the past wins, via Autoweek.

The driver breakdown of past winners, by number of wins, is as follows:

  • Oliver Gavin (47; 2002-3, 2003-2, 2004-5, 2005-7, 2006-5, 2007-9, 2008-3, 2009-1, 2010-1, 2011-1, 2012-4, 2013-2, 2015-1, 2016-3)
  • Johnny O’Connell (41; 2001-7, 2002-8, 2003-3, 2004-5, 2005-3, 2006-1, 2007-3, 2008-8, 2009-3)
  • Olivier Beretta (31; 2004-5, 2005-7, 2006-5, 2007-9, 2008-3, 2009-1, 2011-1)
  • Ron Fellows (30; 2000-1, 2001-7, 2002-8, 2003-3, 2004-5, 2005-3, 2006-1, 2008-2)
  • Jan Magnussen (30; 2004-2, 2005-2, 2006-2, 2007-3, 2008-8, 2009-3, 2010-1, 2011-1, 2013-3, 2014-3, 2015-2)
  • Antonio Garcia (11; 2009-2, 2011-1, 2013-3, 2014-3, 2015-2)
  • Tommy Milner (11; 2011-1, 2012-4, 2013-2, 2015-1, 2016-3)
  • Kelly Collins (6; 2000-1, 2001-1, 2002-2, 2003, 2)
  • Andy Pilgrim (5; 2000-2, 2001-1, 2002-2)
  • Franck Freon (4; 2000-1, 2001-2, 2003-1)
  • Max Papis (3; 2004-1, 2007-2)
  • Ryan Briscoe (2; 2015)
  • Marcel Fassler (2; 2016)
  • Chris Kniefel (1; 2001)
  • Scott Pruett (1; 2001)
  • Emmanuel Collard (1; 2010)
  • Richard Westbrook (1; 2013)
  • Jordan Taylor (1; 2015)

Justin Wilson honored with corner name at Snetterton

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British circuit Snetterton has renamed one of its corners in honor of Justin Wilson.

Wilson was killed last August after being struck by debris in a Verizon IndyCar Series race at Pocono, sustaining severe head injuries.

The British driver spent much of his junior career racing at tracks around the UK, including Snetterton.

Wilson won the inaugural Formula Palmer Audi title back in 1998, a series run by Snetterton owner and ex-Formula 1 driver Jonathan Palmer, the track being part of his MotorSport Vision group.

Palmer worked with Wilson to help him get onto the F1 grid, and the two maintained a close friendship.

On Monday, officials at Snetterton announced that the Montreal hairpin has now been renamed the Wilson hairpin. A special corner board will be placed on the run towards the Wilson hairpin featuring his name and his iconic helmet design.

“Justin Wilson, the champion of my inaugural Formula Palmer Audi championship, thoroughly deserved the support which that success brought him, and it was enormously satisfying to watch him make the best possible use of every opportunity he had through to F1 and IndyCar racing,” Palmer said.

“But not only was Justin an outstanding racing driver, he was also the epitome of a true sportsman, earning universal respect and admiration.

“He leaves a lasting legacy that we will cherish and perpetuate, with the naming of Wilson corner at Snetterton an important part of that.”

Justin’s younger brother, Stefan, who raced at this year’s Indianapolis 500, added: “This is such an incredible gesture by MSV and I know Justin would be very honoured and humbled to learn that he has a corner here at Snetterton named after him.

“Snetterton has a special place in our memories as our dad raced here back in the 1960s and he would tell us stories of racing down the old Norwich straight. Plus, Justin and I raced here many times in our own careers.”

The first event to take place at Snetterton using the Wilson hairpin will be this weekend’s British Touring Car Championship round. All three races will take place on Sunday – what would have been Wilson’s 38th birthday.