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.”

MRTI: Chris Griffis Test Saturday times and notebook

New Tatuus PM-18. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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INDIANAPOLIS – Here’s a rundown of times and notes from Saturday at the Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy Test, as all three rungs of the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires ladder had their first day of testing on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. A link to Friday’s notebook is here.

Times are below, followed by notes.

COMBINED TIMES

INDY LIGHTS (Best Session); Full Results

Jamin. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

1. 5-Nico Jamin, Belardi Auto Racing, 1:15.7173 (Session 2)
2. 98-Colton Herta, Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing, 1:15.8246 (Session 4)
3. 23-Victor Franzoni, Juncos Racing, 1:15.9875 (Session 4)
4. 4-Rinus Veekay, Belardi Auto Racing, 1:16.2067 (Session 4)
5. 31-Nicolas Dapero, Juncos Racing, 1:16.2491 (Session 4)
6. 3-Pato O’Ward, Team Pelfrey, 1:16.2563 (Session 4)
7. 48-Ryan Norman, Andretti Autosport, 1:16.3285 (Session 4)
8. 27-Anthony Martin, Andretti Autosport, 1:16.5185 (Session 4)
9. 2-TJ Fischer, Team Pelfrey, 1:17.1030 (Session 4)
10. 21-Heamin Choi, Juncos Racing, 1:18.5179 (Session 4)

PRO MAZDA (Best Session); Full Results 

Askew. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

1. 8-Oliver Askew, Cape Motorsports, 1:19.8920 (Session 2)
2. 1-Carlos Cunha, Juncos Racing, 1:20.0236 (Session 2)
3. 3-Robert Megennis, Juncos Racing, 1:20.1268 (Session 4)
4. 81-Kaylen Frederick, Team Pelfrey, 1:20.2252 (Session 2)
5. 79-David Malukas, BN Racing, 1:20.2456 (Session 4)
6. 91-Nikita Lastochkin, Exclusive Autosport, 1:20.7001 (Session 2)
7. 18-Calvin Ming, Pabst Racing, 1:20.7373 (Session 4)
8. 80-Kris Wright, Team Pelfrey, 1:20.9930 (Session 4)
9. 2-Sting Ray Robb, Juncos Racing, 1:21.1250 (Session 2)
10. 90-Parker Thompson, Exclusive Autosport, 1:21.4425 (Session 4)
11. 78-Leonard Hoogenboom, BN Racing, 1:23.0447 (Session 4)

USF2000 (Best Session); Full Results

Gutierrez. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photgraphy

1. 22-Andres Gutierrez, Pabst Racing, 1:25.5618 (Session 3)
2. 27-Callan O’Keefe, BN Racing, 1:25.6295 (Session 2)
3. 36-Darren Keane, Newman Wachs Racing, 1:25.6882 (Session 3)
4. 90-Parker Thompson, Exclusive Autosport, 1:25.8743 (Session 2)
5. 23-Lucas Kohl, Pabst Racing, 1:26.0760 (Session 2)
6. 21-Hunter McElrea, Pabst Racing, 1:26.1432 (Session 3)
7. 37-Jake Craig, Newman Wachs Racing, 1:26.2452 (Session 4)
8. 80-Michael D’Orlando, Team Pelfrey, 1:26.2751 (Session 2)
9. 31-Rasmus Lindh, Team BENIK, 1:26.3193 (Session 4)
10. 20-Aaron Telitz, RJB Motorsports, 1:26.4349 (Session 4)
11. 32-Jaden Conwright, Team BENIK, 1:26.4557 (Session 2)
12. 38-Max Peichel, Newman Wachs Racing, 1:26.5739 (Session 4)
13. 82-David Osborne, Team Pelfrey, 1:26.6824 (Session 2)
14. 25-Elliott Finlayson, BN Racing, 1:26.8219 (Session 3)
15. 33-Myles Rowe, John Cummiskey Racing, 1:27.0620 (Session 4)
16. 34-Sabre Cook, John Cummiskey Racing, 1:27.2107 (Session 4)
17. 92-Justin Gordon, Exclusive Autosport, 1:27.7750 (Session 3)
18. 24-Zoey Edenholm, BN Racing, 1:28.6730 (Session 2)
19. 81-Jacob Loomis, Team Pelfrey, No Time
20. 93-Jayson Clunie, Exclusive Autosport, No Time

NOTES

Kohl and McElrea joined Gutierrez in Pabst’s pace. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • Drivers and teams alike have raved about the pace, and the rather loud sound, of the new Tatuus PM-18 Mazda. Reports from private testing had the new car rather close to Indy Lights pace at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and rather quicker than the old car at Road America. The first tangible evidence of that occurred today as all 10 of the Pro Mazda drivers who got representative laps (second BN Racing car of Leonard Hoogenboom ran only a few laps in session four after engine issues all day) supplanted the Pro Mazda lap record at IMS – 1:22.8800 by Pato O’Ward in 2016 – easily. Oliver Askew’s best time of 1:19.8920 in the second session was nearly a full three seconds quicker on the 2.439-mile, 14-turn road course.
  • Of the 11 Pro Mazda drivers that ran today, only Carlos Cunha, Robert Megennis, Nikita Lastochkin, Kris Wright and Sting Ray Robb ran in the 2017 season. But it wouldn’t be a surprise to see any or all five of them running full-time in 2018 for what would be each of their second seasons in the championship, as returning sophomores along with what should be a glut of strong rookies. Wright, who also races sports cars, looks poised to add a second program of some other series to a planned Pro Mazda full season.
  • Megennis is planning to test with other teams in the weeks to come, as he tests for Juncos this week after racing in USF2000 with Pelfrey the last two years. Both he and Robb missed portions of sessions today with new car issues.
  • Several Indy Lights spins and off-course excursions occurred but none produced any serious issues. Rinus Veekay and Anthony Martin were among those to test the course limits but kept on going unharmed. Veekay had a spin in session three on new tires, then promptly laid down the fastest lap of the session for Belardi later on.
  • His teammate this weekend, Nico Jamin, wound up with the fastest lap of the day in Indy Lights – although he wasn’t quickest in the cool evening session, the fourth of the day, when most of the field ran some sticker tire runs on their Cooper tires.
  • Pro Mazda title combatants Victor Franzoni (Juncos) and Anthony Martin (Andretti) made their Indy Lights test debuts. The perpetually happy Franzoni wrote on Instagram, “Awesome day!! We finished the day in P3!! The most import we learned a lot!! Tomorrow will be even better!!” Martin, meanwhile, said this: “It’s obviously a new car – bigger, faster and a lot more downforce, so I’m adapting to it and growing up to it nice and slowly. You don’t want to push yourself too early, so we’re working up to a few things. You have to do things a lot quicker and you have to use a lot more brake pressure.”
  • In USF2000, it was an excellent day at the office for Pabst Racing with Andres Gutierrez – who impressed in a pair of weekends with DE Force Racing this year – leading three of four sessions, while teammates Hunter McElrea and Lucas Kohl were also in the top-five. Pabst has been busy running cars in both USF2000 and Pro Mazda this weekend.
  • Beyond Pabst, Newman Wachs Racing also had an excellent day, mainly with sophomore Darren Keane and Californian rookie Jake Craig. Keane, who’s coached by Ozz Negri, led the fourth and final session of the day, and stands as a driver who could make a big leap forward in performance if he secures a full season in 2018.
  • Another team of note today was BN Racing, with Callan O’Keefe – Keane’s teammate when both drove for Team BENIK at this race weekend last May – second best on the day. The South African is poised to be that team’s lead driver next season. Teammates Elliott Finlayson and Zoey Edenholm are working towards seasons of their own; Finlayson having coming off a recent Super Sweep in SCCA Runoffs competition at IMS last month and Edenholm having only just graduated from karts into cars just this month.
  • While the USF2000 field was primarily rookie-dominated, two-year series veteran Aaron Telitz made a cameo return today with RJB Motorsports, and brought the ex-ArmsUp chassis its best pace yet in RJB’s hands as the Wisconsinite ran with Mirl Swan and Alex Barron’s crew support. Past RJB driver and two-time Team USA Scholarship, Michai Stephens, was also on site today.
  • Speaking of ArmsUp, its top rookie from 2017, Devin Wojcik was on hand today making the rounds as well, although wasn’t in a car. He looks to return to USF2000 for a second season in 2018.
  • USF2000 boasted some good diversity with Pabst, BN, Newman Wachs, Exclusive, Pelfrey, BENIK and RJB teams in the top 10 today, but there’s one notable omission: Cape Motorsports. The seven-time defending champions in the series are not testing in USF2000 this weekend, and has just a single Pro Mazda car on site for Oliver Askew. Granted, the team is also at Circuit of The Americas this weekend for F4 U.S. Championship action, where Kyle Kirkwood has taken that series’ championship. DE Force, which also ran in USF2000 this year, is also not here this weekend as it’s at COTA. ArmsUp isn’t here this weekend either.