I became a NASCAR fan only in recent years…in fact, the first race I can honestly say I watched from start to finish was perhaps one of the most dramatic Daytona 500s in the history of the sport. It was February 2001, and in the closing lap of that first race I witnessed the legendary Dale Earnhardt (Sr.) die in a horrible crash. Oddly enough…this weekly soap opera called racing was slowly capturing my interest to the point I have now eventually become a serious fan of the sport.
A year later…and with the sport of stock car racing still having heavy hearts due to the loss of Dale Sr, the February 2002 Daytona 500 race was once again the all-American spectacle that it had been built up to be. Again there were several dramatic wrecks, but this year fortunately there were no major injuries or fatalities. In the end, a driver in the #22 Caterpillar Dodge known as Ward Burton celebrated his first and only 500 win in Daytona’s “Victory Lane.” Two years later this popular racer would find himself on the outside of the racing world now looking in. You see…the world of motorsports is a fickle one…and Ward Burton knows that better than anyone.
So what does a popular NASCAR driver do when he is no longer an active participant in the sport from week to week? The answer is quite simple…at least it was for Ward Burton. You start The Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation and commit your life to a passion of saving land from development while also striving to educate both children and adults about the importance of being good stewards of that land. Indeed, Burton has used his notoriety to positively channel his endless energy for the outdoors into a very worthwhile cause.
In many ways Burton’s life is not much different than for most sportsmen. It began at an early age with a grandfather and father showing Ward the wonderful aspects of the outdoors. Interestingly, even though his life eventually took a major turn finding him on the race track 36 weeks out of the year…he somehow never forgot about his outdoor roots. In fact, now that his storied NASCAR career has been temporarily put on hold (while he waits for another “ride” as they say in the biz), I find it somewhat heart-warming to see a man put so much effort and money into doing what he believes is his life mission in the outdoors.
Meeting Ward recently got me contemplating about my personal outdoor legacy. Will I have one…or will my time spent tromping through the woods and fields be lost once I take my last breath? Often we don’t like to dwell on it…but our life as healthy sportsmen is sometimes cut way shorter than we expect. A person never knows when a major health ailment could strike ending our days afield…or worse, even facing death. Now understand I don’t want this to become depressing or morbid, yet, if we want to do something positive for the outdoors we can’t keep putting it off in our lives.
Ward Burton certainly has had many good fortunes in his life mostly as a racer…and in so many ways has created a legacy for himself on the race track. But I think if you ask Ward what he is most proud of in his life it would probably be the efforts he has put into giving back to the outdoors. That’s what is truly important to this man who easily has made his life complete by his time spent in the race car. Yet, that wasn’t enough. As soon as opportunities ended on the oval track…new opportunities were created in the woodlot.
Believe me, Ward Burton should serve as a hell of a role model for all of us sportsmen. Granted, it is unlikely that most of us can aspire to create a wildlife foundation as successful as what Ward has already accomplished, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still significantly contribute to the outdoors in our own unique way. When one door closed for Burton (his racing career) he quickly refocused his energies into doing something positive for the outdoors. In time, folks will likely start forgetting about the many achievements Ward has assembled in his racing career…but his work for the outdoors could easily blossom into someday becoming his real claim to fame.
A large portion of Ward Burton’s life, much like it is for most of us sportsmen, has been built on a strong foundation of conservation values. One of the fundamental tenets of conservation is finding a way to give something back when you have taken. Maybe creating a legacy isn’t your objective in life…or maybe it is. The bottom line is we all should be inspired by the likes of role models such as Ward Burton who could have easily slipped from the limelight to enjoy the fruits of his racing fame. Instead, he realized the importance of making the outdoor world where he lives a better place in which to live.
No doubt about it…Ward Burton is one race car driver who knows how to win both inside and outside of his stock car.
© 2006 Jim Braaten. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction without Prior Permission.