Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation protects wild lands, serves military
Ward Burton’s NASCAR driving career stretched across most of two decades. He won five Cup Series races, including the 2002 Daytona 500, 2001 Southern 500, and four Xfinity races before retiring in 2007.
Unlike drivers who question their post-driving careers and whether they can disconnect from the sport, Burton knew exactly where his remaining years would be focused.
In 1996, he founded the Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation, an organization focused on saving rural and forest lands from encroaching development. That idea started with a 1,123-acre tract in Halifax County, Virginia, near his home. A quarter-century later, the foundation oversees more than 10,000 acres in Virginia and Pennsylvania.
Several years ago, Burton expanded the reach of the foundation by linking his efforts with military organizations. He has worked to protect and preserve land adjacent to National Guard bases and, more importantly to him, the WBWF supports several initiatives designed to enhance life for veterans and active-duty service members.
The next event of what Burton calls the American Hero Program is scheduled today at a WBWF property near Blacksburg, Virginia. The foundation will host more than 80 veterans and service members for a day of outdoor sporting competitions (skeet shooting and archery, for examples), food and fellowship.
“I left racing in my prime because I didn’t know who to trust anymore and because my stock was down,” Burton, now 60, told NBC Sports. “I’ve given my whole adult life to trying to make a difference with natural resources. The veterans’ component is a natural part of it, getting them outdoors and getting them together. Even though we’re a conservation organization, we know that with our resources we’re thanking veterans and providing places of peace for them.”
Burton’s outdoor connection came naturally. He roamed the woods near his South Boston, Virginia home as a child and returned to the forests and rivers there after dropping out of college. He lived for months in a small cabin in those woods as he tried to figure out what to do with his life.
Eventually, with the support of their parents, Ward and his younger brother Jeff (also a NASCAR winner and now an analyst for NBC Sports) started racing on area short tracks. Both advanced through the ranks and, in 1995, Ward scored his first Cup victory.
Even as a full-time racer, Burton retained his ties to the woods and rivers near his home. He built friendships with property owners in the area, and two older men who owned much of the land decided to give their holdings to Burton because they had confidence he would protect them from development.
That sparked the beginnings of Burton’s foundation.
“All of the property is in some variety of forestry conservation,” Burton said. “We have about 1,200 acres in agriculture. We’re using all of our land to help others to learn and take advantage of programs to enhance land management and wildlife management.
“For about every plot of property we own we have youth outreach programs and even larger veteran outreach.”
Burton said he added military veterans programs to his efforts after meeting four National Guard members at a race in Indianapolis.
“All four had been wounded in action,” he said. “We showed them around and got them to our hauler and got a pace car ride for them. It came naturally to continue working in that area, and I saw firsthand how using the outdoors and getting these men and women together creates a healing atmosphere.”
Burton began the foundation essentially by himself but now has four full-time employees and many volunteers. Sponsors support the programs through financial donations.
Burton retains his ties to racing through his son, Jeb, a regular in the Xfinity Series. Jeb scored his only series win last season at Talladega.
“It’s hard to watch sometimes with what he has to go through with the effort he’s put into it,” Burton said. “It just boils down to resources. He has great partners, and they’re loyal to him. He needs that one partner to get him over the edge. He keeps his head up. Nobody is going to outwork him.”
Burton occasionally visits speedways on race weekends but mostly follows his son’s career via television.
That experience proved eventful last month when Jeb was part of a multi-car crash at Pocono Raceway. His car hit the outside pit wall, flipped and slid down the frontstretch. He wasn’t injured, but the wreck was scary.
“My wife was jumping up and down,” Ward said. “Of course, it could have been worse. Like anybody else, I was hoping there wouldn’t be a fire ignited at that point and that he wouldn’t get hit while he was upside down. The cars are much safer than they ever have been, but the sport’s still dangerous, and that’s not going to be taken away.”