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NASCAR MEDIA CONFERENCE
April 14, 2009
HERB BRANHAM: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to this week's NASCAR cam video teleconference in advance of this weekend's events at Phoenix International Raceway. Joining us today from the NASCAR Research and Development Center in Concord, North Carolina, we have Jeff Burton, driver of the No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing. Jeff comes into Saturday night's Subway Fresh Fit 500, he's 12th in the Sprint Cup Series standings. As far as Phoenix is concerned, Jeff has two Sprint Cup victories at this track.
PIR is a good track for you, more often than not in the past. What's the outlook going back to Phoenix this weekend?
JEFF BURTON: Well, you know, it has been a good track for us. I'll be honest though, in the last few years we've not done as well as we need to do. Things like Harvick and Bowyer are outlearning us out there. We look this week to kind of turn the tables a little bit. We've worked hard on that short track program. Went to Martinsville and didn't have a great deal of success. None of our cars did. But we worked hard on it, tried to be better. This is a big test for us. We have Phoenix coming up. I think Phoenix has a lot -- much closer to Richmond and New Hampshire than Martinsville is. We need to go there and perform well because we need to build the basis of our short track program this weekend. It's important to leave Phoenix feeling good about it so you know you can go to Richmond and feel like you have a good start. This is not only a big weekend for us, but for all the teams.
Q. In terms of the economy and the fan base, it seems like it isn't as grim or as bad as people thought it was going to be heading into this season maybe with the exception of Nashville this past weekend. How does it look from your end in terms of the crowds this year?
JEFF BURTON: Well, you know, it's no surprise I think to anyone that we've seen crowds that look smaller than what you've seen in the past. That's a part of the economy. There's no question. People are having to make decisions, there's not as much discretionary money to spend. People are going to buy milk rather than going to a race, and that's okay. That's a decision people should make.
At the end of the day, what we do have is a lot of loyal fans. I can tell you the enthusiasm at the races is really high. There's no question there's a lot of excitement. There's a lot of enthusiasm. That's the great thing. We're going to have less people. When there's less jobs in America, we're going to have less people at the racetracks. When there are people that are not making the money they're accustomed to making, there will be less at the racetrack. That's part of the beast unfortunately. What I look at, the fans we have are enthusiastic and excited. That's been really cool to see.
Q. When it comes to the auto makers, it seems like you do a ton for them already. Is there anything else you can do to promote the auto makers to help them out even more?
JEFF BURTON: Well, I think we have to be looking at everybody that we work with. We're partners with a lot of different companies and a lot of different fields of business. What we need to be doing is looking at all those things.
The thing about the manufacturers, Chevrolet in particular, is I think the main thing letting the people know what Chevrolet is doing. This isn't a company that's in retreat. This company's in full-fledged assault trying to build better cars, better vehicles, higher fuel economy vehicles, safer vehicles. Their product line is unbelievable. If you look at what they've recently launched, what they're gonna launch in the future, they're building really, really good cars.
I think getting people to go look at the vehicles is really important. People have to have enough money to be able to buy the vehicle. If they don't have that and the credit doesn't get freed up, no one's gonna buy 'em. Getting the economy turned around is number one. Number two is going to get people to look at the product. If you look at Chevrolet, you're going to like what you see. They're doing it better, they're doing it nicer, they're doing it neater. What we're trying to do, what I'm trying to do, is just remind people this company is vibrant, full of excitement in a downtime. It's launching tremendous vehicles that have had a lot of forethought put into them, getting people to go look at the vehicles.
Q. I wanted to ask you about Marcos Ambrose. What are your impressions of him as a driver? Is he earning respect out there? Have you had any interaction with him off the track?
JEFF BURTON: I really haven't had a whole lot of interaction with Marcos. I can tell you I think everybody has been impressed with what he's been able to do this year. He's run very competitively. I know they had an engine problem the week before last. They've run very competitively. I've raced around him on the racetrack a lot this year. I think he's a lot like any rookie, he's feeling his way through it. But if you look at what he's done to this point, I think it's been really good.
We saw it in the Nationwide Series. We saw in equipment that wasn't the same equipment that Kyle Busch is driving or I'm driving, but he could still be competitive on a given day. I think everybody knows the talent is there. If you look back in his career, what he's been, it's been pretty impressive. He's very, very highly thought of in Australia. It's no surprise he can be successful. He's gonna be here for a long time.
Q. Can you understand him when you talk to him?
JEFF BURTON: I grew up with Ward, so I can understand pretty much anybody. We kind of talk alike actually.
Q. Before the season you talked about drivers needing to reach out more to fans. So far this season what are you seeing that seems to work in regards to driver/fan interaction that's making the most benefit? Something at the track, away from the track? What more can be done at this point, if anything?
JEFF BURTON: Well, what more can be done is always a great question. I'll tell you a lot it boils down to how much time the drivers have to spend. It's real important for our drivers to interact with our fans. That's kind of what's separated our sport from other sports throughout the year. I think now in the economic situation that we're all in, it's important to look at that and say, How can we do it better? The question isn't how do we do it more, it's how do we do it better.
Our sponsors have always been the driving force behind that. They've had autograph sessions, sweepstakes, all kinds of things that they've done for years. That's been the driving force behind it. We've recently seen racetracks step up to the plate, holding events at racetracks. I know I've done probably three or four events at racetracks this year where the fans could come in and do special stuff with them, interact with them. I think those are neat things. I think we need to do as much as we can on a race weekend to not only have people there happy but make it exciting, make it fun. We spent a couple hours with the fans at Texas. I know we did it at Daytona. We did it at Bristol. You interact, talk, answer questions, whatever it happens to be. I think the racetracks can continue to do those things.
As I said before, I think it's important to understand there's a right time and a right place for everything. Signing autographs two minutes before you get in the car to qualify, that's not the right time. The fans have to understand there's a right time and a right place. But we have to make sure we don't go hide in the motorhomes. We have to be willing to be exposed to the fans, let them interact with us. The minute we build structure to that, the easier it will be for everybody. I think what happens sometimes is drivers get bombarded, always bombarded, you know what I mean? You retreat a little bit, you go and hide because you know you're going to get bombarded. If you have a hundred people there, you sign 50, you have 50 that are mad at you. You made 50 people happy and 50 people mad. The 50 people that are mad let you know they're mad. We got to find a way to be a little more structured, to give the fans more interaction, so everybody leaves with a good attitude.
Q. I saw at Texas a couple weeks ago where some teams were having issues with lug nuts falling off because of the stud rule, gluing issue. A lot of people would be struck at how can something, so much put into the car, winning can come down to the gluing of a lug nut. If you have gone through things like that, how do you deal with that? This is something you can get off the drugstore shelf that causes you to lose a race.
JEFF BURTON: Well, the stud length rule, the theory behind that, is that if you don't have enough threads on the nut side of the wheel, it's dangerous. The problem is the more threads there are, the longer it takes to tighten it up. In a competitive-based business, when our tire changers are paid and given the charge to do it quicker than the next guy, making it take longer -- it doesn't make it safer. In some ways that can actually make it less safe because you have to stay on the lug nut longer.
The thought behind the rule is a very good thought, but the practice of it may not actually work out very well. Only time will tell.
Here is what I can tell you. I don't lose sleep over getting lug nuts tight. I don't lose sleep over good or bad pit stops. Here is why. The things that I can control are getting on pit road fast, getting on good, putting the car where I need to put it, making sure the wheels are straight, making sure I stop where I need to stop, make sure I leave good. Beyond that, I can't impact it. I can't do a better pit stop.
The guys that are on my team, really throughout the garage, work exceptionally hard at having good pit stops. I can't ask them to work any harder. I can't ask them to put any or effort into it. The desire, dedication and effort are there. I don't lose sleep over it. If we lose a race because of a bad pit stop, I'm upset about it, but I don't lose sleep over it, because I know my guys are working hard. How many races do you win, how many positions do you pick up? You only focus on the ones that don't go well. It's important to balance all that.
But my guys work exceptionally hard. I feel like I'm in really good hands and I don't lose sleep over that.
Q. Another economic question. At a time when sponsors are difficult to obtain, are we seeing potential sponsors or even sponsors you currently have sort of demanding more for their money, looking for more appearances by drivers, more input into activities by the team?
JEFF BURTON: It's a buyer's market. I don't care what you're buying, except for maybe handguns and ammunition, it's a buyer's market. If you're going to buy a new house today, I'm sure you're asking a price that you wouldn't have asked two years ago. That's just the market we're in right now. Our sponsors are always looking for the most value they can get for their dollar, and rightfully so. That's what they should be doing.
We've had sponsors that have had to come in and say our economic situation isn't what it was. We've had people ask to get some relief on things. We've had people ask to change in midstream because of their economic position. Certainly the new sponsors that are coming in, looking around, it's very clear what the situation is.
I think in a time where we don't have a lot of sponsors that are looking, a time where we don't have a lot of -- and we have a lot of good teams that are looking, that means the price is going to get driven down.
Corporate America is really smart. The reason they're in the position they're in is because they're smart people. They're always gonna be looking for added value, there's no question about it.
Q. Do you think teams are being proactive as far as the proposals they're putting out there, making them more detailed, complex, offering more as far as appearances?
JEFF BURTON: You know, I can't speak exactly to that. But I can tell you that as that market gets more pressure on it, if there's eight people looking at one sponsor, then people are going to start giving more. People are going to have to give added value. Why should you go with my team? What are we going to do extra?
Yeah, I think that teams for the most part are keeping the structure really close to what it is. Here is the thick we got to remember, too. No matter what's economy is, there's only so many hours in a day and there's still at the end of the day a cost it takes to do these things. A lot of that doesn't change. None of that changes. We can provide a service to a people at a cheaper rate. The question is, can we provide the performance to a company doing it at a cheaper rate. That's something that manufacturers and sponsors always have to be looking at, is what is the net result. Buying into a team at a low dollar and yielding a poor result isn't necessarily a good thing for a company.
It's a fine line between getting a great deal and pricing yourself out of the position to be competitive. So you really have to look at both of those things. But I can tell you the big teams have had a lot of success, they can demand more money, there's no question about that. I don't think they're going to be able to demand the extra percentage what they may get going into 2010.
Q. You kind of have owned Phoenix earlier this decade. You haven't run real well lately here. If they unload a car for you that's halfway decent, can you contend for a win here or is it going to take more work from this team?
JEFF BURTON: No, I think we can contend for a win there. We had it. I'll be perfectly honest. You are what your record says you are, right? We haven't been able to be able to contend for a win. I believe that we can. I believe in my ability to drive that racetrack. I believe in my team's ability to set up racecars that we need. Have we done that? No, we haven't. I can tell you before I won two races there, I hadn't won any before then. You know what I mean? We just got to do a better job. I got to do a better job of explaining to the team what's going on. I got to do a better job of demanding more of the car. The team's got to do a better job of unloading a car that's closer. It takes all of us.
I can't just sit back and say, I've won her before, you just got to give me a good car. Getting a good car has a lot to do with the driver's input, what the driver thinks he needs out of the car. There's a lot to it other than unloading it. I believe we can go to Phoenix and compete at a high level and contend for a win.
Q. At one point in your career you were the busy every week. How much would it mean to get back to that level?
JEFF BURTON: Well, I knew it was gonna take a while to do that. This is a hard sport. We had gotten to the point where we weren't being very competitive at all. The last three years we finished in the top 10 in points, won the Chase, feel really good about that all those years. But what we're looking for is championships, multiple-win seasons. We haven't achieved that. We have multiple-wins in a season, but we haven't achieved winning five championships, that kind of thing. I believe I can do it. I believe this team with do it. We have to build a little stronger foundation. We do a really nice job, but we don't do a great job. For us to do the things we want to do, we got to find greatness. How we do that is very complicated. There's a lot of work, a lot of effort. People are working hard every day. We just got to work a little smarter. I got to be smarter on the racetrack.
I believe the foundation is there, but we just got to find a way to do it a little better.
Q. Various people say we'll know what the various teams are looking at when we get to the All-Star Race or Charlotte. Some say coming out of this off weekend is really key. What do you think about coming out of this weekend and what you can tell about the teams so far?
JEFF BURTON: Well, I think the off weekend has little consequence, to be quite honest. We are where we are, which has been everything from having a chance to win races to being the slowest car on the racetrack. We went to California. We were the worst car there. We went to Vegas, led 60 some laps, had a chance to win. Two-week difference.
Since then, we've been eighth to a 12th place team, that's what we've been. We ground our way back up into 12th this points, but we haven't shown on a consistent basis the ability to go out and lead a lot of laps, do the things I talked about this winter that we needed to do. So that's where we are.
I think where we are in points is about where we are. I said it before. You are what your record says you are. We're a 10th or 15th place team right now. Can we be better than that? I don't think there's any question we can be better than that. Early on in the year we made the decision that we were willing to run bad at a few races to understand exactly what we had. Not that we went there thinking we were going to run bad. We were willing to gamble, to try different stuff, to learn as quickly as we can to apply that. We could have gone to California and done the exact same thing we did last year, maybe run 15th or 12th. We went there trying a whole different thing, completely different, ran terrible. We learned something from that. It's really important in a year where you don't have testing to learn and then to be able to apply it.
So that's what we're doing. We're learning. We're having to learn on race weekends. I wish we didn't have to, but that's what we have to do. So we're a little bit behind. There's no denying it. But I believe we ultimately can get where we need to be.
Q. What about you as a company? You've had a good start to the season, but some of the other Childress teams have struggled a bit more. Have you been able to isolate the particular areas that they're struggling in and help them?
JEFF BURTON: Well, after the first two weeks of the year, no one said we were having a good start of the season. We finished 28th in Daytona, 33rd at California. Now we're sitting 12th this points. We've made a nice comeback. The 33 team has been good with Clint. Run well most weekends. On average, they've been our best performing team. The 07 has been our worst performing team on average. What we have to do is we have to elevate our entire program. We got to find a way -- every one of our teams to go faster. That's through programs that impact every team, aerodynamics, engineering, engines, bump stoppage packages. None of our teams have been good enough. None of our teams have been able to match what Jeff Gordon has done. None of our teams have been able to match what some of the other teams have done. We've got to collectively get better so individually we can get better.
Q. About the rookies this season, they've struggled a lot. Probably can attribute a lot of that to testing. Do you think this is kind of what we're going to see from now on, that it's going to be that much tougher for these young guys to come in and get their footing in the series?
JEFF BURTON: Well, I think what we're seeing now is actually normal. I think what we've seen in the past, Tony Stewart, what he came in and did was pretty phenomenal. What Denny Hamlin came in and did was pretty phenomenal. We've had some young drivers come in and have remarkable success in their first year.
Those aren't normal things. The struggles that we're seeing happen now are normal. Joey Logano's case, I've been racing longer than he's been alive. Think about that. I mean, that's a lot for someone his age to take on. He's gonna be a better racecar driver because of the struggles he's had at this point. But there's gonna be struggles. The thing that interests me is if you're gonna hire a young guy with limited experience, you have to understand that you're gonna have days that are horrible. By the way, you're going to have great days, too. But you're going to have more bad days than great days for a period of time.
We've seen teams nurture a driver, raise a driver up, let him go through all those experiences, then get rid of him. Now you've taken all that investment you've made and thrown it away. It makes no sense to me. You've got to be willing to stick it out, be willing to give a guy a chance. Once you give him a chance, you have to give him a real chance, real opportunity. If you're not going to do that, don't hire a young guy. Don't do it. Hire a guy that you know exactly what you're gonna get from him. If you hired me, you know what you're going to get. If you hire a 17-year-old, you don't know what you're gonna get. That's the chance you took. When you take it, it's your responsibility to see it through. We've seen teams give up way too early.
Q. Can you talk about the challenges as an organization it takes from going from three to four teams, some of the things you had to deal with expanding to four teams.
JEFF BURTON: Well, I tell you, we were very fortunate to expand when we expanded. General Mills came into the picture real early. We knew we were going to grow a company. With knew we were going to have a fourth team very early last year. That gave us the opportunity to do some infrastructure planning, get ahead of the ball so to speak. We had people in place. We had a lot of good mechanics, engineers, a lot of good people in place. We were able to take from in-house and promote, put in different positions a lot of guys on the 33 team now we brought up through the Nationwide program, which has been very beneficial to us, helping bring people up. We were very lucky, very lucky, to have Shane as a crew chief. So we had a really good situation in which to grow into.
Having said all that, it's been very difficult. We have to build 25% more cars. We have more employees. We have issues that we have to deal with that we didn't have to deal with before now that we have four teams. Ultimately it will make us stronger. I will tell you, I don't believe it's made us any weaker. From what I'm seeing, been able to experience, we are no weaker because we have a fourth team. I think that a short team deal thing, that's a great accomplishment. To be no weaker is a great accomplishment at this point in the deal with a new team. That means there's a lot of upside, a lot of room to grow, and a lot of benefits in having a fourth team. But starting out in the position we're in now, without it being a drain on the company, I think is a remarkable success.
Q. Since the new car has been introduced, it seems like Phoenix is one of those places where the cars run pretty well. Am I right? What are some of the attributes about the car and track that go together?
JEFF BURTON: The main thing is the track. You put whatever kind of car you want to put on Phoenix, you're going to have a good race. The shape of the racetrack, the size of the racetrack is gonna put on good races. Two different corners, entrances, means one car is going to be good in this car, the next one in that corner. That means they're going to have a lot of cars that are competitive. That size racetrack puts on competitive races.
I think it's a good fit. It's not necessarily a good fit just for the Car of Tomorrow, it's a good fit for racing, period. That's the start of anything, is having a racetrack that puts on good races. Now you have the structure that it takes and the foundation it takes to have a successful race. A successful race is something fun to watch. That racetrack is gonna put on races that are fun to watch.
Q. With your long history in racing cars, do your trophies get invisible after a while? If so, how does it affect your drive to win?
JEFF BURTON: I can tell you that my trophies mean a great deal to me. I have all my Nationwide trophies, the ones that I was able to keep throughout the years, I have them prominently displayed. My Cup trophies are prominently displayed. They mean the world to me. I wouldn't trade -- people say, would you want to win the Daytona 500? Yeah, I'd like to win the Daytona 500. But I wouldn't trade any win I've had for another win, a bigger win, whatever else. They've all been special to me. They've all had their own personality.
I haven't won so many that they don't mean something. Not that Jeff Gordon feels this way. Think about how many races Jeff Gordon has won. This incredible number. Maybe he's a little more numb to it than I am. But every one of those trophies means a great deal to me.
Q. Do you think racecar drivers have to ignite the fire in the belly or does it burn constantly for you and others?
JEFF BURTON: Listen, we're humans. I don't care, I'd love to tell you that every day of my life I wake up thinking, I'm going to go kick everybody's butt this weekend, do that. The reality of it is it doesn't always work like that, the same way that not everybody comes to work motivated, not everybody goes into the gym on a Tuesday morning as motivated as they were the last Tuesday morning. There's different times in your life or in your day even where you're not as motivated as others. I think it's important to stay focused. I think it's important to understand it's okay to have a life outside of racing.
One thing that I found, I've always been concerned as I get older, what does that mean to my competitive drive, because I've had people tell me all my life when you get older, you're not as competitive, you can't have the success. I find the exact opposite. When I look at my career, it's very clear to me that I have way less ahead of me than I had behind me. I don't know how many times I'm going to go to Phoenix. I may only go to Phoenix for three or four more years. I don't know. I want to go for 10 more years, but I don't know if I'll be able to.
At this point in my career I hold it in much higher regard than I did when I was younger because I understand after not having success that I was used to having how important it is to you, how it makes you feel when you're successful. It's hard to explain. I'm more motivated today than I was when I was 18 because I understand how special it is. I've lost it, and now I have it back. I want to make sure that I don't lose it again.
Q. We look at Phoenix this weekend, Jimmie has won the last three, you have a couple of wins, Dale Jr. has a couple of wins, what is most important, past history or recent history of the track based on the schedule in general?
JEFF BURTON: I think recent history on the schedule is more important. I can tell you that if teams are running well, there's a reason. It's because they've got things figured out, they're working well together. They understand what they're doing. Some people call that momentum. I disagree with that. Momentum doesn't create success, success creates momentum. You can't have momentum without success. There's not some mystical power out there saying, It's their turn to be successful. It's work. It's effort. It's desire. It's ability. You harness all those things together at the right time and you have success. When you have success, you had it for a period of time because you understand what you need to be doing. So recent history to me is very important. Prime example. We were having these conversations last year about Jeff Gordon. I kept telling everybody, just 'cause Jeff Gordon has a baby, just because he's the age he is, 'cause he's won what he's won doesn't mean he can't drive any more, that he doesn't want. There's this great belief, Jeff Gordon can't win any more, ta-da, ta-da. Give me a break. You have to be synced up. You and the team have to be working together. The team has to understand what you're doing, you have to understand what you're doing. If it's not synced up, you can't have success, no matter how talented all of you are. You can have the best crew chief in the business, the best engineer in the business, the best driver in the business and not have any success because you have to be working well together. You have to understand what each other is doing. You have to be working on the same thing at the right time at the right place. Very difficult to sync all that up. When it gets synced up, you can have success and you have it for an extended period of time. When you don't have it, you see teams - we're a good example of that - we don't lead a lot of laps, win five races in a year. We haven't been able to do that because we haven't been as good as a team that could win five races a year. It's more important to have success now than it is 'cause that will give you a chance to have success tomorrow versus having success five years ago.
Q. You mentioned you have been kind of hit or miss this year. Where is it you think RCR needs to improve?
JEFF BURTON: I'm not going to specifically tell you where I think we need to improve because I'm not going to expose our weaknesses our strengths to our competition. We've got to do a better job. I've got to do a better job driving, giving information to the team they need. My team has to do a better job of bringing racecars to the racetrack that are a little better. Our company has to do a better job of empowering us, giving us better information to work with.
This isn't a thing where one group is messed up, one person messed up. This is a thing where our company is a little bit behind. We aren't miles behind. We are a little behind. We have to catch up in all areas. We have to be a little better in all areas.
We went from a company where we were putting no teams in the Chase to being a company that's been putting all our teams in the Chase. We did that by improving every single area of our company. There was no one thing we were doing wrong. We isolated, defined, made accountable people in every department. When we did that, guess what happened? So we're having to redo that again. It's constant. We've always been doing it. But we've just got to be a little better in all areas.
HERB BRANHAM: Once again, appreciate Jeff Burton's time today. Good luck this weekend.
JEFF BURTON: Thanks, everybody, for tuning in.
HERB BRANHAM: From NASCAR, thanks to all the media who participated. We appreciate the coverage. Thank you.
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