Harrison Burton’s drive to racing stardom happening sooner, faster than his father’s

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Being a teenager in the Burton family is not what it once was.

For Jeff Burton, the age of 16 included the end of his go-kart career. Still in school, he played soccer and basketball and went to parties on the weekends in his hometown of South Boston, Virginia.

He also dated his future wife, Kim, a junior varsity cheerleader who spent time in gymnastics and performing in dance recitals.

“We were allowed to just be regular kids,” she says.

For Harrison Burton, the highlight of his mid-teens was becoming the youngest NASCAR K&N Pro Series East champion, less than two weeks before his 17th birthday on Oct. 9.

He earned the title Sept. 29 when he won the season finale at Dover International Speedway and exited the race with an eight-point advantage over season-long rival Todd Gilliland.

It capped a year where the MDM Motorsports driver scored five wins, including four in the first eight races. He also made six starts in the Camping World Truck Series with a best finish of fourth at Martinsville Speedway a month after he clinched the K&N title.

Not bad for someone who committed to the family business at the age of 9 after four years of racing quarter midgets.

“I think I was pretty old, like relatively,” Harrison Burton says.

Going National

“Quarter midget racing, it was fun,” Harrison says in his father’s shop in Huntersville, North Carolina, which houses one of his late-model cars and the red 1957 Chevrolet his parents drove in their youth.

“You would race and then go play football afterward … tackle a guy so hard that he would wreck you. That was kind of the extent of that. It was a bunch of friends and we’d travel around and race.”

Then USAC established a national quarter midget series, one that would send 10-year-olds and their parents as far west as Phoenix.

Harrison wanted in.

At the time his father’s Cup career was winding down, but it still kept Jeff Burton from attending most of his son’s races. Sundays after races and Tuesdays were dedicated to working on Harrison’s cars.

“He came to us and he had a proposal,” says Jeff Burton, now an analyst for NBC Sports. “We both immediately said, ‘No, there’s just no way that we can do it.’ We were explaining to him, I’m racing. This means we’re going to be separated as a family.

“So his reply to that was, ‘I don’t want to do anything that’s going to hurt our family. So we just won’t do it.’

“I don’t know if he’s a good salesman or what he is. But now how do you say no to a kid that has that perspective? Essentially (Kim) had to make the decision because I couldn’t do it.

“Can she do it? Can she manage it? Plus a daughter. Can she manage this?”

She did.

For two years, Kim Burton shepherded her son’s young racing career and her daughter’s horse riding career while also attending her husband’s Cup races, typically all in a three-day span.

It was this period, in which he competed in roughly 300 races (including heat races), that Harrison thought back to when he arrived in Dover’s Victory Lane.

Harrison and Kim Burton embrace in Victory Lane after his win at Dover International Speedway. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

“I just thought about all the races, all the weird areas I’ve been around the country,” he says. “My mom in a motor home.”

“Not so great hotels,” Kim quickly adds.

It was much like those days in the early 90s, when she and Jeff went from track to track as he worked to establish his name in the Xfinity Series at the same time she worked as a teacher.

“It was just, ‘Are we going to race each year?’” Kim recalls. “That first year, it was us in a van, basically. We drove around the country all night long, trying to eke out, figuring out how to make everything work. He had a crew of a few guys that were his late model guys. It was hard. It wasn’t glamorous. Riding in a van with five stinkin’ men, all night long. It was like, ‘What am I doing?’

She was unknowingly preparing herself for her son’s own journey into NASCAR history.

‘This feels really slow’

It was in Harrison’s second year in the national quarter midget series that his dad saw “it.”

That’s when “the magic happened,” Jeff said.

Jeff saw the drive and driver intuition that would serve his son well as he tried to move up the driving ranks.

“It got to the point where we could show up and he could look at the race track at 10 years old and understood what he needed to do and where he needed to run,” Jeff says.

A race day would see Harrison at the track until 10 p.m. A test day would have him sitting in the car non-stop for four to five hours.

“Part of that is because I’m insane,” Jeff says. “But the other part of it is because he needed to … If you’re going to do this, what are you willing to give up? … He has our support as long as he has the willingness and desire to put the effort, time and energy into it. If someone’s going to outwork him, he doesn’t deserve it.

“Children don’t do this. Men do this. Grown men, women. When you get in that car you can’t be a child. When you get out of it, you can be, but when you get in it, you can’t be.

“He never balked at it. He never complained about it.”

Harrison also didn’t balk when, at the age of 11, he took part in his first Limited Late Model test at Southern National Motorsports Park in Lucama, North Carolina.

Harrison Burton leads Christopher Bell during the Oct. 28 Camping World Truck Series race at Martinsville Speedway. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

With crew members from their quarter midget team helping and then-Richard Childress Racing engineer Matt McCall (now Jamie McMurray’s crew chief) supervising, Harrison used a step stool to climb into the vehicle and took to the track.

Upon returning to the pits Harrison told his father, “this feels really slow.”

This from a kid whose only racing experience was on tracks small enough to complete a lap in under five seconds.

“Driving a world formula quarter midget is out of control,” Jeff says. “It’s a grossly overpowered, under-gripped race car on a tiny track with 11 cars.”

Within four years, Harrison was racing at Dover, Bristol and other short tracks his father didn’t set foot on until his early 20s.

“Part of me says that’s awesome,” Jeff says. “The other part of me says, ‘Damn, that’s a lot of pressure to put on somebody.’”

The pressure didn’t slow his son down. In April, 16-year-old Harrison started from the pole in the K&N East race at Bristol, led 68 of 70 laps and won his first NASCAR race.

More Schooling

Harrison Burton had to make sacrifices to become a NASCAR champion. That included giving up playing lacrosse at school.

“When it was winding down and I had to cut lacrosse, (his father) was like, ‘You know, you can do whatever you want. You don’t have to do this because it’s what I did,” Harrison said. “Every time it’s been hands down, I want to race, I want to race, I want to race, I want to race. He’s asked me that more than you would think.”

But Harrison adds there’s “nothing I regret giving up because I knew it was for racing.”

This season coincided with the younger Burton’s junior year, which took a hit as his focus narrowed on battling Gilliland for the K&N East title. He missed an entire week of school at one point.

The biggest casualty was biology.

“It’s been harder than normal,” he says. “That led to results like you’d about imagine in school. I’m kind of making up for that now, and I feel like I’m getting my grades back up. It’s a hard balance for sure. It’s something you feel so focused on racing and you spend a lot of time preparing for races and then you go and you feel like there’s hardly enough time for school, and it’s hard to focus on school when all you want to do is race.”

Despite the split attention, the Burton household is now home to its first NASCAR champion.

Being 17 and with NASCAR’s age limits on competing on large tracks, going full-time in Trucks isn’t a possibility yet. He’ll have at least one more year of dividing his time between school and racing.

“My wish list is to run as many races as possible and learn as much as I can,” Harrison said after his fourth-place finish at Martinsville in the Truck Series. “I think I have a long way to go if I want to race every Sunday, so I’ve got to learn as much as I can, as fast as I can ‘cause I used to be a 14-year-old kid with a long, a long time to go before I even had to think about that stuff and had a long time to learn, but now the time’s coming.”

For now he’s still a teenager, for better or worse.

Before he left Dover for the trip back to North Carolina, he made a parting remark to his dad that reminds you some things about being a teenager don’t change.

“I am so far behind on homework.”