Ward Burton earned national fame as a championship NASCAR driver. But before he was cruising at 200 mph in front of thousands of fans, he was living off the land — and off the grid — in a cabin in the woods.
“I stayed in that log cabin for two years and got my head on straight,” says Burton, 46, a lifelong nature lover. “I believe you should use the outdoors, while also protecting it.”
Now, after big racing wins, including the 2002 Daytona 500 and the Southern 500 in 2001, Burton is replacing his need for speed with a need for nature. He’s left the sport (though he’s not ruling out a return) and is focusing on the Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation (WBWF), which he established in 1996. The foundation, which is the first of its kind to be created by a NASCAR driver, has been instrumental in preserving Virginia’s ecosystems. It manages a 2,000-acre wildlife refuge surrounding the Staunton River, where hundreds of school children visit each year to participate in handson science activities. Currently, the WBWF is spearheading a project with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that will remove southern Virginia’s Rocky Mount Power Dam to create a river park and restore the endangered Roanoke logperch population. Though the group’s preservation projects have been local, they’re designed to be used as national models, says the foundation’s executive director, Tom Inge.
Next on the agenda: greening his own sport. Burton hopes to help NASCAR become more environmentally friendly by implementing better technologies, recycling and carbon offsets. A tentative meeting between Burton and NASCAR officials has been scheduled this year to discuss the WBWF’s initiatives, says NASCAR spokesman Andrew Giangola.
“If I could be driving something that wasn’t burning oil,” says Burton, “I would damn sure be doing it.”
Story by Gina Pace. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in November 2008.