Ward Burton always knew there was more to life than NASCAR.
He found it right outside his door. Mike Roberts can relate.
“ Ward’s passion in life is basically working for wildlife. I have never met a man that is as passionate about the great outdoors as Ward is,” said Roberts, a naturalist and outreach coordinator for The Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation. “When he says he works, he works all the time.
“ He is constantly doing something regarding natural resources. It is amazing. Ward got the first NASCAR [non-profit] foundation there was.”
Roberts has combined with Burton – a nine-time NASCAR winner – in an effort to encourage today’s youth not to miss out on what the great outdoors has to offer.
“ When I started having some success in the sport of NASCAR racing, it was a natural progression for me to create a non-profit. Obviously at the time I didn’t know really what that was going to entail, but it has kind of grown into a voice of its own, which is wonderful,” said Burton, who won five races on the NASCAR Cup Series and four on the Xfinity Series over a decade from 1992-2002.
“ It was all about just using the popularity of the sport and the voice that I was lucky to get from the popularity of the sport and trying to give back to the natural resources.”
Burton enjoyed nothing better as a child than getting outside. Roberts felt much the same.
“ We were in lockstep because basically when I was growing up I was 20 miles from school and when I came home I hit the woods. I did my homework after dark after I got my chores done and got the wood,” said Roberts, who was assisted by Burton in his own non-profit, Return to Nature, where he reached more than 300,000 students on conservation issues in Virginia and Indiana. “Today’s youngsters, their schedule is so busy with sports and homework and social media, a lot of them don’t even know there is an outdoors. That is the sadness of it.”
That is where the TWBWF - created by Burton in 1996 - comes in.
“ I can take any kid from any urban area and have them with someone like myself or Mike or others for a week with some other kids whether they are fishing, camping, hunting, canoeing, you could go on and on and on and they would want to do it again because it is fun,” said Burton, who won the Daytona 500 in 2002, along with the Southern 500 in Darlington in 2001.
“ You are learning whether you even know it or not. That the outdoor classroom is free and it is just a shame that our kids have kind of grown up with nature-deficit disorder because adults are not exposing them to outdoors.
One of the primary objectives of the TWBWF has been to focus on the future through children, first in the South Boston region last spring and nine Southwest Virginia counties this fall, with Roberts speaking to third through seventh graders in the organization’s “Next Generation” program that stresses the importance of nature and wildlife conservation.
“ They are going to be the leaders when we are old or gone,” said the 57-year-old Burton. “We can continue to do what we are doing as long as we can sustain it, but at the same time, there is nothing substituting our adults taking kids outdoors. That is what is not happening as much as it did when I was a kid with all the distractions that kids have got now.
“ I think it is some of the adults’ responsibility. The kids just have a lot of other things at their disposal with the electronics and the cell phones and everything that we did not have.”
The feedback has been positive, according to Burton, who recently joined Roberts during a foundation program at Buchanan County Public Library in Grundy.
“ We are very happy. I have gotten some phone calls and Mike has talked to a lot of teachers and principals and they have been real ecstatic about the message and thanked us a whole lot,” Burton said. “That really means a lot to us that people appreciate and they feel like they got something out of it.
“ Mike does a fabulous job of keeping the kids’ attention. He is very passionate about it, very knowledgeable. It is not scripted. He can cater to high school kids as well as kindergarten kids. Whatever the audience is Mike is really, really good at it. He will bugle like an elk or do a hoot owl. He is always doing something that will keep them going, keep them interested.”
Roberts brings along a vast array of three-dimensional animals, and combines those visual aids with his own unique presentation skills in efforts to keep the attention of a generation that isn’t always known for its retention of information.
“ I use a beaver, I use an otter, I use white-tailed deer, foxes, coyotes, bobcats, you name it,” Roberts said. “I have got quality species. It gives kids a chance to actively see them and see them get a chance for survival and we talked about the sportsmen’s role in conservation.
“ That is what it is about. It is light and lively, I bugle like an elk, I gobble like a turkey and hoot like a gray-horned owl or barn owl. I have to have a little bit of entertainment in the program.
You have to keep their attention so that is what does it.”
It’s not just the kids who are learning either.
“ All you have to do is look at their faces and understand that it is something exciting, something they have not heard because we share information that these youngsters will never hear,” Roberts said. “We talk about what the role of a sportsman is and basically what restored America’s wildlife. It’s not mandated material and it is things the teachers are learning too so that is the big part.”
Burton is especially glad to have Roberts on his side.
“ He is a naturalist. He cares deeply about our natural resources and just as much he cares simply about trying to make a difference in the youth of today. That is really what the program is about,” Burton said. “We base it on the SOLs to help the teachers, but at the same time give a good American conservation brief history of where we have been and where we are.
“ We are in much better shape concerning our natural resources than we were 25 years ago, but particularly 100 years ago.”
Burton stepped away from NASCAR – outside of one race - for good in 2007 and has focused his attention on preserving natural resources. He has been a spokesman for Virginia’s 34 national parks since 2003, and was appointed by Mark Warner in 2005 to the Virginia Board of Game and Inland Fisheries; all with the intention to keeping the attention on the importance of conservation, and maintaining that focus for generations to come.
(See twbwf.org for more details).
He even has his own name for it.
“ Founders Syndrome is somebody that has a lot of passion for something, has a lot of energy, but if the torch isn’t passed and you don’t get other people involved, that effort will cease to exist when that person ceases to exist,” Burton said. “I am working very hard, just like with this foundation with one of my children to make sure it thrives and goes on after I am gone.
“ That is my effort. Other than my son’s racing efforts and family things, I spend every waking moment on our causes or trying to help landowners or other non-profits.”
Burton has three children, one of whom, Jeb, drives on the Xfinity Series, and supports his father’s foundation.
“ Jeb has been a blessing. A lot of his racing partners support our conservation efforts,” Burton said. “He has got a show on the Sportsman Channel called ‘Crossroads with the Burtons’. The Foundation has a little conservation piece on every one of those episodes so that is giving us some national exposure.
“ Jeb has really followed in my footsteps in a lot of ways and he is a hard worker, his heart is in the right place and he has been a great asset.”
The children of today are the adults of tomorrow. They will live on an earth that is increasingly changing with time. Some might be fortunate enough to live as long and be as active as Roberts’ father, who died earlier this fall.
“ My dad was the oldest deer hunter in America, he was 105,” Roberts said. “He was still climbing a 20-tree stand; he took two big bucks last year. He was still driving; he was still attending church every Sunday, cooking his own meals. It is wild…It is amazing.”
So is nature. The youth of today are its future.
“ They will be responsible for this in another generation and if they don’t understand the natural history and how the environment works then it is really tough to make good decisions about it,” said Roberts, who shares the 400-year history of how abundant natural resources were lost and then recovered through legislation and conservation organizations. “Our role is just to try to connect them basically and help them in their roles as members of the next generation.
“ That is the real concern. Because of technology and social media, it is not as interesting for the next generation to be out there so our role is to plug them back into the environment to make sure they understand the value of clean air, food, water, shelter and space and their role in taking care of it in a stewardship concept…
“ The foundation is just dedicated basically to fulfilling and inherit responsibility of keeping the next generation interested.”
Burton was always in tune with nature, from the time he was a kid who, like Roberts, spent as much time as possible in the woods. He became a success behind a steering wheel, but never forgot where he came from.
“ I was brought up in a rural culture like many people around the country,” said Burton, who owns several thousand acres of land in his native South Boston area. “I just have always cared about our natural resources. That is just who I am.
“ I am a lot more knowledgeable and caring about nature resources than I am a race car driver. I was just lucky where that was a career. This is more of a lifetime endeavor in supporting our causes.”