Jeff Burton has an engraved invitation to the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame.
Burton is one of eight members of the 2019 class to be inducted into the all-sports Hall in April. He's the first racer to be tapped for induction since Ray Hendrick's inclusion with the 2012 class.
It's a high honor, and good reason to include the Virginia Hall in our occasional looks at places in the state that pay tribute to Racing Virginia's legacy.
I've written about Richmond Raceway's Garage Walk of Honor, which made its debut as part of the Federated Auto Parts 400 in September – just the beginning of a display that will expand year after year. I'm fortunate enough to be part of the group that helps the track select racing figures to honor along the walk.
I also wrote about the fascinating Virginia Motorsports Museum and Hall of Fame in Stuart. And I visited Roanoke's Virginia Museum of Transportation, with its terrific tribute to Curtis Turner.
Now let's look at this year's class for the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame, which has been recognizing the state's athletic heritage since 1972.
Joining Burton are football stars Ruben Brown (Lynchburg, NFL), Heath Miller (Honaker, University of Virginia, NFL) and William "Buster" O'Brien (Virginia Beach, University of Richmond).
Old Dominion women's basketball coach Wendy Larry will be inducted. Another ODU connection is Debbie White, who worked in communications at the school and before that was a pioneering woman sports writer at the Daily Press in Newport News. Also in the class is Tom Yeager, longtime commissioner of the Colonial Athletic Association.
Olympic gold-medal diver Mark Lenzi (Fredericksburg) will be honored posthumously.
Eddie Webb, President of the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame, said the 2019 class "truly is representative of the entire Commonwealth and its sporting heritage. Sports fans in Virginia should be very proud of the class."
Indeed, this list of eight illustrates the Hall's wide range of sports figures considered, and the variety of sports underscores the high honor for Burton and the eight racing figures who preceded him as inductees.
The previous racing inductees are:
- Two-time Cup champion and national motorcycle champion Joe Weatherly (1976).
- Superstar driver Curtis Turner (1999).
- Pioneer racer Wendell Scott (2000).
- Richmond Raceway founding father Paul Sawyer (2002).
- Race team greats Glen Wood and Leonard Wood (2006).
- Cup series iron man Ricky Rudd (2007).
- Ray Hendrick, whose hundreds of victories make him one of the winningest drivers of all time (2012).
As an aside, a pair of speedboat racing figures are in the Hall – Henry Lauterbach and Robert Rowland.
Also, racing has been covered by many of the Hall's media figures – notably Jerry Lindquist, formerly of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and Al Pearce, among the most prolific motorsports writers of all time with the Newport News daily papers and Autoweek magazine.
To join that august group, Burton has impeccable credentials.
First of all, his Virginia heritage goes about as deep as you can go short of being a descendant of one of the state's Native American tribes. Ancestor Richard Burton arrived at the Jamestown colony in the 1630s.
From South Boston, Burton is a member of a racing family. Brother Ward Burton counts the 2002 Daytona 500 and 2001 Southern 500 among his five NASCAR Cup Series victories. Both brothers have sons who are racers.
Jeff Burton racked up 21 Cup Series wins in a career that stretched from 1993 to 2014. He finished as high as third in the season standings. Burton won Charlotte's 600-mile race twice, 1999 and 2001, and won the Southern 500 in 1999.
He also won 27 races in NASCAR's second-tier Xfinity series.
Friendly and unassuming, Burton has always been comfortable with the media, fans and competitors – which led to his nickname, "The Mayor." No surprise, then, that he was hired by NBC as a racing analyst in 2013 as his driving career wound down. He is currently part of NBC's Cup Series broadcast team.
The induction ceremony, the culmination of a two-day series of events, is set for April 6 at Zeider's American Dream Theater in Virginia Beach. Ticket information is yet to be released.
The Virginia Sports Hall of Fame is not a typical Hall – and it may be part of a future wave for such institutions in an era of limited (if any) taxpayer support and extreme competition for the attention of sports fans. Just ask Charlotte, N.C., officials how tough it has been to market the NASCAR Hall of Fame in that city.
The Virginia Sports Hall of Fame, facing its reality, closed its previous venue in Plymouth last year. In February it opened again in Virginia Beach's Town Center, a shopping-dining-entertainment-hotel development.
The Hall's displays, on view in the lobbies of several Town Center businesses, are pared down from the old venue. The Hall's reserve of memorabilia and information mean visitors can plan multiple visits and see different displays with different focuses. You can find a guide on the Hall's website – vasportshof.com.
At the reopening, Hall Board Chairman Joel Rubin said the Hall had reinvented itself. "If we hadn't done this," he told a reporter, "the Hall of Fame would have been a website and a banquet."
Racing fans who can't make Burton's induction banquet might want to plan trips to Town Center and the Hall around races at Racing Virginia tracks on that end of the state – Langley Speedway in Hampton and Virginia Motor Speedway in Jamaica come to mind.
And, when you go, check in on the Hall's website, find the "contact us" prompt and let folks there know that you appreciate the honors for motorsports figures – and that there are plenty more for future Hall induction classes.