At 17 years old, Harrison Burton has already won a NASCAR championship, won numerous Late Model races and made a handful of starts in the Camping World Truck Series.
He certainly sounds like he is ready for prime-time – at least a full season in one of NASCAR’s lower tier series like Trucks or Xfinity.
Not so fast.
Burton, the son of NASCAR veteran and current NBC Sports TV analyst Jeff Burton, has the track credentials to make such a move but there is one very big road block standing in his way – NASCAR’s age limits.
To compete full-time in any of NASCAR’s top three series – Cup, Xfinity or Trucks – a driver must be 18 years old, regardless of what they have accomplished.
Only in Trucks can drivers compete as young as 16, but that is only on tracks 1.25 miles or less in length and on road courses.
So Harrison, who won’t turn 18 until October of next year, has few other options for next season, other than what he already did this year, which is a combination of K&N Pro Series, ARCA, Late Models and some Truck races.
He clinched the K&N Pro Series East championship last month in just his second full season of competition.
“It’s tough. I feel like I’ve conquered a lot in the K&N Series and I feel like I’ve proved myself there and I feel like I want to move up, but I’m not quite old enough yet,” Burton said Friday at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, site of his final Truck series start this season.
“My wish list is to run as many races as possible (next season) and learn as much as I can. Run as many Truck races as possible and hopefully with KBM (Kyle Busch Motorsports) and learn as much as I can there. My wish list is not necessarily for races, it’s just to improve myself.”
Burton’s 2018 schedule is not yet finalized but will look very similar to this season’s, although he is not likely to run the complete K&N Pro Series East schedule and should compete in more ARCA events.
“I have a long way to go if I want to race every Sunday, so I got to learn as much as I can as fast as I can,” he said. “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, you know.
“I just turned 17 and am getting older and older and time’s coming for me to start running better and winning races more often, so I think my wish list is just to improve.”
Dealing with age road block
Jeff Burton said there is a possibility NASCAR’s age restrictions could work against his son, but there are many other circumstances that go into forming a driver’s career.
“The only way it could work against him is if next year, for whatever reason, was not a good year. There is a lot of momentum around him right now and if he were 18, there would be a lot of options,” he said.
“Really, at just turning 17, he can’t do much more than he is now. From a development standpoint, I think another year is good for him. In my mind it’s still unusual for an 18-year-old to have a full-time Truck ride. I’m OK with more time to develop.
“I view what he’s doing as a journey. We tend as parents to look at every race as the end of the world when in fact it’s journey and another year of experience driving a lot of different kinds of vehicles on a lot of different kind of race tracks, he’ll still come out better from an experience standpoint.”
Results and performance still tend to dictate the speed and direction of professional athletes’ careers and there are various age barriers throughout all sports.
There’s a lingering battle over forcing high school athletes to compete in college before making the jump to professional football or basketball because of the chance an injury there could delay or curtail their professional career options.
Stuck until he turns 18
Harrison Burton finds himself in a tricky spot – he’s won a championship in the only division in which he can compete full-time in NASCAR, but he’s not yet old enough to move up the career ladder.
“Some people view not having the option to move up as a negative but I tend to look at it as a positive – at 16 he was able to do things that no one has done,” Jeff Burton said. “Yes, his options are limited because he just turned 17 but I prefer to look at it as, ‘Damn, look what he did at 16.’
“People won’t forget that. Obviously, he wants to do this for a living. So, there is a process that has to happen but it still has to be fun. You can’t get so caught up in having a plan and things working a certain way, he’s got to have a good time and enjoy himself.
“Just go race. Things will be what they’ll be and they’ll work out. If they don’t, you’re still a better person for it.”