MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Ward Burton's transition from race car driver to parent of a race car driver hasn't always been easy.
In at least one instance, watching as son Jeb, now 19, as he tore up the track was downright frightening.
"On his first go kart race, the first lap he made, Ward said, 'My chest. I don't know if I can take this. I feel like I'm going to have a heart attack,'" Ward's wife, Tabitha, recalled, laughing at her husband, who raced 13 years in the Sprint Cup Series. "And I said, 'Welcome to my world. This is what it's like. Wait until he's in a car and someone's wrecking him. You want to kill somebody.'"
Being a spectator has gotten easier over time, and last weekend the Burtons had to travel only about 60 miles from their South Boston home to see Jeb take his next big step forward as he made his debut in the Camping World Truck Series.
In perhaps the tamest race at Martinsville Speedway in the history of the truck series, he started seventh, finished 13th and finished all 250 laps, essentially meeting his goals of a good qualifying run, a respect-building clean race and a top-15 finish.
The race was the first of five Jeb will make in the truck series this year, sponsored by State Water Heaters, and while the Burtons hope to find sponsorship for more races, they are still adjusting to being bystanders, and in Ward's case, part-time coach.
"Coach," Jeb said when asked if his father is more father than coach. "Sometimes me and him don't agree on everything."
Ward, who always tried to be in command of his car when he was racing, admittedly struggles to keep quiet sometimes.
"The problem with me is I'm real quick to assume things when I need to sometimes slow down because he may be saying something different than what I think he's saying," Ward said. "But the big picture is, this is a good opportunity for Jeb."
During his career, Ward Burton won five times in the Sprint Cup Series, including the 2002 Daytona 500. He also won the prestigious Southern 500, but got out of racing after the 2007 when he decided he would take a well-funded ride, or none at all.
By then, Jeb was already well on his way up the racing ladder. He started at 12, and progressed from motocross to go karts, then limited late models and finally late models before the family decided he was ready to go on to more ambitious things.
To ease the transition, Ward teamed Jeb up with Trip Bruce, who was crew chief for Ward later in his career. It's an arrangement Bruce said he and Ward discussed in 2000, and one that has helped Ward step back, at least a little bit.
"You have to learn to kind of sit back and watch, be not as involved," Bruce said, "and Ward said, 'You know, I was always nervous before a practice session or qualifying as a driver, but nowhere near as much as he is standing here watching Jeb do it.'"
Jeb would have raced in the season-opening truck race at Daytona, but hadn't been cleared yet by NASCAR, so Ward drove the truck and finished eighth. That was just fine with Tabitha, who wasn't ready to see her son driving on a 2 1/2 mile trioval.
During the race, Jeb was in radio contact with his dad, offering some coaching of his own.
"He told me on the radio, 'Ride in the back and watch them wreck,'" Ward said, laughing at the role reversal. "And then at the last restart, he said, 'OK dad, now it's time to go. You can't be dilly-dallying around any longer.'"
By the time the team unloaded at Martinsville, Tabitha was confident Jeb was ready, and that helped her, too.
"It's so much more emotional for me," she said. "I was always a supporter of Ward, a big cheerleader, but I quietly supported him. I stayed with the kids. We were there, we were always cheering for him, but that was his job, his career. Now with Jeb, I feel like I'm involved. We're in the middle of it. He's our child and we've done nothing but this the last four, five years. We've sacrificed a lot."
And the way she supports her son is more than a little bit different than that demure racer's wife of old.
"I feel like I was pretty graceful throughout Ward's career. I don't think I embarrassed myself but maybe a couple of times, but with Jeb, I get furious," she said, speaking of when another driver causes problems for her son. "We were somewhere and someone wrecked Jeb, and we were both on top of the trailer and I said (to Ward), 'Go get him!', and he said, 'I'm trying to get down!'"