Burns takes unconventional path to becoming crew chief for Labonte
Published: Wednesday, February 20, 2013 at 4:46 p.m.DAYTONA BEACH — Satellite dish installer is not the typical foot in the door to becoming a NASCAR crew chief.
But not a lot is typical about Brian Burns — the crew chief for Bobby Labonte's No. 47 Toyota — compared to his colleagues in the pits at Daytona International Speedway.
Burns did not grow up at the track. And living in southern Indiana, he was not much of a fan of NASCAR. He went to Purdue University, and, because his family was not wealthy, joined the National Guard to pay for it.
He worked his way up to a platoon-leader position, in charge of four Humvees, 15 soldiers and a tow-missile system. He got out in 2001 — just months before his unit was activated and sent overseas for duty.
He installed satellites for money after college and had his eye on one day working in an automotive manufacturing plant.
Then, he made an installation at Charlie Patterson's house.
“He has been a scout for a lot of drivers,” Burns said.
“He took a liking to me, asked me my story and said he might have something I'd be interested in.”
That something was an interview with Ganassi Racing.
“They realized I'd probably be a good fit for their NASCAR headquarters in Charlotte, so a couple weeks later I was in a U-Haul,” Burns said.
Burns said he started at Ganassi as an IT guy and junior engineer.
“There was a culture shock,” he said. “Everything was so fast- paced.”
He said his military experienced helped with that. But when it came to the language of the garage, Burns was lost.
“If you're not in racing, it's a total different language so it is hard to carry on a conversation,” he said. “It's just a different terminology. It's something you really have to learn. I guess I was kind of quiet for quite a bit until I figured out what was going on.”
Standing in Labonte's hauler Wednesday morning, Burns said he has always managed to work his way to the top and into a leadership position. Perhaps that is why he remained confident in those early days, working hard and soaking up the surroundings.
“One day you wake up and realize you can do this,” he said.
Burns' shot came in 2010 when he was crew chief for Travis Kvapil for seven races. In 2011, he took over as Labonte's crew chief for four races when Frank Kerr was reassigned. In 2012, when Todd Berrier parted ways with the team, Burns stepped in as Labonte's crew chief for 16 races.
So, when Labonte needed a crew chief for 2013 — Burns was the obvious answer.
“When Todd left last year, it was like, ‘What are we going to do?'¤” Labonte said. “Well, we go to Brian. He knows the race car. His experience kind of made it a natural fit. He knows how it works.
“He was doing the job of three people last year,” Labonte added. “We figured if we could surround him with good people that were doing the job he was doing, and build him up, that he could start taking a leadership role. It's something we felt confident he could do.”
Burns said there were other opportunities, but when the chance to lead Labonte's crew through a season presented itself, he could not pass it up.
“(Labonte) is probably the classiest driver I've worked with,” he said. “I've been with 15 drivers, and he is the classiest.”
Come Sunday, Burns hopes Labonte can also be the fastest. That was not the case in Sunday's qualifying — Labonte finished 39th with an average speed of 192.563 mph. But in Wednesday's practice the car was faster — averaging 196.528 mph around the 2.5-mile tri-oval.
“We know we have a driver that can easily win the Daytona 500,” Burns said. “So we are more excited about this race than a lot of them.
“If I tried to imagine (what winning the 500 is like) it probably wouldn't be anything like what will really happen,” he said. “I can't tell you what it is going to feel like. I'm sure it is going to be a way more amplified feeling than I can imagine now.”
It will certainly beat putting up satellite dishes.
“I feel very fortunate,” Burns said. “It's hard to call this a job because you enjoy what you are doing so much and put so much time in it. You have bad days at work and half the problems you have, you drive home, look around and realize you really don't have it that bad.
“Our worst problems are not nearly as bad as what other people are going through, so I feel very fortunate.”