Many racecar drivers that grow up in the racing industry lean on their parents for help. That, too, was the case for Harrison Burton.
While racing quarter midgets, late models and eventually moving to the K&N Pro Series, Burton leaned on his father’s racing experience. After all, Jeff Burton is a 21-time winner at the NASCAR Cup Series level, also piling up 27 more checkered flags in the Xfinity Series.
But as Harrison was progressing through different series, Jeff wanted to become less involved from a coaching standpoint, allowing his son to become a better racecar driver.
“At the end of the day, I don’t want to be Harrison’s driver coach,” Jeff recently told Jayski.com. “I don’t have any interest in that. I want to be Harrison’s dad and I want to be able to have conversations with Harrison about 10,000 foot things, not foot off the ground things.”
While Harrison was running partial schedules in the K&N Pro Series East, ARCA Menards Series and Camping World Truck Series during the 2018 season, Jeff was in the quest of finding his son a driving coach.
Come early May at Dover International Speedway, Jeff was standing atop one of the Xfinity haulers during practice. Adjacent to him was Blake Koch, who was Matt Tifft’s driver coach at the time, running in his second full Xfinity season.
After the practice session, Jeff found his guy.
“Jeff Burton was like, ‘Hey man, we need to talk,’” Koch recalled. “Jeff saw the improvements with Tifft and the difference I was making, and Jeff was looking for something similar with Harrison, just to have somebody confident and consistent throughout his career and be a part of his career as a driving coach.”
Prior to testing an ARCA car at Toledo Speedway in August of 2018, Harrison had never spoke with Koch. But when debriefing with Jeff, Harrison made the phone call to Koch, where the two chatted on the phone for the first time. Unfortunately when leaving the track, Harrison got really sick, even having to withdraw from the Truck Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Not knowing if that was a bad omen or not, Harrison was sold on Koch. From the very beginning, it was the perfect match.
“It wasn’t a tough decision to make,” Harrison said. “I thought he fit right in with what I was trying to do and it’s been great so far.”
Koch, who has 229 NASCAR national touring starts, said being a driving coach entails something different with every driver. Along with Harrison, he also guides Brandon Jones, who he was close with when the duo were affiliate teammates between RCR and Kaulig Racing.
But finding the driver’s strengths and weaknesses is fun for Koch. Plus, he’s never shied away from a challenge.
“I’ve been with Harrison since his very first ARCA test at Kansas [Speedway] on a mile and a half, preparing him for what a mile and a half is going to feel like compared to a short track,” Koch said. “I’m also part of all his simulator sessions at Toyota and I get to watch the data, work with the crew chiefs on what needs to be worked on, what their strengths are, what their weaknesses are.
“I’m really someone who just focuses on Harrison.”
During the week, Harrison and Koch will watch past race films, evaluate SMT data, compete on iRacing and discuss experiences that Harrison has never faced before in order to maximize his potential as a racecar driver.
Koch can’t recall any glaring issues Harrison had at the beginning of the partnership. However, he had limited experience with live pit stops.
But as Koch said, “there’s always going to be something that needs work.”
“We pick the single biggest thing,” Koch said. “When you master that, then we’re going to pick something else. Man, we need to work on getting around lapped traffic better when we’re leading. Once we conquer that, we choose the next thing, so we talk about restarts and how do we become the best at restarts. So we’ll watch film, study and, once we’re the best at that, you pick the next thing which is passing.
“It’s never ending. There’s so much to think about from a driver, there’s so much that goes on every week for these guys that I try to focus on the driving part. He has to lead his team, he has to do a lot of things. But then I start pointing out specific details that he needs to focus on throughout the race and setting goals and working with the team.”
As Harrison has progressed through the ranks — becoming a four-time winner in the Xfinity Series — he still talks to Koch daily. Ahead of Harrison’s Cup debut at Talladega Superspeedway, the two did their research to make sure Burton was prepared for everything that was to come his way. Ultimately, he finished 20th, though he was running as high as eighth on the final restart.
Harrison credits Koch, who had to dig and grind for every opportunity he had in NASCAR as to what makes him a good coach.
Koch isn’t someone that had anything handed to him on a silver platter.
“The guys that I feel like have to work at it make the best coaches,” Harrison said. “It’s tough for a guy who has things come naturally for them when they’re the best of the best of natural talent and able to go out and kick butt and don’t even know why. Blake has had to grind to get that knowledge.”
When Koch was a weekly competitor, he said one of his biggest flaws was sharing information with other drivers when he found something valuable on the racetrack.
So whenever Harrison has success, the coaching is worthwhile for Koch. In his rookie Xfinity campaign, Burton led the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team to four victories, 15 top-five and 22 top-20 finishes, placing eighth in the championship standings.
But his victory at Auto Club Speedway — the third race of the 2020 season — was one of Koch’s proudest days in the sport.
“I feel like when he wins, it’s like I won,” Koch stated. “I never had the pleasure of winning in NASCAR as a driver, so when he got that first win at [Auto Club Speedway], I was on the radio in the stands and talking to him throughout the race. That, for me, was like winning and just being a part of it. I love racing and I love being a part of such a great family, great driver and a great organization with JGR. It’s very satisfying to see the results and see all the hard work pay off.
“Naturally for me, I like to help people and I love racing. This lets me do both of those things.”
Though watching the California race in the grandstands, Koch made sure to get into victory lane post race to get a picture after Harrison’s first triumph.
Because Koch is there with Harrison, going through the grind of becoming better, it’s about the closest thing to actually driving the car, potentially other than spotting. But don’t expect to see Koch on top of the spotter’s stand anytime soon.
“Driving is fun, but it’s also fun just being competitive and competing and being part of the team and the sport,” Koch added. “It’s very fun, and in my eyes, spotting is pretty exciting, probably the next best thing to driving, but I have no desire to be a spotter. In my eyes. this is the next best thing.”
And for Jeff, the person who originally set his son and Koch up, he’s sure glad he did.
“I think it’s been vital,” Burton said, crediting Harrison’s success to Koch. “Blake has done a great job and Harrison has done a great job of being willing to listen and hardheadedness is a trait of racecar drivers. For that personality to take a step back, ‘Another perspective might be good for me, I think that might be important.’ Blake and Harrison work really well together.”
After eight Xfinity races this season, Burton sits third in the point standings, earning a pair of top-five and six top-10 finishes.