Ron Burton and his art are synonymous with motorsports on canvas, particularly in the haunts around Indianapolis Motor Speedway. For years he painted or drew some of the most beautiful cars and scenes of the sport, and his story as an artist, mechanic and Indianapolis mainstay was told in this Carl Hungess writing in the 1981 Indianapolis 500 Yearbook.
Burton’s original work can be found in many places, and Hall of Fame Collection has much of it to offer. Check this link to see many featured pieces, and there is still more to share with the public.
Meantime, read this Hungness story to appreciate the man behind this unbelievable art.
He Used to Turn Wrenches on Indy Cars But Now the Oils He Works with Go on Canvas
By Carl Hungness
It can be a joy to watch anyone do anything well. To an automobile racing fan, it’s a good feeling to observe a driver skillfully negotiate a pass. Trouble is, you can’t see the driver’s face. It could be a study in concentration, determination or there might be a mile-wide grin taking place under that full-face helmet. Little does the observer know that the one who is being observed is getting just as much pleasure out of his performance as the spectator.
We’ve watched a cabinet maker nod to himself after making a perfect miter joint. A pool player may grin outwardly when he’s made a difficult shot. The salesman has a look of contentment on his face when he’s overcome all the objections and closed the sale.
But the artist is unique, for he can stand back and watch others enjoy his work. He can hear their comments and file them away for future reference. No matter what his art form, he’s probably heard, “Oh, yes, you’re a starving artist – there’s a lot of those out there, isn’t there?” Most artists allow that statement to roll on by without allowing it to affect their current project, for way back there in the tunnels of their mind, they believe that what they’re doing is worthwhile. They’re preserving something. They’re making a statement. They’re interpreting. Sometimes they’re simply producing something pleasant to look at. True, if and when the general populous agrees with their work they might be paid a king’s ransom, but even if they never receive wide recognition and the accompanying monetary gain, they’re artists at heart and nothing can rob them of the inner satisfaction they get from their own labor.
The artist finds it nearly impossible to work in a field that he hasn’t chosen. Consequently, he may find it a bit boring to hear that he’s starving for in reality he’s being paid more than money could ever buy simply by following his own road. Nevertheless, it shall always be something to witness an artist’s growth from beginner to social success.
Artist Ron Burton was reared around the sport of speed and while he could have become a workaday mechanic and insured that he would be able to continue his love-affair with race cars, he reached that hazy point one day where he had to say to himself, “What do I want to be, a mechanic or an artist?” The world of Indy-car racing is fortunate that he opted for the latter. Of course, he didn’t simply lay down his wrenches one day and devote full time to his canvas. The evolutionary process in going from the employed to self-employed is never an easy one, especially when your art form isn’t the kind that is famous for finding its way into the great galleries of the world. But if you were to ask him, Ron Burton would probably tell you that he’s first a racer then an artist. He’s also probably tell you that some car owners, sponsors, mechanics, writers, photographers (and drivers) are also racers. In Ron Burton’s lingo, anyone who is devoted to being part of auto racing, and he means really devoted, is a racer. Racers don’t give up when the going gets rough. They put in an unreasonable amount of time and effort in their business. To a man, they’ll claim that they could probably be very successful in another line of work if they were as devoted to it as they are to racing. But they’re not. That’s why they’re racers.
Auto racing deprived Burton of his father. Ron’s dad, Everett, was one of those post World War II young men who needed an outlet for the bravado after coming home from daily danger. Everett Burton was a Seabee in the war and a roadster driver afterwards. The roadster killed him at a race in Kokomo. It also broke up Ron’s family, which included three brothers: Dale, Larry and Joe. Nevertheless, all four of the Burton brothers turned out to be racers. Dale drove Sprint cars and later became one of the finest painters the sport has ever seen. Larry became the Indy mechanic in a wheelchair after polio put him there. Quiet Joe was around the scene for years as a helper on many teams.
Ron had wrenches, too, but he always found himself setting up an easel in someone’s garage. His early days were spent doing painting of drag racers and most ever top name you can find in the land of straight-line racers remembers “Rembrandt.”
“You know how it is,” Burton smiles. “Everybody in this business seems to get a nickname.”
Burton can keep you interested for hours re-telling tales of the Sixties and the drag racers he used to know. Indy car racer Danny Ongais remembers the days when Ron used to sell a painting for $50. Burton and Ongais have been pals long before Ongais came to Indy, for Danny O was one of the nation’s most famous drag racers and Ron established himself as a talented artist among that breed before ehe was on the Indy car scene. Ron’s hop-scotch childhood took him from his home in Muncie, Ind., to California where he gravitated toward the drag racing society. He moved back to Indiana in 1965 and found some interest among the Sprint and Midget racers in his art and began painting an occasional Indy car. Again, he was part of the scene of the vagabond racers. He was in his mid-twenties and nothing seemed too important. There always seemed to be a job available and there was usually enough booze, broads and hell raising among the racing fraternity to allow the days to pass painlessly.
Soon, along came a special girl and the mailbox said Ron and Diane Burton. By this time, Burton had decided that he was at peace with himself when he was creating on canvas. Diane was certain she had married a guy with a lot of talent, but as all artists’ wives will agree, talent can’t be traded for rent. To those aficiianados of auto racing art, they believed that Ron Burton was great. They thought, “How nice it is to have a real artist drawing my favorite car.” Trouble was, there weren’t very many of them. And they didn’t pay very much for the right to display Burton’s work.
Ron used to produce a set of Indy car prints with black backgrounds. He’d have them printed and packaged in sets of four. They sold for the grand total of three dollars per set. After distribution costs, Ron received one dollar per set. Out of that he had to pay all expenses. In addition, he had to put up with the carnival atmosphere where his art was being sold. More than one hawker would say, “Hey, boy, them are nice drawings. We’re selling ‘em pretty good. By the way, the rain ruined these here, you got any more?”
There was never a vision in the back of his mind that he’d someday be recognized as a great artist, but he always knew that he got turned on when he transferred his feelings to canvas. For a long time he hesitated to put himself into his art. His early day drawings were just that: drawings. They were, however, precise right down to the last nut and bolt and brake line on the race car. A car builder could look at a Burton rendering and nod his head affirmatively. All the proportions were there and everything was in place. But you couldn’t tell what the artist was thinking about his subject.
In reality, the artist was thinking about putting food on the table for his wife and new son, Mark. Sometimes he wasn’t thinking about art, either. Sometimes the artist was out selling insurance, swinging a shovel and trying his damndest to keep the home front happy. Then every once in a while he’d meet up with some huckster who would promise wide distribution of his work. Burton would get fired up and painstakingly turn out more precise renderings. More than one entrepreneur smiled at Burton and took advantage of his easygoing attitude.
Along the way Burton became known as an easy touch. Car owners, drivers and mechanics all knew him on a first-name basis and what better man they thought to draw them something they could take to a prospective sponsor. Burton had a two-room studio next to the USAC office in the early Seventies and he was approached almost weekly with a “good deal.” Being the racer that he is, he’d churn out something for a friend who was also trying to stay in the sport.
“Racing has always been deep inside of me,” he says. “It’s etched deep in my mind. After my father died my relatives tried to keep me and my brothers away from it, but we didn’t listen to them.”
Anyone with an attitude like that is bound to identify with his fellow racers. To this day, Ron makes up drawings for teams seeking sponsors, but he’s earned the kind of respect and status that keeps the freeloaders at a distance. Nevertheless, his heart’s still in the right place. He’ll still go home and turn out a montage and present it to someone simply because he has a feeling for them. He gave Indy’s “Mr. First in Line,” Larry Bisceglia, a story board that nearly made the old man cry when he saw it. Then he heard that a lade race fan who frequents the Speedway Motel for lunch had lost her grandchild and he did make her cry when he presented her with a drawing of the deceased child. She’ll treasure her work from the “Indy artist” for the rest of her days.
Ever so slowly, Burton became known as the Indy artist. Just as a driver wants to “make it to the Speedway,” so did Ron. Today, there’s an entire wall in the multi-million dollar Speedway Museum devoted to Burton’s work. It’s titled the “Miller Wall of Fame,” and it is sponsored by the Miller Brewing Company. In pubs and liquor stores nationwide, you can see examples of Burton’s work as the folks at Miller have been convinced that an auto racing scene utilizing the words “It’s Miller Time” is an effective point-of-purchase advertising tool. Ron’s originals and his signed and numbered prints command rates that are reasonable enough to allow him to devote his full efforts to his craft. He says of his current status:
“Although racing and art were always a part of my life, I didn’t think about being a professional artist, it was something that just seemed to happen.”
While he seems to be solidly entrenched as the number one Indy car artist in the country, he’s still somewhat in awe of his own success. He worries about what people will think of not only his work but himself personally. He has claimed to be a reticent public speaker and was virtually petrified when asked to address the dignitaries attending his first “Wall of Fame” ceremony.
“I don’t know what to say to all those people,” he related. “I’m not a speaker. How can I get up there, in a suit, in front of all those executives and high rollers? They’ve probably gonna boo and hiss when I get in front of the microphone.”
For the first five minutes during the initial Wall of Fame presentation, Burton was nearly right. Although he had practiced his speech, he was a clear-cut bundle of nerves. At any moment you could have expected him to stop and say, “How am I doin?” Then he moved from the podium and said, “Well, let’s show you the work that’s going to hang on this wall,” and with that statement he became a tranquil, entertaining speaker without moments. He looked up at the first painting and began a long dissertation that had everyone staining so as to not miss a word. Burton was in his element. He’d point to a part of the work and explain the reason it had been included. You could look around the room and see smiles on the spectator’s faces as they understood ever more than history that had been transferred and depicted on canvas. It didn’t take a psychologist to see that the man before you was totally involved and dedicated to his work.
He can’t point out a favorite for he doesn’t have one. He’s not being a politician when he says:
“I get high on people or whatever I’m doing at the time. I don’t feel art has to be a win-lose situation, there doesn’t have to be a score at the end.”
Burton’s attitude allows him to work in more than one medium and his work ranges from pen and ink storyboards to impressionistic on canvas. Sometimes there doesn’;t have to be a deep-seeded thought brought out in the work. There may be no interpretation. The worth can be in the eye of the beholder.
Picasso used to tell critics: “Why does there have to be an interpretation? Do you go outside and ask the birds why they warbie a beautiful tune, or do you just enjoy?” Picasso had little time for those continually trying to analyze and outline his work. Ron Burton doesn’t expect to be mentioned in the same vein as Picasso, but there’s a mutual feeling among all artists that Picasso could afford to verbalize. Burton is more tactful in his approach to his public, probably because he has the best interests of the sport in mind and doesn’t want to alienate a potential racing fan or supporter. Nothing could give him great satisfaction than to know that his work is responsible for introducing another fan to the sport of speed.
As proof of his dedication to racing he says: “I suppose if I ever get successful enough where I have more money than it takes to live comfortably, I would get involved as a car owner, or if I really had a lot of time, as a mechanic. But I’ll always paint.”
From mechanic to successful artist, back to a mechanic. An outsider might not understand that thought pattern, but they would after getting to know Ron Burton. He’d explain the complexities of his sport to the novice and after they understood the great cross-sections of American life that’s going on in auto racing they’d probably envy and respect Burton for his position. And he would have gained another fan. He’d like that.
You can usually find Burton and his wife strolling up and down the pits in May, enjoying the atmosphere. Burton packs a camera along with him to capture a scene that he’ll later transfer to canvas. He’s a stickler for precise detail in his work and last year when he couldn’t get the ruffles in a uniform to look right, he made his wife wear a driving suit and pose on the dining room table. In the winter it isn’t unusual to find him taking a local art class to further hone his skills. For relaxation he jobs six to eight miles each evening and has transformed his thick waist line into a trim posture. On weekends you can find the Burtons racing, but now it’s with their son who follows the Soap Box Derby Trail. Ron lives within earshot of Indianapolis Motor Speedway and lunchtime usually finds him at the Speedway Motel sitting amidst one of his many paintings that hang throughout.
It was just a few short years ago that Leroy Nieman’s paintings graced the walls of the Speedway Motel. Of course, one reason they’ve been removed is that they’re far too valuable now to display in an area that normally doesn’t have the necessary security guards. It probably didn’t bother Leroy Nieman that his work was removed from the Motel, but it would Ron Burton. He speaks fluent race car and wants as many people as possible to learn the language.