A.J. Hopkins at Lincoln Park Speedway. (Dave Nearpass photo)

The Journey Of A. J. Hopkins

It’s a bit hard to fathom, no matter how hard one tries. Somehow it has been eight summers since we lost Josh Burton in a crash at Bloomington Speedway.

These things are never easy, and in so many ways the contextual factors round out the range of emotions that come with such a loss. Burton was extremely popular among his peers and he brought a certain zest to the proceedings every night. His car’s color scheme was immediately recognizable and he accented the entire presentation by adding a touch of orange to his Hoosier tires.

Burton wore mismatched socks, smiled broadly, and was in his element when he was at the race track. Going fast and cranking a car sideways was what he longed for and what he was born to do.

Immediately after his passing, his fellow drivers banded together to honor him. Soon all of the tires were splashed with orange as well, and several of his peers wore green and orange socks in his honor. It is the sort of thing that happens at a track like Bloomington Speedway.

Families have gathered there and battled for decades and, even if someone has been your on-track rival, grudging respect develops.

Car owner Jerry Burton is right at home at this red clay oval. His Hoosier hills dialect bespeaks of the place where he was raised. He doesn’t take himself too seriously and he isn’t a complicated man. There’s a lot to like here. Jerry works hard and he loves sprint cars. It’s that simple.

He could be bitter and angry with the loss of his son. He’s not.

He also could have quit, but he didn’t.

A.J. Hopkins poses at Indiana’s Lincoln Park Speedway in 2019. (John Mahoney photo)

Burton grew up about a mile from legendary Indiana owner Jerry Shields, and as a result he watched a bevy of Hall of Fame drivers pass through his neighborhood. His mother loved watching Steve Kinser race and Jerry caught the bug early. He was so taken with the sport that he pondered giving sprint car racing a try as well.

Sensibly, he rented some track time at Lincoln Park Speedway where he quickly concluded he didn’t pass muster.

It wasn’t the speed that bothered him. He tipped, “It was the finesse, and I could see there was a lot to learn.”

If he couldn’t race, perhaps he could own a car. He knew it was a big commitment and, for a man who fed a good-sized family from his masonry business, it could be considered an extravagance.

Explaining his situation, Burton said, “We just live in a little house, we don’t get a lot of sponsorship, and we are 100 percent on the race car. We, as a family, had a little vote when we got into sprint cars and I told them it was a very expensive sport, and going to Kings Island on the weekends was not going to happen, and we had to watch our money.

“They all adapted to it and liked it.”

Josh also picked up his father’s trade, but Jerry did insist that his son work to get proper union credentials, and thereby put himself in the best position to be successful. He was, by Jerry’s account, his best help. In part because he could gain the ear of his sometimes-recalcitrant coworkers. However, in Josh’s mind nothing replaced racing a sprint car. “People just don’t understand how much passion Josh had for racing,” Jerry says. “Racing was his life. He had reached his dream. He didn’t want to go to NASCAR, because his dream was fulfilled by being able to race sprint cars. He would turn a car over and he would tell me not to pay him and just put it on the car. Of course, I didn’t do that.”

When Josh was lost Jerry knew it was time to have another meeting. His wife Darlene and his four surviving children were all going to have a say on the direction they would take. Jerry was convinced what his son would have said but knew everyone had to be all in. The conversation took the turn he thought it would. “I think my mom, my wife and my daughters all get a lot of personal satisfaction out of it,” he says. “We all feel like we are doing it for him.” That settled it. They were going forward.

A variety of drivers took a turn at the wheel and some of them were pretty good hands. The results were OK, but nothing to get overly excited about. Unquestionably, it was going to be different and difficult. There was no way to replace a son but Burton was also looking for a driver that truly had a fire in the belly.

“A lot of guys want to call themselves race car drivers,” Jerry says, “but they really don’t have the passion for it, at least not like I was used to. Not like Josh had.” Late in the 2019 season Burton seized on a chance to bring a driver into the fold that had caught his eye. A.J. Hopkins was not afraid to stand on the gas, which was obvious to all. There had been conversations about joining forces in the past but the timing had just not worked out.

Hopkins had been racing for owner Jeremy Ottinger when everything changed. “I had seen that Jeremy was selling his car,” Jerry says. “and I thought maybe A.J. would be interested. We had talked before, but he didn’t want to race more than one time a week – or he didn’t want to at the time – and we liked to race every Friday and Saturday at least, and do Sprint Week. I’m not saying anything bad about the drivers I have had before, but A.J. seemed more mature, and that was what we were hunting for.

So we did those races in 2019 but we had trouble. We broke fuel lines, something else went wrong at Gas City, but we were fast everywhere we went.”

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