Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – CHARLOTTE, NC – To a whole generation of NASCAR fans, Buddy Baker was for years the gentle voice and big personality on television race broadcasts and a popular SiriusXM NASCAR Radio show. He loved to laugh and lift the audience and his knowledge of the sport was second-to-none.
He had that enviable perspective because he was such an important force as a NASCAR driver – winning 19 times despite running only two full seasons in 35 years of NASCAR Cup Series competition. He hoisted a Daytona 500 trophy, won four Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway races, was the first to turn a 200-mph lap (in testing) and steered cars for an A-list of owners – many NASCAR Hall of Famers in their own right – running the gamut from Ray Fox to Petty Enterprises to Bud Moore and the Wood Brothers.
And on Jan. 31, seven years after helping induct his champion father Buck Baker into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, the late Buddy Baker will have his own place in the great Hall alongside Joe Gibbs, Bobby Labonte, Tony Stewart and Waddell Wilson as the 2020 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductees.
“I’ve always been proud to call Buck Baker dad,” Buddy Baker said as he emotionally spoke at his late father’s 2007 NASCAR Hall of Fame induction. And now the Bakers will be joined again permanently among the sport’s most celebrated legends.
Buddy Baker passed away from cancer in August 2015 but his love of the sport and the sport’s adoration of him is clearly evident from drivers he competed against to fans that adored him to the media he worked alongside.
“I don’t know if it’s possible to separate the driving portion of his career from the TV portion of his career because it’s all a part of the Buddy Baker story in racing,” longtime NASCAR television announcer Allen Bestwick said of his former broadcast partner.
“You could put [fellow NASCAR Hall of Famers] Ned Jarrett and Benny Parsons in that category with Buddy. When the sport was rocketing through the growth period, they were the people that were the experts that educated people who were watching at home in their living room and newer to NASCAR. They were the people who gave them enjoyment and introduced them to the characters and the stories.
“And people that came into the sport during the tail end of his driving career, maybe did not understand what a force Buddy Baker was in his driving career.”
One of the most noteworthy characteristics of Baker’s driving career was that he was so successful despite running only partial schedules for 33 of 35 years, including the majority of the time in the 1970s when he established himself as a renowned force on some of the sport’s most iconic tracks in Daytona, Talladega, Darlington (S.C.) and Charlotte.
He was particularly good on the superspeedways at Daytona and Talladega, which during the peak of Baker’s career in the 1970s, were still considered relatively new forms of competition.
Before the late Dale Earnhardt’s famously fickle relationship pursuing a Daytona 500 trophy, Baker was the poster child for near misses in the sport’s most famous event. The 1970s were a classic heartbreak storyline at Daytona for Baker, who for example, led 156 of the 200 laps in 1973 only to suffer an engine blow with 10 laps remaining. He finished runner-up in 1971 by 10-seconds to Richard Petty. Baker was third in 1977.
During a 20-year period from 1967-87, Baker had 14 top-10 finishes in the Daytona 500, highlighted, by his win from the pole position in 1980. That February afternoon Baker led 143 of 200 laps and his average speed of 177.602 mph remains one of the fastest Daytona 500s in the 61-year history of the “Great American Race.”
In 64 total races at Daytona International Speedway, Baker earned an amazing 31 top-10 finishes and is in rarefied company to have won both the Daytona 500 and the 400-mile mid-season race at the track.
His work on the Talladega high banks was no less impressive. He won three straight Talladega races in the 1975-76 seasons – the first to string together that many wins on the sport’s biggest track. He added a fourth trophy there the same year he won the Daytona 500 (1980).
“In the early era of superspeedway racing – which we kind of forget that a lot, that these tracks were just built in the ‘60s – they were a brand-new thing,” Bestwick said. “And Buddy was so good at it and adapted so quickly to it. He was one of the dominant forces of the big tracks when the big tracks became ‘a thing.’
“That was new ground for everyone. And Buddy was a master at it.”
Perhaps one of Baker’s most important contributions to the sport as a driver was his work with no trophy on the line: testing tires, and specifically, developing tire inner liners. It was high speed, high danger work but Baker was willing to do it because he knew the outcome would potentially save so many lives. And it has.
“All the things he did, developing the [tire] inner liner, I mean blowing out tires and hitting the wall on purpose in tests – those are just things people don’t do anymore,” three-time Cup Series champion Darrell Waltrip recalled of Baker, someone who was both friend (off-track) and foe (on-track).
“So, he was a rare breed and a really great race car driver. When it came to Daytona and Talladega, especially, I’d take him over anybody. He was that good.”
In all, Baker earned 19 Cup Series wins, celebrating in Victory Lane at least one time in 11 different seasons. He won 38 pole positions, including a career-best six poles in 1980. He finished with an even 700 starts finishing top five in 202 races and top 10 in 311 races.
He only competed fulltime in the 1976 and 1977 seasons. Perhaps his best season statistically came in 1973 when he ran 27 of 28 races and finished in the top-five a personal best 16 times, and top 10 in 20 of the 27 races. He won twice and earned five pole positions that year.
His best finish in the Cup Series championship was fifth in 1977. Three times he finished in the top 10 in the championship without running a full season’s slate of races. His final trophy hoist came fittingly enough at Daytona International Speedway in the summer of 1983, when he scored a 29-second victory over Morgan Shephard.
Baker’s run of surpassed expectations and shake-your-head achievements essentially came to an end following a severe head injury in 1988 after competing in the prestigious Charlotte Motor Speedway 600-miler. Baker was involved in a crash but didn’t realize the extent of his injury immediately after the race. Three months later, he required emergency brain surgery.
While Baker made a few more random race starts, he soon discovered a second career – broadcasting.
Fellow NASCAR Hall of Famer Waltrip appreciates Baker’s unique place in NASCAR lore. Both Waltrip and Baker moved from the driver’s seat to the television commentating chair after their racing careers and then blossomed in the heyday of NASCAR’s big media personalities.
“A lot of people don’t even know I drove, they think all I’ve done is television,” Waltrip said. “It’s fascinating to me, but that’s a fact. I’ll mention something I did back in my heyday, and someone will say, ‘I didn’t know you did that. I didn’t know you drove.’”
Ask any of the numerous radio and television broadcasters Baker worked with what it was like to call a race alongside him and inevitably they smile. There is always a warm laugh. Not at Baker but because of Baker. He had such a way of putting people at ease. He was candid in his broadcast descriptions, oftentimes eliciting a “that is exactly what I was thinking” feeling from his audience.
His tall 6-foot-5 stature may have given off an intimidating vibe, but Baker was actually unfailingly warm and kind to people and had a way of putting people at ease. His presence on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio was a key connection between Baker and an adoring audience that respected his past and appreciated his present.
“He had a connection with people and a passion for the sport,” Bestwick said.
“Broadcasting really, to go on television, is a whole new world from driving a race car,” Bestwick reminded. “Nowadays, guys grow up being media-trained. That didn’t exist back then. But Buddy’s love for the sport and his natural enjoyment and his gregarious nature at the racetrack was able to shine through on television.
“People can tell right away if you’re faking it or you’re real and Buddy was as real as they got. He loved the sport, he loved talking about it and he loved being around it. And that all came across through television and radio.”
The connection between Baker and NASCAR fans was absolutely real. So real, that in the summer of 2015, he decided to share his most personal news with his adoring media audience. He revealed his cancer diagnosis during his final SiriusXM NASCAR Radio show.
“Do not shed a tear,” Baker calmly asked of his audience. “Give me a smile when you say my name.”
He died a month later, Aug. 10, 2015, at the age of 74. But in these next weeks – especially as the sport celebrates Baker’s achievements on-track and off – there will indeed be not just smiles, but wide grins saying his name and remembering his great presence in the sport.