Sometimes, it’s not a matter of how much but where you win. While 19 career victories in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series won’t you put you at the top of any leaderboards, a knack for winning big races like the Daytona 500, the Southern 500 (Darlington), the Busch Clash, and winning the Winston 500 (Talladega) and the World 600 (Charlotte) three times certainly will. Buddy Baker did those things and more.
The ’70s represented a golden era for NASCAR. It was a great time for a young fan like me to get his first exposure to the sport. Richarrd Petty was the the king, Cale Yarborough reeled off three straight championships, and just before the career of Dale Earnhardt hit full stride, there was also Bobby Allison and his brother Donnie, David Pearson, Benny Parsons, and a brash young guy named Darrell Waltrip competing for stock car glory. No less a presence in the series was the son of of one of NASCAR’s early greats- Elzie Wylie Baker Jr.- everyone calls him “Buddy.”
At 6-foot-6, what a Buddy to have. Not only did you have protection with Buddy Baker around, you didn’t need it. After a racing career that spanned four decades, the first man to run a 200 mile an hour lap on a closed course (Talladega, 1970) took his winning personality and story-telling ability to the broadcast booth. Baker regales the media with some of his thoughts at the time of the 2007 Daytona 500. One story goes that Crisco was a Buddy Baker sponsor at one time, giving him the name “The Crisco Kid.” As he got older, a fan asked him if he was still called by that nickname. He said, “Now that I’m losing, everyone calls me lard ass.”
The son of early NASCAR great, Buck Baker, Buddy never quite reached the heights his father had; Buck Baker won 46 races in the 50s and 60s, and two championships. Much like David Pearson, Buddy Baker only ran a full season’s schedule twice, in 1976 and 1977. In ’77, Baker finished a career high 5th in the points, in spite of not having won a race that season. He ran a total eight races in the Grand National East Series in 1972 and 1973 and won four of them.
He was all about speed. In 700 Cup starts, Buddy Baker earned 38 poles, including seven in 1979. 14 times in his 33 year career, he averaged a top 10 start. Back in the day, the long races really tested a driver’s equipment. While drivers like Pearson and Petty were known for hanging back and going hard at the end like a marathoner, Baker was more of a hard charger. With today’s technology, you can’t help but wonder what Buddy would have done with a team like Hendrick.
In 1980- on his 18th attempt- he won the Daytona 500 from the pole. With an average speed of 177.602 mph, Baker ran the fastest Daytona 500 ever. Oddly enough, Earnhardt then in his second full season, had a shot at challenging Baker, but a tire problem derailed his hopes. Earnhardt would have to wait another 18 years to get his trophy for winning the Great American Race.
On Monday, Baker hung up his headset from his Sirius radio show, his health declining from an inoperable lung tumor. He said “Do not shed a tear. Give a smile when you say my name.” With all the great racing and great stories, there will be plenty of reasons to smile when a person thinks of Buddy Baker. With seven decades of association watching, racing and broadcasting, Buddy Baker is a thread running brightly through the tapestry of NASCAR’s history.