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How Buddy Baker saved my Christmas in 1978

By Tom Higgins
TOM HIGGINS’ SCUFFS

To borrow the title of an Elvis hit, my prospect was for a "Blue Christmas."

Because of a personal situation, I faced the holiday alone in 1978.

There were to be no jingle bells, no decking the halls and certainly no "mommy kissing Santa Claus."

Likewise, no turkey and dressing nor my favorite food on this earth, mashed "taters."

Instead, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich would have to suffice for Christmas dinner, and then I’d head to the office. I had volunteered to work that holiday, laying out The Charlotte Observer sports pages for the paper of Dec. 26, so that other married guys in the department could be with their families. A couple of bachelors among my co-workers were going to edit the copy.

The day held no promise of being merry and bright.

Then, my phone rang.

Buddy Baker, the NASCAR star was calling. Somehow, he had learned that I was to be by myself.

"You are coming to my house for dinner with us," Buddy said firmly. "I don’t want to hear ‘no’ nor any excuses."

Through shared interests in hunting and fishing, Buddy and I had become friends. I know, I know.

There’s an unwritten rule that journalists shouldn’t be pals with people they cover. So sue me. I broke it.

I explained to Buddy that I’d have to "eat and run" in order to be in the office by 4 p.m. to meet an early holiday deadline for the paper to go to press. It was an apology in advance.

"Doesn’t matter," he said. "Get your fanny over here."

I arrived to find Buddy, his famous father Buck, a NASCAR pioneer, and other members of their clan observing a neat, unique Christmas tradition in the family.

"We’re watching 8 millimeter movies of our biggest wins," said Buddy. "Have a seat."

Playing at that moment was the 1964 Southern 500, a race in which the elder Baker so memorably triumphed at Darlington Raceway.

He was 45 at the time, an age when most drivers in that era had long-since retired.

"It was a scorching hot Labor Day and most people figured there was no way I could last the whole race," recalled the colorful Buck, a two-time champion on NASCAR’s top circuit. "I had no doubt about it, especially if I paced myself."

Driving a No. 3 Dodge fielded and engineered by Ray Fox, that’s exactly the strategy Buck stuck by. "I could run laps at 135 miles an hour without straining, and I felt comfortable at that speed," said Buck. "I wasn’t trying to blow anybody off the track."

While Baker motored conservatively, younger rivals spent either themselves or their cars on the steamy day. On the 302nd of 364 laps at the tough, deceiving 1.375-mile track, Buck swept into the lead and stayed in front the rest of the way. He finished two laps ahead of runner-up Jim Paschal in averaging 117.757 mph and earning $21,230.

It was the last—and biggest--of 46 career victories that helped lead to Buck’s posthumous induction into the NASCAR Hall Of Fame in Charlotte. He passed away in 2002.

Buddy asked what reel I’d like to have put on the movie projector next.

"No doubt about it!" I replied. "The National 500 of 1967."

I chose this race at Charlotte Motor Speedway because it produced Buddy’s first victory after 214 previous starts during eight years of trying.

Coincidentally, Big Buddy also was driving a Dodge engineered and fielded by Ray Fox, the same fellow Buck had joined to win his last race. Buddy’s car also bore No. 3.

Baker the younger qualified fourth fastest and was in the mix at the front of the field throughout. He took the lead on the 257th of 334 laps at his 1.5-mile home track and never let go, taking the checkered flag a lap ahead of second place Bobby Isaac.

"I said at the time that when I went under the flagstand I let out a whoop that could be heard for 10 miles, and seeing it again in the movie I could holler all over again," Buddy said with a smile.

I recall the emotional triumph for two special reasons.

First, as Buddy drove into Victory Lane, his two young sons, Bryan and Brandon, excitedly raced up pit road to join him. The boys, ages 8 and 6, respectively, were dressed in little driving uniforms identical to that of their father.

Shortly after the ceremony began in the winner’s circle, Buck Baker arrived and touchingly embraced his son in a long, robust hug, whispering something to him.

As the scene flashed on the home movie screen, I asked Buddy what crusty ol’ Buck had said.

"Typical of my dad," replied Buddy. "He said, ‘That was good, but I could have done it better!’"

Everyone present that day 35 years ago shared a great laugh, then we headed to the dining room for a feast.

It wasn’t such a Blue Christmas after all.

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The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.

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