ThatsRacin

NASCAR driver Buddy Baker faces death with predictable courage

Former NASCAR driver Buddy Baker (right) found fame on the track and off, as a television and radio personality. Now he faces inoperable lung cancer with the same courage he showed on the track.
Former NASCAR driver Buddy Baker (right) found fame on the track and off, as a television and radio personality. Now he faces inoperable lung cancer with the same courage he showed on the track. Getty Images

Buddy Baker is facing the end of his life with the same courage he demonstrated during a long NASCAR career, when he sometimes drove at more than 200 mph.

“I’m right with The Man Upstairs,” Baker said Saturday when I visited him along with Humpy Wheeler and Waddell Wilson at the Baker home on the western shore of Lake Norman near Terrell. “If I feared death I never would have driven a race car.”

Baker, 74, is stricken with inoperable lung cancer, discovered in December.

It was a touching reunion for each of us.

Wheeler, recognized as stock car racing’s premier promoter in his years at Charlotte Motor Speedway, nurtured Baker in his early effort to compete at the sport’s top level.

Wilson was Baker’s crew chief and engine builder during 1979-80, the driver’s two greatest years. Baker won twice with Wilson and five times for the team owned by the late Harry Ranier, including the 1980 Daytona 500 at a still-record average speed of 177.602 mph. He sped to 13 poles with Ranier.

I’m right with The Man Upstairs.

Buddy Baker, who is facing inoperable lung cancer

I began covering motorsports in 1957, and after joining the Observer in ’64, became friends with Baker. I chronicled most of his racing career and occasionally wrote of his love for hunting and fishing, a passion we sometimes shared in trips to the mountains, coast and lakes.

Baker first raced on NASCAR’s major circuit in 1959, and he retired in ’94, logging 700 starts, posting 19 victories and 38 poles. He followed his colorful late father Buck, a two-time champion and NASCAR Hall of Famer, into the sport. Both Bakers are on NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers list.

When we arrived, Baker had his TV tuned to the Xfinity Series race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He muted the sound but kept the video action going. But we didn’t watch, chatting instead as Baker’s best friend and neighbor, Lamar Sprinkle, joined us.

Hanging on a wall nearby was a print of the No. 28 Oldsmobile that Baker drove to his memorable Daytona 500 victory.

“The Gray Ghost,” I said, pointing to the framed print.

Both Baker and Wilson glowed.

“The greatest car I ever drove!” gushed Baker. “Waddell really built a fabulous piece. No one could touch us most of the time, especially at Daytona and Talladega,” the superspeedway in Alabama.”

Buddy Baker’s famed ‘Gray Ghost’ got its name because it was so fast in ’80 at Daytona that it blended in with the asphalt track. Rivals complained they couldn’t see it.

Indeed, the black-and-gray Olds was so fast in ’80 at Daytona that it blended in with the asphalt track. Rival drivers complained they couldn’t see Baker as he overtook them in practice. So NASCAR ordered that day-glo pink strips be taped to its front.

The nickname “Gray Ghost” was born.

Baker shook his head while recalling his win in the ’80 Winston 500 at Talladega, a favorite memory.

“After the last pit stops I was 19 seconds behind Dale Earnhardt, who was leading,” Baker said. “He was nowhere to be seen, but I drafted every car in sight, ran him down and won by 3 feet. It was only Dale’s second season, so I’m lucky to have caught him when he was a cub.”

Baker, a 6-foot-4 “Gentle Giant” of NASCAR during his glory years, asked Wilson for another favorite memory.

“You winning at Martinsville (Va.),” Waddell said without hesitation. “And outrunning Richard Petty, who usually dominated the place, to do it.”

Baker laughed. “Yeah, I was a China Shop Bull on the short tracks,” he said. “Martinsville is the only one I ever won.”

The sport has been great to me and given me a wonderful life.

Buddy Baker, on his life in NASCAR

Baker’s eyes moistened as we continued to look back over the decades, including his post-driver stints as a popular racing analyst on telecasts and then host of a radio talk show.

“The sport has been great to me and given me a wonderful life,” Baker said. “And the friends I’ve made! Lots have either called or come by. Darrell Waltrip and his wife, Stevie, phoned just the other day and we prayed for 20 minutes.

“I hope to hear from others. I want to tell all of them goodbye for now and see you later.”

Retired journalist Tom Higgins covered NASCAR for 35 years and is on the voting panel for the NASCAR Hall of Fame. He is the Hall of Fame’s 2015 Squier-Hall Award winner, recognizing his excellence in coverage of the sport.

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