NASCAR legend Buddy Baker dies at age 74

Buddy Baker talks about the Ford he is driving with his crew chief in this May, 1974 photo.
Buddy Baker talks about the Ford he is driving with his crew chief in this May, 1974 photo. Charlotte Observer file photo

After Buddy Baker was diagnosed this year with inoperable lung cancer, he announced the news in July on the satellite radio show he co-hosted.

“There comes a time when you talk to the doctor and say, ‘What are my chances?’ and there’s dead silence,” Baker said. “I went, ‘How long?’

“‘Well, we don’t own the hotel, we don’t know when we check out. It’s something that we cannot fix.’

“Everything has a start and an ending,” Baker said. “And mine has been overwhelming.”

A month after the diagnosis that he dealt with so publicly, Baker, one of NASCAR’s top drivers who was at his lead-footed best on the sport’s biggest and fastest tracks, died Monday at age 74, the family confirmed.

Baker, a longtime Charlotte-area resident, passed away at his home on Lake Norman in Catawba County, facing death with the same kind of courage he displayed while carving out a racing career that saw him take risks that few other drivers would.

“I’m right with The Man Upstairs,” Baker told former Observer motorsports writer Tom Higgins during a visit two weeks ago. “If I feared death, I never would have driven a race car.”

Baker, who grew up in Charlotte and retired from racing in 1992 after a 33-year career, won 19 races in 700 starts on NASCAR’s top circuit. He is among the nominees for the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Baker probably is best known for how he performed on NASCAR’s glamour tracks, including what now are Charlotte Motor Speedway, Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway and Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway.

“You took Buddy to Daytona and Talladega and you couldn’t get any more out of those places than he could,” said Waddell Wilson, Baker’s crew chief for parts of 1979 and ’80. “Buddy was without a doubt one of the top drivers we’ve had. All he knew was to go wide open and turn left.”

A physically imposing 6-foot-6, Baker was the first NASCAR driver to shatter what once seemed like an unbreakable barrier.

In 1970, Baker drove a lap of 200.096 mph during a test at Talladega – the first time a stock-car driver officially had driven faster than 200 mph on a closed course. In a Dodge Charger with more than 700 horsepower, Baker exceeded that at 200.447 mph later in the test.

Baker was dominant at Talladega, once winning three consecutive races on NASCAR’s fastest track. Baker also holds another notable record: He won the 1980 Daytona 500 with an average speed of 177.602, a mark that still stands.

Baker won Daytona that year driving a car famously nicknamed the “Gray Ghost,” because of its paint job that blended into the speedway. Fellow drivers complained they couldn’t see Baker’s car on the track, so NASCAR ordered him to put Day-Glo stickers on the front of his car to make it more visible.

“Buddy was a real pioneer in the sense that he taught everybody how to race on the big speedways,” said H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler, former president of Charlotte Motor Speedway. “He could handle the extreme horsepower.”

Born Elzie Wylie Baker Jr., in Florence, S.C., on January25, 1941, Baker was the son of Margaret and Buck Baker, another legendary driver who would go on to be voted into NASCAR’s Hall of Fame (father and son both are on NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers list).

The Baker family moved to Charlotte, where Buddy attended Garinger High and played tackle on the football team.

Baker graduated from Garinger in 1960. He had raced for the first time in 1959 at South Carolina’s Columbia Speedway, driving a car prepared by his father.

He would race until 1992. Besides his 19 victories, Baker had 43 second-place finishes, 58 thirds, 52 fourths and 40 fifths. He won $3.993 million during his career.

Although Buddy Baker benefited from driving some of the fastest cars of his era, he also had a deft touch behind the wheel. During the 1980 Winston 500 at Talladega, Baker made up 19 seconds on race leader Dale Earnhardt by using an aerodynamic “draft” of every car ahead of him. Baker passed Earnhardt with two laps remaining and won.

Baker’s performance that day prompted fellow driver Ron Bouchard to say: “Buddy could get air off a paper bag.”

After he retired from racing, Baker helped run the Buck Baker Racing School in Rockingham. He also did television commentary and was co-host of the popular radio show.

“I know 19 (victories) might not seem like a whole lot, but I’m proud of them because of where they mostly came,” Baker said at his International Motorsports Hall of Fame induction in 1997. “Not many drivers can say they’ve won at NASCAR’s Big Four tracks during my era – Charlotte, Darlington (S.C.), Daytona and Talladega – so I feel real special about being among those who can.”

Baker is survived by his wife, Patricia Shane Prendergast Baker and two sons, Bryan of Mooresville and Brandon of Jacksonville, Fla.; granddaughters Noel and Brianna; a sister, Susie Sanders, and a brother, Randy; a niece Sarah Sanders; and mother-in-law, Sue Baker. Buddy was preceded in death by a sister, Tina.

Funeral Services will be held at Avondale Presbyterian Church, 2821 Park Rd., Charlotte, conducted by Rev. John Earles, at 2 p.m. Aug. 18. Burial will follow at Sharon Memorial Park on Monroe Road in Charlotte.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Humane Society of Iredell, 110 Robinson Rd., Mooresville, N.C., 28117.

Buddy Baker 1941-2015

Born: March 25, 1941

Died: Aug. 10, 2015

Career highlights: Won 19 races in NASCAR’s top division in 699 starts over 33 years. ... Won three consecutive races at Talladega during one stretch. ... Average speed of 177.602 mph in winning 1980 Daytona 500 still a track record. ... Was first NASCAR driver to crack 200-mph barrier, going 200.096 mph during a 1970 test at Talladega. ... Earned $3.65 million in his career. ... Won 40 poles. ... Is among the nominees for the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

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