Long after Buddy Baker had retired as a driver in NASCAR, he went strolling through the garage area at Talladega Superspeedway during a race weekend in Alabama. A major star in his prime, Baker, who passed away Monday, was gathering information for use a day or so later in his role as a TV analyst.
As he walked by a group chatting idly, a leading present-day driver called out in a taunting way, “Hey, Baker, think you could handle the speeds we’re running down here nowadays!?”
Baker, the first driver to unofficially clock a lap in excess of 200 mph in NASCAR, eyed the heckler with a laser-like stare.
Buddy, the holder of the Daytona 500 average speed record of 177.606 mph set in 1980, replied sharply. “Son,” he said, “I’ve never run this SLOW down here.”
That was Buddy Baker, as quick of wit and word as he was on the tracks, where he posted 19 career victories, 18 of these at speedways more than a mile in length.
After following his father Buck, a NASCAR Hall of Famer, into the sport, Buddy was winless for eight years. Then, experience and mastery of the aerodynamic draft took hold and he won at most of the big tracks on the schedule in his era – Atlanta, Charlotte, Darlington, Daytona, Michigan, Ontario Motor Speedway in California, Talladega and Texas World Speedway. Few have matched that accomplishment.
“With any luck, Buddy could have won twice as many,” says his most famous peer, Richard Petty.
Baker, my friend and fishing and hunting pal of 51 years, took life’s checkered flag at his home on the western shore of Lake Norman near Terrell. He succumbed to cancer at age 74 after battling the disease for eight months.
Word of his death brought memories whizzing back – of his magnificent career and the fun, escapades and amusing quotes he provided along the way.
I first met Buddy at the Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend of 1964 at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina. I’m well aware of the journalistic rule that reporters shouldn’t become friends with people they cover. This wasn’t possible for me with Buddy, the strapping 6-4 “Gentle Giant” of his sport.
At Darlington all those years ago we discovered a common love of the outdoors. The day after the race we went dove hunting together in a field near Mooresville.
The fishing trip I remember most was to the remote Portsmouth Island on the Outer Banks in the mid-1970s. Buddy waded out to a sandbar to cast for sea trout. The incoming tide brought with it a sizable shark. After spotting the fin between himself and the bank, Buddy made the smartest fishing move I’ve ever seen. He took a handful of bloody cut bait from a pouch and threw it as far to sea as he could. The shark swirled toward the bloody mess and Buddy headed to the shore.
I know it’s not possible for mortal man to walk on water, much less run on it while wearing heavy waders. But it sure appeared to me that Buddy was throwing up a rooster tail.
He was a master of metaphors and analogies.
Describing a sudden, violent crash at Talladega, Buddy said, “It was like opening a closet door and having a tiger jump out on you.”
Of a scuffle he was part of as a young man, he said, “That ol’ boy hit me so hard it untied my left shoe.”
He often was self deprecating. In 1988 a seemingly minor injury in a multi-car crash eventually proved quite serious. Three-months later Buddy had to undergo brain surgery for removal of a blood clot the size of a peach. Of his shaven head with tubes inserted, Buddy said, “They’ve taken a perfectly handsome noggin and turned me into the Frankenstein monster.”
And the most physically imposing man in the garage area had a deeply sentimental side. Given the news at a California race that his son Brandon had made the N.C. all-state football team as a kicker, Buddy found a private place and wept with pride.
We seldom talked of serious things on our trips. But one time the conversation turned to what heaven would be like. Anything related to death normally is taboo with race drivers, because it lurks for them constantly, maybe waiting around the next turn.
Buddy said that sometimes he thought each of us might just have a personal heaven in which we reunite with family and friends.
“If that’s true – a big if – mine is the north side of Lake Norman,” Buddy said.
It’s my hope and belief that wherever heaven is, the Gentle Giant is there.
Tom Higgins is a retired motorsports writer from the Observer. He covered the sport for 35 years and is a member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame voting panel.