By Dave Elshoff
BRISTOL, Tenn., March 21, 2001 - Buddy Baker set a lot of records during his time as an active stock car driver. He expects most of them will eventually be broken. This weekend, however, he'll observe the 31st anniversary of one record that can't be surpassed - he will always be the first person officially timed completing a closed-course lap at more than 200 miles per hour.
The record-setting event took place on March 24, 1970, when a Dodge Charger Daytona with Baker at the wheel circled Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama at 200.447 mph. The publicity-grabbing stunt was the brainchild of a predecessor at Dodge Motorsports Public Relations, Frank Wylie.
There have been conflicting reports over the years about the real purpose of the trip. Some reports have the group going to Talladega to break the speed record, while others say they were there to test transmissions. The engineer in charge of developing Dodge race cars at the time makes no bones about it.
"Our goal was to break 200 mph," says Larry Rathgeb. "That was it."
"Frank Wylie, the PR manager for Dodge Motorsports at the time, asked us to do it," continues Rathgeb. "Wylie contacted NASCAR. They were looking for something to promote the track at Talladega.
"I was in Atlanta for the spring race and drove over to Alabama with Buddy Baker. The car was in Huntsville at the time. The whole project cost us about $4000 - food, transportation, getting the car there, everything.
"The only thing we did to the car was analyze the aerodynamics a little more and ran the car absolutely flat," continues Rathgeb. "Normally, we ran the car with a slight rake, the front being down a little bit. With the car perfectly flat, we found that we got zero front-end lift." Zero lift in the front, combined with downforce from the wing at the back, helped the car turn through the corners at Talladega. It took nearly three-dozen laps to fine-tune the car but Rathgeb, Baker and Wylie eventually reached their objective, turning several laps that day at speeds over 200 mph.
"For us it was just another day at the office," says Rathgeb. "We were damn happy we did it, but it didn't seem like a big deal at the time. We had qualified close to 200 mph so we thought we could break the record."
Baker still recalls the time fondly. It is clearly one of the crown jewels in his career and people still comment about it to him today. He says the car was very stable during the runs a Talladega.
"That was one of the great things about the winged cars," says Baker. "If you got a little sideways, it would straighten itself out.
"One of the first laps we ran in was 199.8 mph," says Baker. "And that was just warming up!"
Not long after that the official scorer flew in from NASCAR and set up his timing lights. Baker would go out and do five lap runs - one to warm up, one to cool down and the other three for time.
Baker points out that the car had several handicaps compared to today's cars. For example, the car was 6 1/2 inches off the ground, compared to today's cars at three inches off the ground. The record setting car had eight-inch wheels, compared to 10-inch wheels used today, and they used bias-ply tires instead of today's radial tires.
"After we broke the 200-mph barrier, I said 'Let's go to it and really set 'em a record,'" says Baker. "They said the next barrier is at 300 mph and asked me, 'Do you want to break that one?' I said, 'No! Scratch my name off that trophy.'"
Baker also has fond memories of the engineering group from Dodge. "They were the best. They were 20 years ahead of their time in developing the winged cars. The engineering group at Dodge could build a motor as well as anyone."
Ironically, the Dodge that broke the 200-mph barrier was not built for the race track - it was an Engineering Department "mule." The term mule was used for test cars built and maintained by engineering. Not accustomed to the roar of the crowd, mules were more comfortable at test sessions and on company proving grounds.
The No. 88 Dodge Charger Daytona mule had a storied beginning. It had started life as a Public Relations Department "loaner," which was made available to journalists needing a test-drive car. It had been stolen one night while on loan to a journalist in California. It was stripped and left abandoned on four milk crates. The Engineering Department brought the car back to Michigan and rebuilt it for use as a test car.
After making its mark in the history books, the No. 88 Dodge Charger Daytona now has a place of honor at the International Motorsports Hall of Fame and Museum at Talladega.
On a recent trip to Talladega, Baker crawled into his old winged mule for a little nostalgia trip. He commented at the time that he could still outrun anything on the track with that car today.
This week in Dodge racing history: * 3/28/64 - David Pearson throttled his Dodge past Ned Jarrett 23 laps from the finish and won the 100-mile race at Greenville-Pickens Speedway in South Carolina. It was the second win of the year for the 29-year-old driver. Jarrett, who led twice for 89 laps, came in second a quarter lap behind. Marvin Panch finished third, LeeRoy Yarbrough fourth and Tiny Lund fifth. Dick Hutcherson of Keokuk. Iowa, a former IMCA champion, was a surprise entry and put his Ford on the pole. However, failure of lug bolts on his right front wheel forced him to the pits after his 109th lap. He led the first 60 laps before Richard Petty moved into the lead. Petty led until the 87th lap. Jarrett picked up first place and led virtually all the way until the final 23 laps. Pearson averaged 57.554 mph. There were 6,000 fans in attendance. * 3/25/67 - David Pearson led all but two laps but didn't seal the victory until the final mile-and-a-half in the 100-mile Grand National event at Greenville-Pickens Speedway. It was the 30th career win for the Spartanburg, S.C. Dodge driver. Jim Paschal had his Plymouth within shouting distance of Pearson in the final stretch battle but ran out of gas with three laps to go. Paschal limped to a halt in the third turn and watched as Pearson took the victory flag uncontested. Paschal received second-place money based on the 197 laps he completed on the half-mile dirt track. John Sears finished third, Buddy Baker was fourth and James Hylton fifth. Richard Petty started sixth and led two laps. He was involved in a pit road collision with Dick Hutcherson, and later spun out and withdrew from the race. Pearson averaged 61.824 mph before 8,300 spectators. * 3/29/70 - Bobby Allison came out of nowhere and nipped Cale Yarborough in a dramatic duel to win the Atlanta 500 at Atlanta International Raceway. It was the 17th-career Grand National win for the Dodge Daytona driver, who was a full lap behind with 10 laps to go. Yarborough had taken the lead during the 244th lap and was pulling away from the field. Donnie Allison, running second, blew the engine in his Ford on lap 318 - at the precise moment Cale had entered the pits for a splash-and-go. The caution came out and Bobby Allison whipped his car back into the lead lap. Allison pitted under yellow and got two fresh tires under the direction of car owner and crew chief Mario Rossi. The green flag came back out on lap 323 and Allison darted to the inside of Yarborough and made the pass. Yarborough made a charge in final laps but wound up 50 feet short at the finish line. Pete Hamilton came in third with LeeRoy Yarbrough fourth and Richard Petty fifth. * 3/23/75 - Richard Petty held off Buddy Baker in what turned out to a one-lap trophy dash to win the Atlanta 500 at Atlanta International Raceway. It was the third win of the season for the 37-year-old Dodge driver and boosted his championship lead to 188 points after just six events. Petty led the final 51 laps, but saw his 30-second lead over Baker evaporate with a late caution flag. NASCAR officials waived the green and white flag together, and Petty out-ran Baker by 0.6 seconds. Most of the teams along pit road figured the race went 330 laps -- two more than the scheduled 328. The scoreboard flickered from 326 laps completed to 324 during the final caution flag. Dale Inman, crew chief for Petty, said his cousin Richard had completed the race before the last green flag came out. Most of the press box occupants thought the same thing. NASCAR's Bill Gazaway brought five score cards to the press box - each one showing 328 laps had been run. "The scoreboard was messed up," said scorer Earl Sappenfield. "We got it corrected before the last restart came out."