Charlotte is a Magical Place For Buddy Baker and Dodge CHARLOTTE, N.C., May 23, 2001 - When Dodge returns to Charlotte for its first 600-mile stock car race in more than 15 years, one very interested spectator will be home-grown racing legend ...
Charlotte is a Magical Place For Buddy Baker and Dodge
CHARLOTTE, N.C., May 23, 2001 - When Dodge returns to Charlotte for its first 600-mile stock car race in more than 15 years, one very interested spectator will be home-grown racing legend Buddy Baker.
"Charlotte (now Lowe's Motor Speedway) was a magical place for me," said Baker, now known to many new NASCAR fans as a television racing analyst. "I won my first (Winston Cup Series) race at Charlotte in a Dodge, and you never forget your first win."
Baker hasn't forgotten his second, third or fourth wins at Charlotte, either, all of them in Dodge race cars. "To win a race in front of your friends and family, that's really special," he said.
Baker's first Grand National win came in a 500-mile race on October 15, 1967, in a Ray Fox-prepared Dodge. Baker came back the following May and won the rain-shortened World 600 race. In 1972 and 1973, when Baker won again, the May races went the full distance of 600 miles, NASCAR's longest annual event.
"I liked harder and longer races," said Baker. He also likes exciting races with come-from-behind wins or close finishes. "Some drivers have told me they don't like confrontations, they prefer to win by a comfortable margin, but I like for it to mean something."
Buddy Baker, of course, wasn't the first Baker to win a stock car race in Charlotte. His father is Buck Baker, the racing bus driver who twice won the NASCAR Grand National (now Winston Cup) Series championship (1956 and 1957). The elder Baker was also runner-up twice (1955 and 1958) and a top-five finisher four other times. Before retiring, Elzie Wylie "Buck" Baker Sr. won 46 Grand National races, seven of them in Dodges.
Born in Chester, S.C., Buck Baker got his first taste of fast driving while running moonshine for a cousin. After a stint in the Navy, Baker moved to Charlotte with his wife Margaret and son Elzie Wylie "Buddy" Baker Jr. The senior Baker found work there as a Trailways bus driver.
Buck Baker started driving at the advanced age - for a racing rookie - of 27. Starting in 1939, Baker quickly made a name for himself on the dirt tracks around Charlotte. His first NASCAR Grand National race was in 1947, and seven years later he decided to run the circuit full time. His first win came in 1952, a 100-mile event in Columbia, S.C.
Baker made his mark in the Grand National division when he joined Carl Kiekhaefer's Chrysler 300 Mercury Outboard team. Kiekhaefer was the top owner at the time, and Baker's first victory for the team came at Phoenix in January 1956. By the end of that season, he had earned 13 more wins - five of them in Dodges - and sixteen other top-five finishes to claim his first Grand National driving championship. Baker won the championship again the following year, becoming the first driver to win back-to-back Winston Cup Series titles.
Buck Baker also has the distinction of winning the first NASCAR road course race, which was held in 1957 at Watkins Glen, N.Y. Racing pundits speculate that his experience running moonshine helped a great deal that day. According to his son Buddy, one of the senior Baker's most cherished Dodge wins came several years later - The Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway in 1964. He retired from racing after the Firecracker 400 in 1976.
During his career, Buck Baker proved his versatility by driving many types of cars. His earliest NASCAR success came in modifieds, where he won 10 straight races in 1950, and 12 of 14 during a portion of the 1951 season. In 1952, he was the first champion of the NASCAR Speedway Division for Indy-type cars. Baker may also hold claim to racing more Chrysler family products than any other driver. The list of Chrysler brands he drove in stock car races includes Kaiser, Hudson Hornet, Chrysler and Dodge.
"It was a good marriage between Chrysler Corporation and the Baker family," said Buddy Baker recently. "Dodge was part of everything I did," he continued. "I knew people from the head office down to the person who swept the floor. They were great people to drive for."
Told that he won more races in Dodge cars than his father (eight vs. seven), Baker said, "That's probably the only thing I ever beat him at. We once joked about the fact that I am in six halls of fame and he is in seven. I told him that means he was a better race car driver," said the younger Baker. Buck Baker still resides in the Charlotte area, although failing health has tamed the bull-calf wild streak that prompted the nickname his mother gave him.
After first earning a reputation as a high school football player in Charlotte, Buddy Baker followed his famous father into racing. Known to many as the Gentle Giant because of his genial nature and 6' 5" physique, Buddy Baker became a force to reckon with during two decades of Grand National racing.
His first win came in 1967 at Charlotte, driving a Hemi-powered Ray Fox Dodge Charger. His second win came at the next race in Charlotte, the World 600, again driving a No. 3 Ray Fox Dodge.
In 1969, Baker moved to the Dodge Charger 500, and by the end of the season, the Dodge Charger Daytona. He had nine top-five finishes that year in his No. 6 Cotton Owens Charger.
During 1970, Baker picked up five more top-five finishes in his Cotton Owens prepared wing car, including the Southern 500 at Darlington. He also became the first person to break the 200-mph closed-course mark by driving a Dodge Charger Daytona around Talladega at 200.447 mph.
In 1971, Baker became a team driver for Petty Enterprises and campaigned a No. 11 Charger for the next two seasons. Along the way he won the Rebel 400 (1971), the World 600 (1972) and the Texas 500 (1972). Baker quickly earned a reputation as a superspeedway whiz who thrived on the high speeds of the longer, banked tracks. Six of his 19 career wins and seven of his 40 pole victories came at Daytona and Talladega.
Baker also holds the distinction of winning the fastest Daytona 500 ever, averaging 177.602 mph in 1980. It was the first time any 500-mile auto race had been run in less than three hours. His winning average still stands as the event record.
"When the other drivers were going to 100-mile races on short tracks, I was often testing for Chrysler and Dodge, or for a tire company," said Baker. "I probably drove a million test miles at Daytona and Talladega," he continued, exaggerating only slightly. "Back then, it was embarrassing if you couldn't run better than 200 miles an hour."
In 1973, Baker drove a K&K Insurance Dodge Charger to two more victories - another World 600 triumph at Charlotte, and a 250-mile short-track race at Nashville, Tenn. Including all car makes, Baker won 19 NASCAR Winston Cup Series races.
"I'm proud of the fact that I drove for so many car owners and won for them," said Baker. "I drove for Ray Fox and I won for him. I drove for Harry Hyde and won for him. I also drove and won for Richard Petty and Cotton Owens."
Richard Petty was no doubt pleased with the performance of his driver, but there was an earlier time when he was probably not so happy. In 1967, Petty had a 10-race winning streak going that was ended in Charlotte by Buddy Baker.
"Richard was absolutely blistering everyone that year," said Baker. "I was glad to get the win. I needed a major speedway win at the time."
Buddy Baker retired from competition after the 1992 season. His work on racing telecasts since then has given him a ringside seat to observe the Dodge return to Winston Cup Series racing.
"I'm glad to see Dodge come back," said Baker. "I really enjoyed my involvement with Dodge. We had almost a family-type atmosphere back then. We raced hard but we got along with each other pretty well. We did a lot of testing together, and it wasn't unusual for one of us to offer our car to a driver from another team. We'd ask, 'You want to see what the car feels like?'"
Baker's assessment of the Dodge teams in 2001? "They are doing a great job," he said. "They just need some good racing luck. It wouldn't hurt to have more than one in the top five, either. But who knows, this week could turn everything around and put Dodge back in the Winner's Circle."
This week in Dodge history:
* 5/30/50 - Carl Wilkerson drove the first Dodge in a NASCAR Grand National Race at Canfield Motor Speedway in Canfield, Ohio. Falling into the "humble beginnings" category, Wilkerson completed only 72 laps and finished 25th out of 29 starters. Held the same day as the Indianapolis 500, the race was dubbed the "Poor Man's 500." It was actually a 100-mile race, consisting of 200 laps on a half-mile dirt track. Plymouth fared better that day as Glenn Dunnaway finished second and Lee Petty was fourth.
* 5/25/56 - Buck Baker won his third Grand National race in a row by taking the checkered flag in a 100-mile race on the half-mile dirt track at Lincoln Speedway in Abbottstown, Pa. Baker was driving a Carl Kiekhaefer-prepared Dodge. The third and fourth place finishers - Lee Petty and Herb Thomas, respectively, were also driving Dodge race cars.
* 5/29/66 - David Pearson passed Richard Petty during the 85th lap to win the 100-mile race at Dog Track Speedway in Moyock, N.C. The victory was Pearson's sixth win of the season in his Cotton Owens-prepared Dodge. He averaged 61.913 mph on the .333-mile paved track.
* 5/26/68 - Buddy Baker and his Ray Fox-prepared No. 3 Dodge won the rain-shortened World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Charlotte, N.C. He followed the pace car for the final 36 laps and the race was red-flagged twice by heavy ran storms. A total of 110 laps were run under the caution flag and the race was finally halted at 7 p.m. with 382.5 of the scheduled 600 miles completed.
* 5/28/70 - Bobby Isaac and his K&K Insurance Dodge led the entire distance in winning the Maryville 200 at Smoky Mountain Raceway in Maryville, Tenn. The race distance was 104 miles (200 laps) on a .520-mile paved track.
* 5/23/71 - Bobby Isaac dominated the field in his K&K Insurance Dodge, winning the Kingsport 300 by more than five laps. The race distance was 101 miles (300 laps) on the .337-mile pave track at Kingsport Speedway in Kingsport, Tenn. The race was Isaac's 34th career Grand National win.
* 5/28/72 - Buddy Baker drove his Petty Enterprises Dodge to victory in the World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, his fifth Grand National career win. Baker averaged 142.255 mph for the 4-hour, 13-minute and 4-second race.
* 5/27/73 - Buddy Baker again won the World 600 again at Charlotte, this time doing it the hard way. He cut a tire and looped his red Dodge in the fourth turn of the 264th laps. He turned his car around, drove to the pits for fresh tires and managed to stay on the lead lap. A final caution flag came out with 22 laps to go and Baker and David Pearson pitted for tires. Person's crew put on two while Baker's crew opted for four. Pearson led the restart but Baker swept around him on lap 385 and led the rest of the 400 laps. It was the first win of the season for the 32-year-old Dodge driver.
* 5/25/75 - Richard Petty ran away from the field and won the World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The win was Petty's first long-distance win at the 1.5-mile tri-oval. Petty had to come from nearly two laps down to win the race. Also notable in the race was Dale Earnhardt's first start in the Winston Cup Grand National Series. Driving an Ed Negre-prepared Dodge, Earnhardt wound up 22nd, 45 laps behind winner Petty. The race was televised on a delayed basis by CBS.
* 5/29/77 - Richard Petty again ran away from the field in winning the World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Petty led 311 of the 400 laps for his third career win at the track. He took the lead for good on the 270th lap and beat David Pearson to the finish line by a margin of 30.8 seconds.