Motorsport.com Editor in Chief Charles Bradley recalls his first meeting with Buddy Baker, who has sadly passed away at the age of 74.
The first time I met Buddy Baker, I asked for 10 minutes of his time and got an hour.
An absolute giant of a man, every inch his 6-foot-6, he was as kind a soul as you could find – certainly in a motor racing paddock. A true good ol’ boy in all senses.
It was 2010 in the Daytona deadline room. It took one brief introduction from my friend, the author Ed Heuvink, and Buddy was off and running, holding court with same ease of when he lapped the entire field that day at Darlington in ’70.
His racing record proved he could walk the walk, but he sure could talk the talk too…
“I was lucky enough to be a winner here, but it took 18 years to do it,” he said of the Daytona 500. “I won the Daytona 475 11 times – but that didn’t pay anything!
“One of my strongest memories of this place is actually when Dale Earnhardt won the 500 after 19 years – one more than me.
“When he came down the pitlane at the end, members from every raceteam were on both sides of the road giving him high fives, celebrating that win with him. He’d won everything in our sport but the Daytona 500, something like 42 events here, and that was the way everyone celebrated it with him. To me, that was the most memorable moment besides my own victory in 1980.
“I have the fastest 500 ever run, and that ain’t bad after 30 years! Looking at the cars today, they are like spaceships compared to mine. It’s a totally different car, but of course they don’t have the open carburettor like we had. That has changed the game.
“We would run at 208-210mph, but they are restricted to 190mph because of safety. They had to do that, because we had some very close calls with cars getting into the grandstands. Now the fans can buy a ticket knowing they won’t have to duck!”
A glittering post-race career too
Baker was no ‘it was better back then’ merchant; he never donned the rose-tinted spectacles to obscure his modern-day view. Of course, he stayed relevant to the fraternity with his TV work and latterly radio show on SiriusXM.
“The racing is much tighter today, much more interesting to watch,” he admitted. “The cars can run three wide now all the way around – when we were running 215mph in the draft we needed the whole of the track to get around a corner! We’d slide right up to the top.
“In those days, every once in a while you’d see an airplane taking off on the backstretch and I’d outrun him! He’d be ready to lift off and I’d cruise right on by.”
Of restrictor-plate racing, he said: “There’s no breakaway speed today, so the better drivers can’t separate themselves from the guys that aren’t as quick or experienced. That makes it much more dangerous in my opinion, and is more likely to cause wrecks. Even though we ran faster, the cars were separated more.
“Our sport is all about driving, and if anybody in the grandstand can get in a car, because it’s so stable, then that’s not drivin’ – that’s riding.
“We used to run a one-inch spoiler, and we’d lay it flat for more straightline speed. Let me tell you, that was like trying to fly a kite without a tail!”
His day of days in 1980 – and a speeding ticket
February 17 1980, and Baker’s Oldsmobile – the ‘grey ghost’ – proved unstoppable in the Daytona 500. After all those failed attempts to win NASCAR’s greatest prize, it finally all came together, and how…
“My winning speed of 177.6mph still stands as the race record today,” he said proudly. “I had a racecar that was really, really great – my team did its job well and so did I. Daytona was my favourite racetrack, of course, and I dominated the race from start to finish."
But his greatest day didn’t end so well, as he was so excited afterwards he couldn’t sleep. So he went for a drive…
“It was 2am, and I crested a hill on the interstate and gave it everything,” he said. “I don’t know how fast I was going when the fuzz buster went wild. I saw the police car facing straight towards me on the median, and I thought ‘uh oh, too late.’ So I pulled straight over.
“The policeman comes up to me and says, ‘Buddy Baker! My favourite driver, and you just won the Daytona 500!’ I thought ‘this is going to be easy’, but then he says, ‘you’re good at your job…but I’m good at my job too – and I’m afraid my job is giving speeding tickets.’ And he booked me!”
RIP Buddy Baker. Expert wheelman, outstanding broadcaster, captivating story teller – and a top-notch bloke too.