Race Weekend Central

That’s History Profile: Buddy Baker

Born: Jan. 25, 1941
Birthplace: Florence, S.C.
Home: Charlotte, N.C.
Height: 6’6
Weight: 215 lbs
Eyes: Blue

Starts: 699
Wins: 19
Poles: 40
Top fives: 202
Top 10s: 311
Money: $3,995,300

Wylie Baker Jr., better know to racing fans as Buddy, was born Jan. 25, 1941 in Florence, S.C., the son of the late Buck Baker, himself a Hall of Fame NASCAR driver. Buddy began his NASCAR career in 1959 at the age of 17, finishing 14th driving a car for his father in Columbia, S.C. in NASCAR’s convertible division. He would win his first race in 1967 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway’s National 500, driving the No. 3 Dodge Charger for owner Ray Fox.

For Buddy, the accelerator pedal wasn’t so much a linear control used to modulate engine power as it was an on/off switch. His wide-open/throttle-to-the-stops style of driving earned him the nickname “Leadfoot.” However it was Buddy’s true character that also lead to his other nickname, “The Gentle Giant.” Standing a towering 6 feet, 6 inches tall, there weren’t many in the garage area (or the NBA) that were going to challenge or intimidate Baker in his prime.

If there is a theme that carries throughout Buddy’s career, it is simply speed. Buddy won a total of 19 Winston Cup races, 17 of which occurred on superspeedways. His 40 career poles puts him 10th on the all-time list for fast qualifiers. He was the first driver to win at all four major tracks on the NASCAR circuit (Charlotte, Daytona, Talladega and Darlington), and the first driver to eclipse the 200 mph-lap barrier in a stock car.

On March 24, 1970, Baker drove his Cotton Owens-prepared No. 88 Dodge Charger Daytona around the 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway (known then as Alabama International Speedway) to a closed-course record of 200.447 mph during a Goodyear tire test session. Keep in mind this was before the days of modern radial tires, SAFER barriers, the HANS device, fitted seats, roof flaps and, uh, power steering. The only energy-absorbing anything on his car was the three-foot nose cone on the front of his winged Hemi Mopar.

Throughout the 1970s, Baker continued his mastery of the big tracks. He drove the famous K&K Insurance Dodges owned by Nord Krauskopf to wins in the World 600 and Southern 500, as well as Bud Moore’s Fords, winning both races at Talladega in 1975 and the spring event in 1976. As long as the tires would stay on the car, the car would keep out of the wall, and the valves didn’t acquaint themselves with the pistons, Baker was always a contender to win when the tour showed up at any of the high-speed ovals.

With the Daytona 500 fast approaching, the race will be previewed on television, websites and newspapers alike, and of all the statistics that will be displayed, there will be one record of note that will stand out; fastest Daytona 500. This distinction goes to none other than Baker. In the final Daytona 500 of the “Big Car” era in 1980, Buddy won the pole position with a lap of 194.009 mph, and set the race record average of 177.602 mph driving the No. 28 NAPA Oldsmobile for Harry Ranier. Not bad for a car that, compared to today’s machines, appears as sinewy and shapely as a garbage truck.

The race had five caution flags for 15 laps, and as it finished under caution, the only other car on the lead lap was runner-up Bobby Allison. Fifth-place finisher Benny Parsons was three laps down, and seventh-place finisher Donnie Allison was seven laps in arrears.

The gray-and-black Oldsmobile he drove to victory was deemed by competitors, “The Gray Ghost” during SpeedWeeks. In overcast conditions, the paint scheme would camouflage the big Olds against the asphalt of Daytona’s racing surface, making it barely visible in the rearview mirrors of the other drivers as it approached. NASCAR eventually petitioned the team to apply brightly colored orange stickers to the car to eliminate its stealthy profile on the high banks, to at least give the other competitors a chance to see what was about to lap them.

As the 1980s wore on, Buddy’s career began to gradually wind down. He ran 19 of 31 races in 1980, winning six poles, including pole positions the first three events of the season, averaging a 3.2 starting position. He would win his last race in 1983, driving the Wood Brothers’ No. 21 Valvoline Ford Thunderbird. It isn’t a real shock either to know that his final win would come at a superspeedway, the Firecracker 400 in July at the Daytona International Speedway.

Throughout the 1980s he would still run competitively at the big tracks in smaller underfunded entries. He would drive in a partnership with co-owner Danny Schiff, as well as for Junie Donlavey, Rod Osterlund and Derick Close. His final race was the 1992 Winston 500 driving for Close, when a failed wheel bearing left him with a 31st-place finish.

That was not to be the end of Baker’s career in auto racing. He soon joined Turner Networks and CBS as a color commentator and quickly became one of the most beloved broadcasting members among fans through the mid-to-late 1990s. This was during a time when NASCAR experienced explosive growth and began to make itself a presence on the national scene. Baker was a great addition to the broadcast team as he was a link to the sport’s storied past, but had also competed as recently as the early 1990s as well.

Buddy began to get involved with racing yet again following the reorganization of the networks broadcasting NASCAR races. He joined Penske Racing South to mentor and aid newcomer Ryan Newman, helping him to win Rookie of the Year honors in 2002. He continues to work with Penske in a driver development capacity as well as a spotter. He also helps to run The Buck Baker Driving School, one of the first racing schools that allowed fans to wheel a real stock car around a real NASCAR track.

Buddy joined his legendary father Buck Baker in the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1997, as well as the National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame that same year. In honor of the 50th Anniversary of NASCAR in 1998, Buddy was named as one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers of all time; a distinction that he most certainly deserves along with the nicknames Leadfoot and Gentle Giant. Just as his Daytona 500 record has stood the test of time for nearly three decades, today he remains one of the sport’s most respected drivers, finest ambassadors and a true gentleman as well.

About the author

Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.

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