Race Weekend Central

About Buddy Baker

Bad news is often equated with sad news.

Buddy Baker’s announcement last week regarding his battle with lung cancer was both.

When Baker explained his reasons for retiring from SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, the news affected me greatly. Not only did I lose my mother from lung cancer back in 1998, but Buddy Baker was, to me, one of the best things about NASCAR. His candor was a refreshing addition to the usual content in network broadcasting.

Not to speak of Baker in the past tense, but his leaving NASCAR Nation in an effort to combat such a horrible condition leaves a gap in the sport that few, if any, could ever hope to fill.

Over the years, Buddy Baker has been a refreshing part of everything NASCAR.

His 19 career victories may not be the most in stock car racing, but many of those wins could be considered the most spectacular.

Baker’s victory in the 1980 Daytona 500 stands today, with an average speed of 177.6 miles per hours, as the fastest 500 miles ever completed. His lap in excess of 200 miles per hour at Talladega back in 1970 ushered in a brave new era for NASCAR, pushing performance to the brink of the impossible. He was the first Sprint Cup driver to win races at the “Big Four” speedways of Daytona, Talladega, Charlotte, and Darlington, including four victories at both Talladega and Charlotte.

Buddy also achieved success after his driving career. Not only did he go on to operate (alongside his father and brother) a revered driving school, but he became recognized as a respected television (and later radio) commentator.

Not too bad for a guy who tended to take a “wreckers-or-checkers” approach to racing.

My fondest memory of Buddy Baker as a driver comes from Pocono back in 1980. It was 35 years ago – nearly to the exact day – when Baker finished second to the late Neil Bonnett in the Coca-Cola 500. Baker drove mightily against both Bonnett and Cale Yarborough during the closing laps of the race. Baker and Bonnett swapped the lead eight times over the final 22 circuits in what was perhaps the most exciting duel ever seen at The Tricky Triangle.
Baker didn’t win, but he sure pushed Bonnett hard toward the checked flag, losing the race by a margin of 0.6 seconds.

Jump ahead two decades, and you’ll find my fondest memory of Buddy Baker as an individual.

It was June of 2000, and I was working at Michigan International Speedway as a photographer for Kenny Wallace’s website. There was a lull in activities on Friday afternoon, so I stopped by the Media Center to catch up on some email and take a quick break. I was reviewing the speed charts when I heard a familiar voice behind me.

It was Buddy Baker’s.

Baker was commenting on the presence of drivers who took up spots on the starting grid while not having a legitimate chance of winning. In his mind, those seats could have been filled – and should have been filled – by drivers with more experience and more talent.

I did not know Baker, nor did he know me, so we introduced ourselves (like he had to!) and talked about the state of NASCAR circa 2000.

Buddy lamented the way that the sport was evolving into a massive business with interests above-and-beyond the competition each week. From his perspective, based on his years as a driver, moxie had given way to media appeal. It wasn’t enough to be just a great driver, you also had to be a great presence who attracted both fans and sponsors.

Our conversation focused on the changing business climate in NASCAR and the idea that many folks wanted to see the points system revised to better fit the sport’s new, more modern attitude. With that, Buddy smiled and said, “Let’s hear from the man himself.”

Next thing I knew, I was shaking hands with the late Bob Latford, the man who devised what was then the NASCAR Winston Cup points system. He and Buddy spoke of how the sport was shifting away from what earlier owners and drivers sought from racing. To these two NASCAR legends, chatting with me (for better than thirty minutes!) in the Media Center on a Friday afternoon, their experiences had rendered them to little more than relicts of a bygone era. They were symbols of NASCAR’s all-too-overshadowed past.

None of that seemed to matter last week when Buddy Baker made his on-air retirement announcement. “Give a smile when you say my name,” Baker said.

I, for one, certainly will. It was through his courage, talent, and candor that Buddy Baker has affected my life with NASCAR.

The most important of these for Buddy, right now, is courage.

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