Race Weekend Central

Yet Another Loss

It is inherently sad to speak of people in the past tense.

Using the past tense means that the person in question is no longer present, as in no longer a presence in your life, or your community, or your world.

As I get older, I find myself referring to more people in the past tense more often.

This thought crossed my mind Monday as I went about the events of my day. I awoke early, after a night of mostly fitful sleep, and got ready for a trip to my doctor’s office. It was the day of my annual medical examination, the yearly review of how I’ve been and how I’ve felt. My blood work was done late last week, so Monday was all about my physician taking a look under the hood, so to speak.

As I headed south toward town, I tuned into “The Morning Drive” on Sirius XM’s NASCAR Radio. The program memo on my car’s dashboard monitor broke the news to me: “Remembering Buddy”.

Buddy Baker’s retirement from Sirius XM broadcasting (an event I wrote about on Frontstretch) occurred just a few weeks ago. Baker’s lung cancer was inoperable. Like Steve Byrnes earlier this season, his cancer was just too advanced. The outcome, while somewhat expected, came all-too quickly.

Once again, someone from NASCAR Nation shifted into the past tense.

I know death is inevitable. What saddens me with each loss of someone from racing is the fact that yet another part of my own racing life is gone. As I grow older, the list grows longer.

A reminder of this struck me while at my doctor’s office. I was filling out a form that updated my medical history, as well as that of my immediate family, and I had to recall and record the year of my mother’s death from cancer. Just in the 17 years since I lost my mom, I also lost numerous people from the world of motorsports, and from the world of NASCAR, in particular.

Suddenly, my thoughts turned to Elmo Langley. Langley was a driver, car owner, and crew chief who, after retiring from regular competition in 1988, drove the Sprint Cup pace car each week from 1989 through 1996. While in Suzuka, Japan for a NASCAR exhibition race that November, Langley suffered a heart attack while driving the pace car a few days before the event. Another former NASCAR driver was riding shotgun that day and was able to gain control of the car from the incapacitated Langley, who died shortly thereafter while being taken to a nearby hospital.

The driver riding in the passenger seat was Buddy Baker, who was in Japan to help with television coverage of The Suzuka Thunder Special 100.

From that tragedy onward, in the months during my mother’s illness and the nearly two decades that have followed, the list of names crossing the ledger from “present” to “past” has grown long. The obvious losses were of drivers like we saw during the 2000 and 2001 seasons. Whenever a race car driver dies behind the wheel, the event gets plenty of attention. Such is the nature of the world in which we live.

Not so much with the people who lived and worked during NASCAR’s pre-TV era, even though they lived and worked harder for less money or fame than they rightfully deserved. As someone who watched NASCAR develop and evolve into the national spectacle it is today, I find myself marking time by the passing of those who built the sport and faded into history.

Say what you will about the NASCAR Hall of Fame, but at least there’s a physical location dedicated to collecting and displaying the stories, the hardware, and the legacies of those who are no longer with us.

Which steers my thoughts back around to the passing of Buddy Baker. Let his death be a lesson for NASCAR Nation and those within the sport who put the emphasis on big names with big sponsors, big salaries, and big numbers of fans. A fear of any hall of fame is the notion that someone who deserves acceptance will not live long enough to make the grade.

While being impressed with the most recent NASCAR Hall of Fame class, I was saddened by the exclusion of Buddy Baker. I know many went with the assumption that Baker would be around to gain acceptance in another year, but the grim realities of failing health and the evil presence of cancer cannot be taken lightly.

Ironically, it is usually after the person’s death that acceptance and recognition comes promptly. Sympathy changes people’s minds and leads to honoring the deceased with all manner of tributes. Such was the case with Steve Byrnes. Should we anticipate the same now for Buddy?

As I wrote just a month or so ago, Buddy Baker was a kind and gracious man with a lead foot and nerves of steel. The passing of “The Gentle Giant” marks yet another lost connection to the mythic days of NASCAR and the individuals who helped built the sport.

It’s always sad when the present becomes the past. It’s inevitable and natural, but painful, nonetheless.

Now I have to add Buddy Baker’s name to that tragic column of life’s ledger.

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