Craig Murto: NASCAR loses a gentle giant

Buddy Baker died early Monday morning of lung cancer at the age of 74.

Named one of NASCAR’s 50 greatest drivers in 1998 and nominated for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Elzie Wylie “Buddy” Baker Jr. began his 34-year driving career in 1959 at the age of 18, following in the footsteps of his father, two-time NASCAR champions and Hall of Fame member Buck Baker.

Following the 1992 season, Buddy Baker retired after 700 races and 19 victories. He won the Southern 500 in 1970, lapping the entire field; the Daytona 500 in 1980; and the Coca-Cola 600 three times. In 1979 he was the winner of the inaugural Daytona race recently known as the Sprint Unlimited, then known as the Busch Clash.

His first nickname was “lead foot.” Baker was fast, with 38 poles in his career. In 1970 he became the first driver to go more than 200 mph in a stock car, clocking in at 200.447 mph on March 24 at Talladega Superspeedway. And his Daytona 500 win? That was a 500-mile average speed record for stock cars at 177.602 mph, a record that has yet to be broken.

No doubt he was a fierce competitor. And at 6-foot-6, fellow competitors could only stand in his shadow. But he was the kindest, gentlest, most soft-spoken human being you’d ever want to meet, earning his other nickname, “the gentle giant.”

Baker was a car owner in the Sprint Cup Series for a short time, and was (one of) the first to give Jimmy Spencer a Cup ride. He was always a generous with other competitors, and is credited with helping Ryan Newman learn the art of super speedway racing. In 1981 Buddy Baker drove a rookie named Ron Bouchard around Talladega to show him the lines and explain how to use the draft; Bouchard in turn scored his only Cup victory days later in a thrilling three-wide finish over Darrell Waltrip and Terry Labonte.

A career in the broadcast booth followed his career behind the wheel. Listeners enjoyed hearing his stories, and Buddy Baker had plenty of them. He spent many years as a color commentator during Cup races, as well as sharing the broadcast booth with TV personality Bob Dillner on live broadcasts of the old ASA National Tour.

Soon after SiriusXM began a NASCAR channel in 2007, Baker landed a role as one the satellite network’s personalities. In his final broadcast last month, he announced that doctors discovered a large tumor in his lung and that it was inoperable.

“I just want to say goodbye to everyone. Thanks for being a friend,” he said during the broadcast, closing his show with, “Do not shed a tear. Give a smile when you say my name. I’m not saying goodbye. Just talk to you later.”

NASCAR’s Brian France said in a statement, “Many of today’s fans may know Buddy Baker as one of the greatest storytellers in the sport’s history, a unique skill that endeared him to millions. But those who witnessed his racing talent recognized Buddy as a fast and fierce competitor, setting speed records and winning on NASCAR’s biggest stages. It is that dual role that made Buddy an absolute treasure who will be missed dearly.”

Seven-time NASCAR champion and Hall of Fame member Richard Petty, for whom Baker drove and won races for in 1970 and ’71, released a statement that read, “Buddy was always wide open and that’s the way he raced and lived his life. He was always full of energy. He was a person you wanted to be around because he always made you feel better. He raced with us, shared his stories with us and became our friend. Buddy loved the sport and he made a lasting impression on the sport on the track, in the television booth and on the radio. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Baker family at this time.”

At Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway in 2001, I first met Buddy Baker in the media center as he and Bob Dillner waited to call the ASA National Tour race for TNN. Baker generously shared stories with all who wanted to hear. He had stories about everyone he was asked about, and they were always positive. He loved life, he loved the sport, and after hearing his stories, his listeners always felt good. The few times I saw Buddy Baker afterward it was always the same. A gentle giant, indeed; Buddy Baker will be missed.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.