CP MOTORSPORTS - TOM HIGGINS: BUDDY BAKER FACES END WITH PLEA, COURAGE
Buddy Baker has a special wish—call it a plea—as he faces the end of his life.
“Please, please, please!” Buddy said to Humpy Wheeler and Waddell Wilson as I joined them Saturday to visit the cancer-stricken driving star of NASCAR’s golden era, the 1970s and ‘80s.
“You two get the other great minds of racing like Richard Petty, Rick Hendrick and Junior Johnson together with NASCAR and figure out a way to get the fans back to races. Attendance is pitiful. Save the sport that so many of us worked so hard to build.”
Buddy faces his fate with the same courage he demonstrated during
a long NASCAR career when he sometimes drove at over 200 mph.
“I’m right with The Man Upstairs,” Buddy said at the Baker home on the western shore of Lake Norman, north of Charlotte. “If I feared death I never would have driven a race car.”
Buddy, 74, has inoperable lung cancer, which was discovered in
It was a touching reunion for each of us.
Wheeler, recognized as stock car racing’s premier promoter in his years at Charlotte Motor Speedway, nurtured Buddy early on as he joined the sport’s top level in 1959.
Wilson was Buddy’s crew chief and engine builder during 1979-80, the driver’s two greatest years. Buddy won five times for Wilson and the team owned by the late Harry Ranier, including the 1980 Daytona 500 at a still-record average speed of 179.602 mph. He sped to 13 poles.
I have written about motorsports since 1957 and became friends with Buddy in 1964.
Buddy retired in ’94 after logging 699 starts, posting 19 victories and 40 poles. He followed his colorful late father Buck, a two-time champion and NASCAR Hall of Famer, into the sport.
Both Bakers are on NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers list and Buddy is a Hall of Fame nominee.
When we arrived Buddy had his TV tuned to the Xfinity Series race
at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Attendance was woeful, prompting his plea.
Hanging on a wall was a print of the No. 28 Oldsmobile that Buddy drove to his memorable Daytona 500 victory.
“The Gray Ghost,” I said, pointing to the framed print.
Both Buddy and Wilson glowed.
“The greatest car I ever drove!” gushed Buddy. “No one could touch us at Daytona and Talladega (the superspeedway in Alabama).”
Indeed, the black and gray Olds was so fast in ’80 at Daytona that it blended in with the asphalt track. Rival drivers complained they couldn’t see Baker as he overtook them in practice. So NASCAR
ordered that day-glo pink strips be taped to its front. The nickname “Gray Ghost” was born.
Buddy recalled the ’80 Winston 500 at Talladega, a favorite memory.
“After the last pit stops I was 19 seconds behind Dale Earnhardt,
who was leading,” said Buddy. “He was nowhere to be seen, but I drafted every car in sight, ran him down and won by 3 feet. It was only Dale’s second season, so I’m lucky to have caught him when he was a cub.”
The eyes of Buddy, the 6-4 “Gentle Giant” of NASCAR during his long career, moistened as we prepared to leave after about an hour-long visit.
“The sport has been great to me and given me a wonderful life,” Buddy said. “And the friends I’ve made! Lots have either called or come by. Darrell Waltrip and his wife Stevie phoned just the other day and we prayed for 20 minutes. I hope to hear from others. I want to tell all of them goodbye for now and see you later.”