CP MOTORSPORTS - TOM HIGGINS: REMEMBERING THE GENTLE GIANT BUDDY BAKER
In the summer of 1976 Buddy Baker and I drove to the North Carolina mountains to join Whitey Kelley, my former sports editor at the Charlotte Observer, for a round of golf.
It was a cool, sunny Sunday morning when we arrived at the Hound Ears Club to find Whitey waiting.
“We going to have to wait a bit to tee off,” said the retired Whitey. “They’ve agreed to let us play a fivesome today, and the other two guys are on the way. Don’t ask me who. It’s a surprise.”
And what a surprise!
Within a few minutes big-time basketball coach Press Maravich and his famous son Pete drove down the hill in a golf cart.
The young starter almost jumped out of his skin.
Here was Buddy Baker, who had just won the Winston 500 at Talladega, and NBA star Pete Maravich in the same group!
We played eight holes and arrived at the ninth to find a crowd of perhaps 250 people waiting behind the green. The young starter obviously had phoned everyone he knew and they in turn had called everyone they knew with the word that Buddy and Pete were on the course.
We had to let several following groups play through while Buddy and Pete signed autographs and posed for photos.
Such was their appeal.
Sadly, Pete died a young man of a heart attack years ago. Buddy Baker passed away Monday at his home on Lake Norman, north of Charlotte, after battling lung cancer.
One of NASCAR’s major stars from what I consider stock car racing’s golden era, the 1970s and ‘80s, was gone at age 74.
Buddy posted 19 victories in 699 starts during a career than spanned 1959-92, 17 of the triumphs on superspeedways.
After following his father Buck, a NASCAR Hall of Famer, into the sport, Buddy was winless for eight years. Then, experience and mastery of the aerodynamic draft took hold and he won at most of the big tracks on the schedule in his era—Atlanta, Charlotte, Darlington, Daytona, Michigan, Ontario Motor Speedway in California, Talladega and Texas World Speedway. Few have matched that accomplishment.
“With any luck, Buddy could have won twice as many,” says his most famous peer, Richard Petty.
Word of Buddy’s death brought memories whizzing back of his magnificent career and the fun, escapades and amusing quotes he provided along the way. .
I first met Buddy at the Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend of 1964 at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina. I’m well aware of the journalistic rule that reporters shouldn’t become friends with people they cover. This wasn’t possible for me with Buddy, the strapping 6-4 “Gentle Giant” of his sport.
At Darlington all those years ago we discovered a common love of the outdoors. The very day after the race we went dove hunting together in a field near Mooresville.
The fishing trip I remember most was to the remote Portsmouth Island on the Outer Banks in the mid-1970s. Buddy waded out to a sandbar to cast for sea trout. The incoming tide brought with it a sizable shark. After spotting the fin between himself and the bank, Buddy made the smartest fishing move I’ve ever seen. He took a handful of bloody cut bait from a pouch and threw it as far to sea as he could. The shark swirled toward the bloody mess and Buddy headed to the shore.
I know it’s not possible for mortal man to walk on water, much less run on it while wearing heavy waders. But it sure appeared to me that Buddy was throwing up a rooster tail.
He was a master of metaphors and analogies.
Describing a sudden, violent crash at Talladega, Buddy said, “It was like opening a closet door and having a tiger jump out on you.”
Of a scuffle he was part of as a young man, he said, “That ol’ boy hit me so hard it untied my left shoe.”
He often was self deprecating. In 1988 a seemingly minor injury in a multi-car crash eventually proved quite serious. Three-months later Buddy had to undergo brain surgery for removal of a blood clot the size of a peach. Of his shaven head with tubes inserted, Buddy said, “They’ve taken a perfectly handsome noggin and turned me into the Frankenstein monster.””
And the most physically imposing man in the garage area had a deeply sentimental side. Given the news at a California race that his son Brandon had made the N.C. all-state football team as a kicker, Buddy found a private place and wept with pride.
We seldom talked of serious things on our trips. But one time the conversation turned to what heaven would be like. Anything related to death normally is taboo with race drivers, because it lurks for them constantly, maybe waiting around the next turn.
Buddy said that sometimes he thought each of us might just have a personal heaven in which we reunite with family and friends.
“If that’s true—a big if—mine is the north side of Lake Norman,” said Buddy.
It’s my hope and belief that wherever Heaven is, the Gentle Giant is there.