In the 1960s and ’70s, when NASCAR still was in its infancy, few drivers were able to push back their fears enough to take the sport’s new, ultra-fast superspeedways to their limits.
Then Buddy Baker came along.
It’s not the 19 races he won over 700 starts at NASCAR’s highest level for which Baker, who died Monday, will be most remembered. His ability to drive fast on NASCAR’s fastest tracks – often during a time when he was the only driver willing to do so – will be his legacy.
“Buddy was a real pioneer in a sense he kind of taught everybody how to race the big speedways,” said H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler, former president of Charlotte Motor Speedway. “He had an extraordinary ability to take race cars where nobody had before.”
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Things were different in racing then. Safety measures now in place – in cars and on tracks – were decades away from being instituted. Popular drivers Fireball Roberts and Joe Weatherly were killed within months of each other in 1964.
“The ’60s were the bloodiest period in auto racing history,” Wheeler said. “A lot of guys retired, or backed off.”
It also was during that era that two of NASCAR’s great palaces – Daytona International Speedway in Florida and Talladega (Ala.) International Superspeedway – were built. Daytona and its 2.5-mile layout came first in 1959. Talladega was finished 10 years later, its 2.66-mile track the fastest in the world.
Baker, instead, thrived at Talladega and Daytona, either in competition or while testing for tire companies or aerodynamical purposes. During an era before wind tunnels and other technological advances so common today, Baker’s willingness to test was an invaluable attribute.
“A lot of guys couldn’t handle those kinds of tracks at those kinds of speeds,” said Wheeler, who worked for Firestone Rubber & Tire at the time. “A lot of drivers were scared, but it didn’t scare Buddy a bit.”
In 1970, Baker broke the 200-mph barrier for the first time in a stock car, driving a lap of 200.096 mph during a test at Talladega – the first time a stock-car driver officially had driven faster than 200 mph on a closed course. He increased that speed to 200.447 later in the test.
Ten years later, he won the 1980 Daytona 500 with an average speed of 177.602, a mark that still stands. Of his 19 career victories, six came at Daytona or Talladega.
The risks Baker took at those kinds of speeds were too much for most other drivers.
“He didn’t know if he was going to be there the next day,” Wheeler said. “But that didn’t seem to bother him.”
Baker had his own ideas of why he was so successful going so fast at the big tracks.
I “have a size 2 hat and a size 14 shoe,” he once joked.