Sometimes there are people in sport whose impact goes beyond the numbers.
Buddy Baker was one of those guys.
Even though the numbers were pretty good — 19 wins in NASCAR’s premier series in a career that spanned 34 years — Baker’s impact went beyond his on-track accomplishments.
Baker passed away Monday after a brief battle with cancer. He announced on his SIRIUSXM show back in July that he had been diagnosed with an inoperable lung tumor.
His sign off that day was perfect Baker: “Do not shed a tear. Give a smile when you say my name. I’m not saying goodbye, just talk to you later.”
Baker was known as NASCAR’s “Gentle Giant.” At six foot, six inches, Baker cut an imposing figure, but was one of the friendliest, funniest people at the track. As a side note, his book Flat Out and Half Turned Over, is hilarious.
“Buddy was always wide open and that’s the way he raced and lived his life,” said seven-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Richard Petty.
“He was always full of energy. He was a person you wanted to be around because he always made you feel better.”
“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,” NASCAR Chairman Brian France said.
“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.”
As a driver, Baker was best on NASCAR’s biggest, fastest stages. He won the 1980 Daytona 500 and four races at Talladega and became the first driver to win consecutive World 600s.
He drove for some of the biggest names in the sport: Petty, Bud Moore, The Wood Brothers and Ray Fox after starting in NASCAR in 1959 with a team owned by his father, Buck Baker.
For his career, Baker posted 19 race victories, 202 top fives and 38 poles in 700 starts in what is now known as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Baker was the first driver to turn a lap of more than 200 mph in a stock car, which he achieved at Talladega Superspeedway on March 24, 1970, when he ran 200.447 miles per hour.
Baker only ran three full NASCAR seasons in his 34 years of racing. After hanging up his driving gloves, he went into the broadcast booth for The Nashville Network, then CBS, before joining SIRIUSXM when they launched their NASCAR channel in 2007.
He also worked as a driving instructor at his father’s driving school, and worked with Ryan Newman on his superspeedway skills when Newman was with Penske.
Baker was truly one of NASCAR’s good guys. It didn’t matter who you were, he always had a smile for the people he met. He was one of the best storytellers in racing.
He will be missed.
“I’m right with The Man Upstairs,” Baker told Tom Higgins in a late-July interview. “If I feared death, I never would have driven a race car.”
— Andy Cagle writes a weekly column about auto racing. Follow him on twitter @andy_cagle or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.