The Passing of a Giant ~ Buddy Baker
I bid you welcome gentle readers, and our usual warm greeting goes out to our assigned reader of all things NASCAR. I fear I’ve been a bit lapse, as the subject of today’s ramblings passed from this Earth on August 10, 2015, but it’s still hard for me to believe this true giant of a man is no longer with us. What ensues is a piece I wrote just following his passing. I’ve left it all intact as written, so please don’t be confused by that. I will add that Buddy will at long last be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame this coming January, as a member of the Class of 2020. Please join me now in remembering Buddy Baker… truly one of a kind… the best kind!
Photo courtesy of NASCAR Media release
I bid you welcome gentle readers, though it is with sad news I greet you today. By the time this reaches you, a thousand articles will have been written on the life and times of Buddy Baker. Having been told, as we all were, by the big man himself that his days were numbered, and being my own copy and research department, the required information on Buddy Baker is already on file and at hand, but again, you’ve all been told over and over that Buddy passed away from lung cancer at age 74. Then each piece will carefully lay out his birth and death dates, I guess so that you can check the quoted age for accuracy.
Don’t bother! Age is but a number… she says confidently, having circled the sun 77 times and counting… and Buddy Baker was ageless. I promise, long after I’m gone, along with all my contemporaries, someone will be dropping Buddy Baker quotes, or “Buddyisms” at any opportunity. Buddy was a warm and personable fellow with an art of expression endowed by God in very few. That’s not something one learns; it’s something that is born in a person; it was born in Big Buddy and also in folks such as Benny Parsons, Tom Higgins, Tom Bodett and Garrison Keillor. They were or are “Storytellers.”
Oh, and Buddy was decidedly a storyteller. He could keep your rapt attention through the length of a novelette or have tears rolling down your cheeks in a single sentence. It mattered not; when Buddy Baker spoke, people laughed, not at him but along with him and at the colloquial bits of wisdom that fell continuously from his lips. That of course, was what in large part made him a great race announcer and color analyst for several years… until that “New TV package” thing came into being in 2001, and Big Buddy was overlooked for reasons this scribe still cannot discern.
We almost lost Buddy once before, you know. Back in 1988 he was in one of the multitude of wrecks at Charlotte in the World 600. He struck his head on the dashboard but neglected to mention that to doctors in the infield care center, saying only that he’d wrenched his neck a bit. He kept driving, or trying to, through tell-tale symptoms such as “pinwheels” in his vision, nausea when driving and recurring headaches until passing out at the wheel in practice for the “Bud at the Glen” at Watkins Glen International, the track we visited on Sunday.
Unhurt and (luckily) uncrashed, upon awakening, he went to see Dr. Jerry Punch, there at the track. Dr. Punch quickly told him that the symptoms indicated an aneurism in his brain and forbade him to race that day. Instead, Buddy soon was seen by Dr. Jerry Petty, well known neurologist in the Charlotte area. According to Buddy, Petty told him after an examination that there was good news and bad news. The good news he had was, “We think we can save your life.” Yep, that will get your attention, and it got Buddy’s. After taking a few moments to consider the absolute severity of what he’d just been told, he called long-time pal and fishing buddy, Tom Higgins, saying he wanted Tom to have the story. “I’m gonna undergo some minor brain surgery.” Higgins, completely taken aback exclaimed, “Buddy, there’s no such thing as ‘minor brain surgery!’” The answer came back, “"Oh, God, I was afraid you were going to say that."
Buddy survived the “minor” surgery and after a couple of years, returned to the tracks to race for a bit. Admitting that he was never the same after the injury and ensuing surgery, he retired in 1992 to become a T.V. analyst with both TNN and CBS, working with co-hosts such as Mike Joy, Ken Squier, Eli Gold and Neil Bonnett. As noted above, that ended when FOX/NBC/TNT bowed in and Buddy was odd man out. His broadcasting talents then moved to Sirius XM Radio and shows including “Late Shift” and “Tradin’ Paint.” I’m sad to say that old widowed ladies cannot afford the exorbitant price of listening to that radio network, so I was unable to hear Buddy except for rare TV guest spots.
Stats? Oh, he had some.
- 1980 Daytona 500 with an average speed of 177.6 mph (a record that still stands)
- Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, North Carolina (1972-1973)
- Talladega four times (1975 (2), 1976, 1980)
- Charlotte four times (1967, 1968, 1972, 1973)
- Darlington (1970 & 1971)
- Daytona (1980 & 1983)
- Atlanta (1975 & 1979)
First driver to break
the 200-mph barrier (Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, March 24, 1970).
First driver to win the Big Four (Daytona, Talladega, Darlington and Charlotte).
Inducted into the
National Motorsports Press Association's Hall of Fame at Darlington, (S.C.)
Inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in Talladega, Alabama. (1997)
Inducted into Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway Court of Legends. (1995)
Buddy Baker is “nominated” for induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Now, he’ll be another, like Raymond Parks, who will never get to see that happen… assuming that it ever does. Other Halls of Fame welcomed our Gentle Giant years ago. Just sayin’…
OK, I can’t let this chance go by without at least a Buddy Baker tale or two. This one comes, not from your humble scribe, but from Buddy himself. As he says, probably everyone in six countries has heard some version of this, but it is Buddy’s story and it honest and truly happened to him, so here it is one more time, in remembrance of one of the nicest guys that ever drew breath… Elzie Wylie Baker Jr.
And then, through the wonders of YouTube, where I could happily spend the rest of my life, we have film of Buddy Baker breaking that long-elusive 200 mph. speed barrier. Awesome, and nice to see that bright red Daytona Charger, even though I’ve contributed to the voting that says those things were among the ugliest cars ever built.
Aha! Found it! Gentle readers, I knew that sometime back I had gathered together a great quantity of those “Buddyisms” and presented them in a single article, so that I could always lay my hands on them again. Today, it only took about half an hour of digging through files to find the article, whose name I had inconveniently forgotten. You can find it by clicking right about here, and I promise, it’s worth the trip. Buddy Baker was a National Treasure; let’s keep his words alive.
I’ll leave you today with Buddy’s own parting words to all of us, spoken the day he announced that he had just broadcast his last show.
“Do not shed a tear. Give a smile when you say my name. I’m not saying goodbye. Just talk to you later.”
Talk to you later Buddy. Please tell Benny that the pink Shmoo says “Hi!”
Time now for our Classic Country Closeout, and I’m happy to tell y’all that my friend Marshall has submitted a request that I’m more than happy to grant. I give you the incomparable Jean Shepard with two albums of her greatest hits. Please enjoy!
Be well gentle readers, and remember to keep smiling. It looks so good on you! And… while you’re at it, smile for Buddy!