NASCAR lost the Gentle Giant Monday. Elzie Wylie “Buddy” Baker Jr., the 1980 Daytona 500 champion and famed NASCAR commentator, died after a battle with cancer,. Baker was 74. At 6 feet 6 inches tall Baker was known to many as the Gentle Giant , but to his competitors he was known as “Leadfoot” for the speeds he regularly reached during his 33-year career.
Monday as the tributes began to pour out from the NASCAR community, one NASCAR legend talked about his friend and former competitor. Three time NASCAR champion Darrell Waltrip followed a similar path to Baker, joining the ranks of NASCAR TV commenters after he retired from racing in 2000.
“We have lost another NASCAR legend,” Waltrip said in a press release from his current employer Fox Sports. “Another driver from my era has gone to be with the Lord. I miss every one of them — (Dale) Earnhardt, Benny Parsons, all of the number of guys we’ve lost in in recent years. It’s just heartbreaking.”
Baker became the first stock driver to break the 200-mph mark on a closed course doing so during testing at Talladega Superspeedway in 1970. Baker visited Talladega Victory Lane four times throughout his long career. Monday Waltrip talked about his last conversation with Baker. Baker announced in July that he had terminal cancer.
“I talked to Buddy just two or three weeks ago when Doug Richert went to visit him,” Waltrip said. “Doug called and put him on the phone with me. He asked if I’d pray with him, so I prayed with him for a few minutes. We talked about racing and his faith in God. He assured me he was looking forward to heaven and to seeing his dad. He told me how much he loved his dad and how much he was looking forward to being reunited with him. It was a heart-touching conversation. As many people have heard him say, Baker told me, ‘When you think of me, I want you to laugh — not cry.’ I can think of a million times Baker made me laugh, so it’s not hard to laugh when I remember him. But I will really, really miss him.”
Baker was son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Buck Baker. He racked up 19 wins in the premier series, with the highlight being the victory in the 1970 Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway where he lapped the rest of the field. In 1972-73, Baker became the first driver to win consecutive World 600s NASCAR’s longest race. He also won the inaugural preseason event now known as the Sprint Unlimited in 1979. Waltrip raced against Baker from 1972 until Baker retired in 1994. Waltrip said he has many memoires of the man who was named one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers in 1998, and in 2014 was first nominated for inclusion into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
“One that really sticks out is that NASCAR Goes Country album we did back in the day,” Waltrip said. “I always called Baker ‘Butterbean’ afterward because he did that song ‘Just a Bowl of Butterbeans.’ It was hilarious watching him do it because he’d get so uptight about some things. He was a nervous wreck about that song because he wanted the song to be just right and wanted to nail it. He was the same way racing.”
“I asked him once, ‘Baker, why do you get so nervous and so torn up before a race?’ He said, ‘If you’d had as many things happen to you at the end of a race to keep you from winning as I have, you’d get nervous, too.’ “ Waltrip added. “He literally would drive cars into the ground. The cars couldn’t take it back then. Baker probably could have won a ton of races if he’d just paced himself more, but he didn’t know how. He was a big man, and those cars were big and heavy, so he could manhandle and abuse a car more than most of us could because of his size. He literally drove them into the ground many times and cost himself a lot of wins.”
Now that he’s gone, Waltrip said he has many memories of Baker. Both on and off the track.
“I had the pleasure of racing with him,” Waltrip said. “We had some good times on the race track. I had the pleasure of working with him in the TV booth when I was a guest on TNN sometimes. Then he was car owner when I was on the verge of owning my team, and he talked to me about how tough that was. That’s when Cale (Yarborough), Bobby (Allison), Buddy and a bunch of us drivers thought we could be car owners. We found out we were great drivers but not such good car owners. Baker found that out the hard way, and it cost him a lot of money. I found that out the hard way, and it also cost me a lot of money.”
“I knew him in every aspect of the sport — as a driver, owner and TV analyst,” he added. “Baker was always fun to be around and one of the best storytellers in the world. Every race was an adventure. When you took off for a 500-mile race back in those days, you knew you’d be lucky to go 500 miles and not have something happen. That produced countless stories. Baker telling the story about racing in Tennessee and falling out of the back of the ambulance was hilarious. I could go on all day sharing stories he told me over the years, and they were all true. The people we drove for and raced against back in the day were such characters, and great characters oftentimes are great storytellers. He had the knack for keeping an audience spellbound, and that’s what made him so good on TV and radio.”