Buddy Baker's 'Bama blitz

- Contributor
Wednesday, Oct. 03, 2012

The name on the deed is International Speedway Corporation.

But in a sense, the sprawling facility, now known as Talladega Superspeedway, spectacularly once “belonged” to the late Dale Earnhardt. From 1983-2000 the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion won 10 of the 2.66-mile track’s 500-mile races.

Only Richard Petty has been equally dominant on a a big, high-banked track, scoring 10 times at Daytona International Speedway from 1964-84.

Before Earnhardt, in 1975-76, the “proprietor” of the property then called Alabama International Motor Speedway was Buddy Baker.

Big Buddy won three straight 500s at the ultra-fast speedway, and he likely would have had a record fourth-in-a-row except for a fuel miscalculation by his pit crew.

Baker’s exploits at Talladega almost 40 years ago return to mind for two reasons: First, I recently was a guest on his Sirius Radio talk show and we chatted about his Alabama accomplishments. Second, NASCAR’s big-time teams are gathering again this week at the storied speedway for Sunday’s running of the Good Sam 500.

Buddy, a strapping 6-5, absolutely loved racing at Talladega, never the mind the danger of speeds that often exceeded 200 mph in tight traffic. He would put his big right foot on the accelerator and push it all the way to the floorboard, seldm lifting.

“It was exhilarating!” Baker, now 71, recalls. “I still get excited just looking back on it. Racing at Talladega was an absolute rush.”

To experience that thrill, Baker had to erase from mind the memory of one of the closest calls in a driving career that spanned 1959-92 and covered 699 starts.

In the Winston 500 of 1973 at Talladega Baker and Cale Yarborough were battling for the lead when an engine failed in a slower car they were overtaking, spewing oil on the track. Buddy and Cale skidded in the mess and slammed into the concrete wall.

A 21-car crash, violent in the extreme, quickly developed.

“It was like opening a closet door and having a tiger jump out on you,” said Baker, noted for a quick wit and snappy quotes.

“Cale and I got out of our cars and were hugging each other in being thankful for escaping injury. Then here comes a second wave of cars wrecking. Joe Frasson sailed over our heads high as a telephone pole and I swear it sounded like he was still accelerating! We had to jump for our lives to the top of the inside wall.”

Others had chilling observations.

“When I got there the backstretch looked like the scene of a 747 airliner crash,” said Benny Parsons, the now-deceased ’73 series champion. “Engines, transmissions, sheet metal and other pieces of cars were scattered everywhere.”

It was the first of the “Big Ones” that seem to have inevitably marked races at Talladega ever since. Nineteen cars were sidelined.

Miraculously, only four drivers were hurt. Injured worst was Wendell Scott, who sustained broken ribs, a fractured pelvis and a lacerated arm. His career essentially ended that day.

“You just have to put the thoughts of that stuff aside and go on,” Baker later explained.

Big Buddy broke through to Talladega’s Victory Lane in the Winston 500 in May of ’75, holding off David Pearson by a car length.

In August he made it a sweep at the massive track, taking the Talladega 500 in a thrilling finish with Petty. Baker beat “The King” by a mere five feet.

This race was marred by the death of colorful, immensely popular driver Tiny Lund, killed in a crash during the sixth lap. Baker’s crew kept word of his friend’s tragic death from him. In fact, Buddy didn’t find out until he had started the winner’s interview in the press box.

Visibly shaken, he had to take several minutes to compose himself before going on. A few days later he served as a pallbearer at Lund’s funeral.

Next at Talladega, Baker won the ’76 Winston 500 for three straight. This time, he simply mauled the field, speeding away to triumph by a whopping 35 seconds in a Ford fielded by the Bud Moore team. His average speed of 169.887 mph was easily a world 500-mile race record at the time, eclipsing Mark Donohue’s 162.692 in the Indianapolis 500 of 1972.

Baker seemed poised for a fourth victory in succession at the awe-inspiring Alabama speedway just three months later. He led eight times and appeared to have a slightly faster car that Dave Marcis, the pole winner who was driving a Dodge engineered by the savvy crew chief, Harry Hyde.

Buddy made a pit stop for fuel under the green flag on the 151st of 188 laps. During the rush, his crew didn’t get a full load of gas in the blue and white No. 15. Baker didn’t have enough to make it the rest of the way.

Marcis, meanwhile, stretched his fuel to the 155th lap and got a full tank, making this a final stop.

Baker battled Marcis and others closely, drafting in their slipstream to save fuel and then flashing ahead in case a caution flag showed. But it was a futile bid. He had to pit on Lap 174 for a splash of fuel that would carry him to the finish.

Marcis assumed the lead and won easily, taking the checkered flag 29.5 seconds ahead of runnerup Baker.

“My crew miscalculated,” said a crestfallen Buddy. “When I mess up I take the rap. When it’s the crew’s fault, I give it back to them.”

Baker had missed the fourth straight he so coveted at Talladega. However, he was to realize a fourth victory there in the Winston 500 of 1980, driving the same “Gray Ghost” Olds that he’d whipped to a long-awaited Daytona 500 triumph in February. This time he averaged an eye-popping 170.481mph and edged Earnhardt by just three feet.

Baker had trailed Earnhardt, who was in only his second Cup Series season, by 16 seconds with 33 laps remaining. But using the aerodynamic draft masterfully, Baker caught and passed his younger rival three laps from the finish.

Praised fellow driver Ron Bouchard, “Buddy Baker could find air off a paper bag.”

Baker was modest about his stirring charge.

“I am lucky to have been racing Dale while he relatively was still a pup on these big tracks,” said Buddy.

Earnhardt proved to be a bigger dog that that in the ’80 season, holding off Yarborough for the first of his Cup Series titles.

During the years following his retirement, Buddy often served as an advisor to various teams, including the operation owned by Roger Penske. Among his duties was to coach Penske’s drivers on drafting techniques at Talladega.

Prior to one race at the big speedway a rival team’s driver, a fellow who reveled in being a wise guy, stopped Buddy as he strode the garage area. Winking to several crewmen and another driver or two gathered around them, the smart-alecky chap cracked, “Hey, Baker, reckon you could handle the speeds we are running down here now!?”

At that time restrictor plates had pulled qualifying speeds at Talladega back to the low 190 mph range.

There was snickering as the bystanders awaited Baker’s answer.

For several seconds Buddy stared down the driver who had taunted him.

And then came the impaling rejoinder.

“Son,” said Buddy, “when I was racing we never ran this SLOW down here.”

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