Baker backs Junior's decision


- Contributor
Monday, Oct. 15, 2012

Take it from Buddy Baker:

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is doing the right thing in skipping races until he recovers from a concussion.

"I didn't do that and it almost cost me my life," said Baker, a former NASCAR star. "Those people criticizing Junior don't know what they're talking about and they ought to be ashamed.

"They owe him apologies."

Some motorsports media commentators essentially have called Earnhardt a "wuss" for skipping Saturday's Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway and for planning to bypass a 400-miler at Kansas Speedway this weekend.

Junior was advised by Dr. Jerry Petty, a highly regarded Charlotte neurologist, to relinquish his ride in a Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet for the time being.

Earnhardt apparently sustained a head injury several weeks ago in a crash while testing at the Kansas track. He was also swept into the violent multicar wreck on the last lap of a 500-mile race at Talladega Superspeedway on Oct. 7, probably worsening his condition.

When headaches persisted, Earnhardt saw Petty, who diagnosed the concussion.

"I wish I had been as smart as Dale Jr. when I first got hurt," continued Baker, now 71 and host of a popular motorsports talk show on Sirius Radio.

Baker bumped his head on a bar in the cockpit of his car during a multicar crash in the wreck-filled Coca-Cola 600 in May of 1988 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

"I thought I had just wrenched my neck a little bit, and that's what I told the doctors in the infield infirmary," said Baker. "I didn’t mention hitting my head.

"I sure should have ... and had it checked out."

Baker, driving cars he co-owned with Danny Schiff, continued racing, even though headaches developed along with something scarier.

"I started seeing pinwheels in my upper vision," said Buddy, the winner of 19 races, including 18 on superspeedways.

"I should have said, 'Whoa!' right then, but I thought I was tough enough to drive through it and that the problem would go away."

Baker ran seven more races, even finishing 10th on the lead lap at Talladega Superspeedway on July 31. Then the Cup Series teams went to the road course at Watkins Glen in New York.

"By now I also felt like I had the flu," said Baker, named by NASCAR as one of its 50 greatest drivers. "I was getting nauseous in the car.

"I went out to practice at Watkins Glen and got onto the long, straight backstretch. Suddenly, everything went black. It was like someone had turned off a light switch.

"I guess through reflex I put on the brakes, 'cause I didn't hit anything. But when I came to I was just short of the rail alongside the woods.

"I fired the car back up and started on down the straightway. The track looked as crooked as a black snake.

"I got to the garage area and told my sons, Bryan and Brandon, we had to get someone up there to drive the car, 'cause I had a serious problem.

"We called Morgan Shepherd, who at that time didn't have a ride.

"Then I went to find Dr. Jerry Punch in the garage area. He was working the race as a member of the TV team. I told him what I was experiencing.

"Dr. Punch said, 'Buddy, you have a brain aneurysm. You ARE NOT racing this weekend! In fact, you need to go back home to Charlotte immediately and see Dr. Jerry Petty.

"Well, foolish me. I stuck around to watch our car in the race. And then I drove our team's van and the crew back to North Carolina that night.

"I saw Dr. Petty that Monday morning. He ordered an MRI and then called me to his office. He said, 'Buddy, I have good news and bad news.'

"I said, 'Give me the good first.'

"And then Dr. Petty said, 'We think we can save your life.' "

Baker paused and shook his head at the stunning assessment.

"My knees buckled," Baker went on. "I thought he was going to tell me to take two pills and see him in a week or so. When I regained my composure I told Dr. Petty I had to go to our race shop and plan for what we were going to do.

"He said, 'You aren't going anywhere. You don't have any time to spare.' "

Baker, a longtime fishing and hunting pal, called me from the hospital.

"Tom," he said, "I want you to have the story. I'm gonna undergo minor brain surgery."

Before thinking, I blurted, "Buddy there’s no such thing as minor brain surgery!"

"Oh, God, I was afraid you were going to say that."

The operation was performed early the next morning, after which Petty and Buddy's family held a press conference at Carolinas Medical Center.

"We removed a blood clot the size of a peach from the right side of Buddy's brain," the neurologist told a packed room. "He is going to be OK, but he is a very lucky man."

Could Buddy ever drive a race car again? Someday, the doctor said.

I went in to see him briefly with Steve Waid, another journalist friend of Buddy's. Baker already was joking with nurses.

His head was shaved and several tubes protruded from his skull.

"Look at me, Tom," he cracked. "They have taken my handsome head and turned me into the Frankenstein monster!"

Baker returned to racing in 1990 and ran 17 more times before retiring in 1992.

"I was never the same, but because Dale Jr. is getting early treatment, I feel sure he will return to good form," Buddy said. "I am so proud of him being smart and taking himself out.

"No one wants to get out and see someone else drive their car. It takes a special man to do it. Junior not only is thinking of himself, but of his fellow drivers.

"What if he'd said nothing, kept on racing and had a problem that caused a wreck that could be career-ending for him and others?

"Contrary to being a 'wuss,' I think what he is doing is heroic. Anyone that thinks he is scared obviously doesn't know the Earnhardt family."

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