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NASCAR Hall of Fame: Buck Baker personifies tough-as-nails winner

2013 NASCAR Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, Friday 7:30 p.m., SPEED

- jutter@charlotteobserver.com
Sunday, Feb. 03, 2013

Buck Baker knew what racing fans wanted to see.

Working as a promoter at the old Southern States Fairgrounds in Charlotte, Baker figured the best way to attract the top drivers was to offer an enticement for them to beat the best racer at the track.

So, that’s what he did.

He offered a bounty – on himself.

“I don’t know how many hundreds of modified races he won, but he did win 27 straight weeks at Southern States Fairgrounds. It may not be a record, but it was a heck of a good average,” said Baker’s son, Buddy.

“The people were really funny in Charlotte. They knew he was the promoter and he would win and they would boo him like crazy for winning all the time.

“Strangely, though, the same people who were booing him on Saturday night were the first people to our race shop on Monday to tell him what a great job he’d done.”

Elzie Wylie “Buck” Baker went on to a distinguished NASCAR career, which included 46 wins in what is now the Sprint Cup Series. He was also the first driver in series history to win consecutive championships (1956-57).

Baker, who died in 2002 at age 83, is one of five slated for induction on Friday night in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Joining Baker in the Class of 2013 are Herb Thomas, Cotton Owens, Leonard Wood and Rusty Wallace.

“He was the perfect example of how a (stock car) driver used to be,” said Humpy Wheeler, the former longtime president and general manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway. “If you were in a corner and someplace he wanted to go, he’d be there. Either you’d be in the wall or he would.

“However fast the car would go, he would get there in a fairly spectacular fashion. He was one of the best and certainly one of the toughest.”

Born on a farm in Richburg, S.C., in 1919, Baker gained the nickname “Buck” because he shared some of the stubborn traits of a bull calf by the same name the family owned.

Baker began driving in 1939, starting with modified cars. He started in the first race in what is now NASCAR’s Cup series on June 19, 1949 at Charlotte Speedway, where he finished 11th.

The first of Baker’s Cup wins came April 12, 1952 at Columbia Speedway – a dirt-track like Southern States Fairgrounds – by holding off Hall of Famer Lee Petty. He won 14 of 48 starts in his first championship season in 1956 and added 10 more victories in 1957.

He won – and usually quite often – in virtually every racing competition he entered.

“I think he had nearly 300 trophies in the car port,” Buddy Baker said of his father’s wins. “And those didn’t make the cut to be inside the house.”

Throughout almost his entire career, Baker ran his own cars. He was tough, intense, sometimes combative, but sincere.

“Buck did it his way,” said fellow Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip. “He was a tough-as-nails guy and a legend larger than life.

“He could have driven for a factory team but elected not to because he wanted to race his own cars and run his own show. Buck gave everything he had to the sport, so it’s nice to see the sport recognize those sacrifices.”

He also gave a very important lesson to his son.

When Buddy Baker decided he wanted to try his hand at racing, he was unsure how to approach his father.

Finally, after three tries one day, Buddy got up the nerve.

“I told him that I wanted to start racing and he turned around and said, ‘You see the car over there? You get some of your buddies and we’ll get it put together for you,’ ” Buddy Baker said.

Buddy was shocked. He never expected it to be so easy.

But it wasn’t.

Two months later, Buddy walked into the race shop one day and his father simply said, “It’s time for you to go.”

“I didn’t know what he meant. I kept asking him why,” Buddy said. “Finally he said, ‘I promised you a start not a career.’

“At the time, I thought it was the most horrible thing that could have happened. But by a couple of years later, I learned it was probably one of the biggest gifts he ever gave me.

“It was up to me to make it, just like it was for him.”

Utter: 704-358-5113