The Pearly Gates opened a little bit wider than usual this morning, to accommodate the passing of a giant.
1980 Daytona 500 champion Buddy Baker died early today after a brief battle with lung cancer at age 74.
The 6-foot-6 Baker was a part of the racing scene virtually from birth, working as a crewmember and pit road peacemaker for his father, NASCAR Hall of Famer Buck Baker. In an era when Victory Lane ceremonies often included a right-cross to the chin, very few picked fights with Buck Baker.
Fewer still wanted any part of big Buddy.
With a fist the size of a country ham, Baker was more than a match for any aggressor. But it was his heavy right foot and outsized heart that made him a NASCAR legend.
As a driver, Baker was best where the speeds were highest. His all-out, take-no-prisoners style garnered 19 career premier series wins, including four at his beloved Talladega Superspeedway. In 1970, he set the Alabama high banks ablaze, becoming the first man to eclipse 200 mph on a closed course. His 1980 Daytona 500 victory came at a still-record speed of 177.602 mph, and in 1970, he won the prestigious Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway by lapping the entire field.
Baker was tough on equipment, often pushing the engines, tires and chassis of the day past their breaking point. Hall Of Famer Richard Petty once said that if cars could run as fast as Buddy Baker could drive them, he would have retired undefeated. He remained unapologetic to the end, insisting that “all-out” was the only dignified way to race.
His go-for-broke driving style led to a few crashes along the way, as well, leaving him with lingering neck issues that required surgery and ultimately led to his retirement from the cockpit.
“After the operation, I thought I could still compete,” recalled Baker recently. “But a trusted friend of mine took me aside and said, `Buddy, are you as good as you used to be?’
“I admitted that while I might not be the winner I once was, I could still run up-front if the breaks went my way.
“He looked me straight in the eye and said, `Is that enough for you? Is that how you want to be remembered?’
“I knew instantly that he was right. It was time for me to quit.”
Baker wasted little time transitioning to a broadcast role, conveying the excitement and color of NASCAR racing on The Nashville Network and CBS. In recent years, he became a mainstay on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, alternately co-hosting the midday “Tradin’ Paint” and evening “Late Shift” programs. In marked contrast to his on-track approach, Baker brought an easygoing, gentle style to his radio efforts, displaying a natural storytelling ability that endeared him to legions of listeners.
Despite his accomplishments – both on and off the race track -- he remained an unfailingly humble man. He never quite understood the hero status he held in our eyes, ending every show with a heartfelt “thank you” to his co-host.
“It’s such an honor to work with professionals,” he’d say. “I couldn’t imagine doing this without you.”
Last month, Buddy stunned his audience with news of a massive, inoperable tumor in his lung. Unwilling to compromise his standards, he announced his retirement on the spot, saying, “It’s like I’m in a well, trying to yell up. With the quality that SiriusXM brings, I just wasn’t living up to what (I am) supposed to do.”
Things deteriorated quickly in the last 30 days. A bout of pneumonia laid him low, as cancer continued to take its inexorable toll. An old-school refusal to utilize e-mail or social media isolated us from our friend in his final days, but could not slow the tidal wave of prayers sent up on his behalf.
"I was lucky enough to have a great career as a broadcaster and over 30 years behind the wheel," said Baker recently. "For those that feel sorry for me, hey, I'm 74 years old. I have great friends...and am a blessed person. I'm going to miss the heck out of not being around, but how many people would give anything to live a charmed life like I have?
In typical Buddy Baker style, he was “hammer down” to the finish.
"Do not shed a tear,” said Baker in his final radio appearance last month. “Give a smile when you say my name. I'm not saying goodbye, just `Talk to you later.’"
So long, old friend. You will be missed.