40 Years Later, the Overwhelming Joy of Buddy Baker's First NASCAR Win Hasn't Dimmed
The Bank of America 500 on Saturday night, Oct. 13, at Lowe's Motor Speedway marks 40 years since racing legend Buddy Baker scored his first victory in NASCAR's premier division.
On that sunny October day in 1967, Baker indulged in such unbridled joy that 40 years later he still finds it difficult to express what that victory meant to him.
"My father (Buck Baker) had just had an accident, had a broken right leg, and was in a cast," Baker said. "I'm sure it was uncomfortable, and he took the time to make the trip from down in the pits all the way to the winner's circle. Then to see him, a grown man, one of the toughest guys in the sport, start to cry; if that doesn't get you, you can't be got.
"Up to that point, I felt like the little boy that needed somebody to tell him, 'It's going to be OK. You can do this.' That acceptance is something that every man looks at when they look at their dad. And (him) being a two-time Grand National champion, to me, that was as important as the trophy or the win itself. It was like acceptance from my childhood hero.
"Then, to look out in the crowd and see people you went to school with and people you played football with, and my sister, who was killed in an auto wreck later in her life ... just to look out and see your family members, it's a thing that can't be put in words."
That day, the 6-foot-5, 215-pound Baker cried and he didn't care who saw him. Nine years of frustration and, often, disappointment had finally ended.
"It's hard to explain that feeling between being just a driver and then being a winner on a big stage," Baker reflected. "You don't know whether to show your emotions or try to hold them back and look like everybody else that ever won a big race. But that first one, if you don't let it out, I think you would explode.
"Nothing will ever compare to your first major win. Since that is what I was going to do the rest of my life, it was really big. It was a stepping stone to acceptance from the factory participation."
Acceptance by Detroit's car manufacturers was something the then 26-year-old Baker had sought for quite some time. He had almost made it to stock car racing's Promised Land a year earlier, only to have it yanked from him at the last minute.
Veteran car owner and noted engine builder Ray Fox had noticed the young Baker's accomplishments in a car nicknamed "The Old Goat", a car that had been cast off by factory-backed team owner Cotton Owens and his driver, David Pearson. Prepared by Bill Holman, Baker began reeling in top-five and top-10 finishes in the car that wasn't supposed to perform well.
One day in 1966, Fox, who had other drivers in his Dodge stable, telephoned Baker and asked him to come to Daytona for a test. Baker made the trip and was preparing to install his seat in the car when a Dodge executive informed Fox and Baker that the factory didn't want another team.
"That was probably the most disappointing time of my life," Baker said.
But about four months later, Baker's career took a different direction when Fox again called. This time Fox told Baker he wanted him to pilot his car in Charlotte's fall race.
"I said, 'Ray, I'll be honest with you. I don't think I can take the disappointment of thinking I have a car that I can win in and then have it snatched away from me,'" Baker recounted. "'After so many years of driving cars that were sub-par, I don't think I can deal with being rejected again.'"
Fox assured Baker he would drive his car this time, even if it didn't receive factory backing. With that guarantee, Baker accepted the offer. However, when the day arrived, Baker was nervous because he had bragged that if he ever had a good car, he could win.
"I got scared. I made two or three passes by the race track before I even went in to drive the car," Baker said with a laugh. "You know, after all this big talk, what if I can't get the job done? I sat on top of the hill outside the gate for 20 or 30 minutes when I should have been inside. I even went to the gate and turned around twice. I sat there, I pondered, I worried. I finally said, 'You know, you need to answer this question for yourself.' So I went in.
"I went out on the race track and like all young people I already had an excuse. I came in and I said, 'Well, I've got a lot left. I just wanted to get a good feel of the car.' Ray Fox looked at me and said, 'All I can tell you is you're going to be hell when you get right, because you're half a second quicker than anybody here.'"
Baker drove six races for Fox in 1966, all superspeedway events, while fielding his own car in 35 races. Then came 1967; a year that changed Baker's life. That year, Baker drove four races for Owens, six for himself and 11 for Fox. Up until that time, Baker's best finish had been second, twice for his father in 1965 and once for Fox the following year.
Entering the Oct. 15, 1967, race at the track then known as Charlotte Motor Speedway, Baker was well aware the opportunity existed for him to end Richard Petty's amazing 10-race winning streak.
"It was called Grand National then and it was the National 500, and I said, 'You know, if I break this 10-race streak, I'll be a national champion,'" Baker recalled with a laugh. "I said that before the race; that's how sure I was that the car was going to be good."
And good it was. After qualifying fourth, Baker made it clear early in the 334-lap race that he, indeed, possessed the car to beat. Baker outran and outclassed the star-studded field that included A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison and Curtis Turner. He passed Yarborough on lap 257 and led the rest of the way, finishing more than a lap ahead of runner-up Bobby Isaac. That day, Baker led four times for 160 laps and Petty was never a contender.
"'Humpy' (Wheeler) was responsible for me getting enough experience on superspeedways to make it happen in '67," Baker said. "'Humpy' was with Firestone and I did a tire test for them. He said as far as he was concerned they didn't need another driver because I ran every lap hard. I tested everywhere for Firestone.
"Of course, had it not been for Ray Fox's belief in me and giving me that opportunity, we wouldn't be talking about 40 years ago. Without Ray Fox's help, I would probably have been on the outside looking in now, like so many drivers that probably had potential, but never got that big shot."
Ironically, Baker's big-time stock car racing career not only began at Lowe's Motor Speedway, it ended there as well with a crash that left Baker with a head injury.
"I was lucky enough to have a full recovery and run a few more races, but the intensity was never the same," Baker said. "It's ironic that your racing career really zoomed to the top at a race track and then the world put on the brakes at the same place."
Still, when Baker thinks about that sunny, autumn day 40 years ago, the overwhelming joy he felt hasn't dimmed. He can still hear the roar of the crowd over the thundering engines, see the tears in his father's eyes, and bask in the glory of a large, rose covered horseshoe in victory lane.
Tickets for the Bank of America 500 on Saturday night, Oct. 13, start at just $39 and can be purchased by calling the Lowe's Motor Speedway ticket office at 1-800-455-FANS or online.