NOTE: I sent the following column to The North Scott Press in Eldridge, Iowa, on July 12 and it was published a couple weeks later. I’m sorry to report that the subject of the piece, Elzie Wylie “Buddy” Baker Jr., the NASCAR champion-turned-commentator, died after a battle with cancer at age 74 on Aug. 10. The photo is courtesy of buddybaker.com.
When I did public relations work (1990-2001) for NASCAR’s former Midwest-based, late model stock car, dirt track touring series, the Busch All-Star Series, I, along with other NASCAR field representatives, was invited to Daytona Beach every February. There we fraternized with NASCAR promoters from around the country, and we also attended some training sessions.
At one seminar, our speaker was the legendary NASCAR driver-turned-broadcast commentator Buddy Baker. One of the things he told us was that he was currently mentoring a young race driver from Indiana destined to get into Winston Cup racing. He said the driver had talent, that we’d hear about him in the future and his name, as I recall, was Ryan Newman. Baker, of course, was spot on with that assessment.
I remembered that recently when I read that Baker, now 74, a NASCAR Hall of Famer, has inoperable lung cancer.
Last November Baker thought he had a rotator cuff injury. But during an operation on his shoulder, doctors realized the true cause of his pain was a huge tumor in his lung.
Baker is a nice guy and was a fine race driver. He had 19 wins in 699 starts in NASCAR’s premier series from 1959 to 1992 and in 1998 was named by NASCAR one of its 50 greatest drivers.
Baker, not surprisingly, is taking his death sentence gracefully: “And to have a long career like I’ve had, do not shed a tear,” he says. “Give a smile when you say my name.”
I know I’ll smile when I think of Buddy Baker because, as one of the great storytellers of NASCAR, the second-generation driver is a very funny man. In particular, I’ll remember a true story about the time he fell out of an ambulance at Smoky Mountain Raceway.
I first read the story in a book about racing and since then have seen Baker relate it on video.
In the late 1960s, Baker agreed to make an appearance at the dirt track run by a friend, Don Naman. (Naman was later the first general manager of Talladega Superspeedway and a founder of the International Motorsports Hall of Fame.) During the race, Baker crashed hard into a wall and, he says, broke “four or five ribs.”
The ambulance crew showed up in an old Pontiac ambulance at his demolished car and strapped him onto a stretcher. Then they loaded him into the ambulance, and the driver took off.
The ambulance driver needed to drive up the track’s banking to exit through a gate. But there was a problem. The medics, who apparently were either inept or nervous or both, had not locked the stretcher to the floor of the rig to keep it from rolling. They also had failed to latch the rear door of the ambulance.
As the ambulance turned up the track’s banking, the back door flew open and Baker, strapped tight to the stretcher, rolled right out onto the backstretch of the racetrack. Around and around the stretcher went as it rolled down the banking.
To make his predicament worse, some racecars were coming out of turn two, approaching him at caution speed, which probably seems pretty fast to someone strapped tight to a stretcher in front of them.
Baker says he was able to work one arm free, hold it up in the air and wave it frantically at the approaching drivers, and they went either side of the stretcher as it rolled toward the infield.
When the stretcher came to the inside of the track, the first two wheels dug into some mud and it somersaulted. Baker says he ended up face down in the mud, still strapped to the stretcher.
The medics, realizing they had lost their patient, quickly arrived on the scene. They lifted the stretcher back onto its wheels and found Baker covered with mud.
He is quoted as telling them, “When I get off this thing, I’m gonna kill you first.”
Copyright 2015 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises.