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Buddy Baker, one of NASCAR's fastest and most fearless drivers to ever compete in its premier series, passed away Monday from lung cancer, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio announced.
Baker, 74, won 19 times at NASCAR's top level during a career that lasted three-and-a-half decades.
The son of two-time premier series champ Buck Baker, Buddy Baker retired from the sport following the 1994 season.
"Many of today’s fans may know Buddy Baker as one of the greatest storytellers in the sport's history, a unique skill that endeared him to millions," NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France said in a statement. "But those who witnessed his racing talent recognized Buddy as a fast and fierce competitor, setting speed records and winning on NASCAR's biggest stages. It is that dual role that made Buddy an absolute treasure who will be missed dearly."
He made his NASCAR debut on April 4, 1959, finishing 14th in a field of 21 at Columbia (S.C.) Speedway in a car owned by his father. He is credited with 699 career starts (excluding four career starts in the now-defunct NASCAR Convertible Division), 16th on NASCAR’s all-time career starts list. He earned 202 top-five and 311 top-10 finishes, as well as 38 poles.
Big tracks were Baker's specialty, a fitting strength for the 6-foot, 6-inch driver. Among his notable victories were the 1980 Daytona 500 with team owner Harry Ranier and crew chief Waddell Wilson, four victories on the sprawling 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway and one on the sweeping 2-mile Michigan International Speedway course.
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Baker became the first driver to eclipse the 200 mph mark on a closed course, lapping the Talladega track at 200.096 mph during a transmission test on March 24, 1970 with car owner Cotton Owens. He bettered that mark during the test with the winged Dodge Daytona Charger eventually topping out at an average speed of 200.447 mph.
"It's the most wonderful feeling I've had in a long, long time," Baker told track officials after his day's work was completed. "It's something nobody can ever take away from you."
His first premier series win came Oct. 15, 1967 in the National 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway with car owner Ray Fox. Baker would go on to win three more times at CMS, all in the physically demanding 600-mile event held each May.
He was a two-time winner at Darlington Raceway as well, winning the 1970 Southern 500 and returning the following spring to capture the ’71 Rebel 400 at the track long billed as the "Lady in Black."
During his career, Baker scored wins with Owens, Petty Enterprises, Nord Krauskopf, Bud Moore, Ranier and Wood Brothers Racing.
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Baker drove for Petty Enterprises in 1971 and 1972 and NASCAR Hall of Famer Richard Petty issued a statement on Baker's passing on Monday.
"Buddy was always wide open and that's the way he raced and lived his life. He was always full of energy. He was a person you wanted to be around because he always made you feel better. He raced with us, shared his stories with us and became our friend. Buddy loved the sport and he made a lasting impression on the sport on the track, in the television booth and on the radio. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Baker family at this time."
His last victory came in 1983 with the Stuart, Virginia-based Wood Brothers organization -- he drove the No. 21 Ford to the win in the July 4 Firecracker 400 at Daytona.
In his final start on May 3, 1992, fittingly at Talladega, Baker finished 31st.
While he didn't run the full schedule during much of his career, Baker did compete for the series' title on occasion, finishing in the top-10 in points on five occasions. He finished a career-best fifth in ’77 while driving for Moore.
His folksy manner eventually earned Baker a job in broadcasting, where he served as a NASCAR commentator for The Nashville Network and CBS. In recent years he could be heard on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.
"From the time we launched SiriusXM NASCAR Radio in 2007, Buddy was one of the anchors of the channel and we are honored and grateful to have worked with him all these years.He brought a wonderfully engaging personality to the airwaves and his storytelling ability made his show a joy to listen to. As one of NASCAR’s great competitors, he generously shared a wealth of knowledge – developed over many decades in the sport – with our listeners. He is greatly missed, and our thoughts and prayers are with his family," SiriusXM said in a statement.
It was on SiriusXM's "Late Shift" program that Baker recently announced doctors had discovered a large tumor in his lung. Because of the diagnosis, he was stepping down as co-host of the popular program.
"I think I retired five different times," Baker told listeners. "Why? Because you build this trust and love for a sport that I don't care what anybody tells you, there is no other form of auto racing in the world that can entertain and bring the stars that we have in our sport. And to have a long career like I've had, do not shed a tear. Give a smile when you say my name."
In 1995, Baker was inducted into the Charlotte Motor Speedway Court of Legends; in '97 he was doubly honored, with inductions into the National Motorsports Press Association's Hall of Fame the previous year, as well as the International Motorsports Hall of Fame.
The following year, Baker was named one of NASCAR's 50 Greatest Drivers. His father was also among the 50 named to the legendary list.
Funeral Services will be held at Avondale Presbyterian Church, 2821 Park Rd., Charlotte, conducted by Rev. John Earles, on Aug. 18 at 2 p.m. ET. Burial will follow at Sharon Memorial Park on Monroe Road in Charlotte.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Humane Society of Iredell, 110 Robinson Rd., Mooresville, NC, 28117.