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Sprint Cup Series

Buddy Baker remembered at Tuesday memorial

Buddy Baker funeral

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The nickname wasn't a misnomer, according to those who knew him.


Often called NASCAR's "Gentle Giant," Buddy Baker was laid to rest Tuesday, with family and friends gathering at Avondale Presbyterian Church to say a final goodbye.


Stock car racing history filled the pews, silently and respectfully honoring a NASCAR star that won 19 premier series races and 38 poles during a career that spanned three-and-a-half decades.


Drivers, crew chiefs, owners and mechanics sat side-by-side, elbow-to-elbow during the hour-long service.


NASCAR officials, marketing folks and those from the media turned out as well. The 6'6" Baker left a lasting impression not only on the sport but on everyone he touched.


Cancer claimed the 74-year-old a week ago, silencing a distinctive voice that race fans had come to know and enjoy long after he climbed out of the car and stepped behind the microphone.


The son of two-time premier series champ Buck Baker, Buddy retired as a driver following the 1994 season, but stayed involved -- he worked in the television booth for The Nashville Network and CBS during race coverage by those two networks. Until earlier this year, he served as co-host of the popular night-time program "The Late Shift" heard on SiriusXM NASCAR radio.


"He definitely was a gentle giant," three-time NASCAR premier series champion Cale Yarborough recalled recently. "He was a great guy who would give you the shirt off his back.


"Buddy wasn't only a great race car driver, he was one of my closest friends. He and I grew up together; we came along (in the sport) about the same time and we used to travel together, just the two of us.


"He'll be missed … I thought the world of him."


In 1980, Baker ended 18 years of frustration by finally winning the Daytona 500 while paired with team owner Harry Ranier and legendary crew chief Waddell Wilson. Baker's winning average speed of 177.602 mph established a track record that has yet to be broken.


He also won four times on the series' biggest track, 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway.


Baker was the first driver to eclipse the 200-mph mark on a closed course, lapping the Talladega track at 200.096 mph and later 200.447 mph during a transmission test on March 24, 1970. The mark came in a winged Dodge Daytona fielded by Hall of Famer Cotton Owens.


Former Charlotte Motor Speedway President and General Manager H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler said Baker eclipsed the 200-mph mark on a number of occasions, unofficially, while testing tires for Firestone in the 1960s.


"Back (then), I was with Firestone … and I was looking for a young guy that could just really push the throttle down and be our test driver," Wheeler said Tuesday. "In those days, you couldn't draft … you had to set up these weird things on the race car to simulate things you'd go through in the draft. … Carburetors as big as a swimming pool, real weird tires; we never told him what (the setup) was. And he was just unbelievable. He'd say 'We're not going fast enough.'"


The potential for grave injury, even death, didn’t give Baker pause, according to Wheeler.


"There were no soft walls, the inner liner had just come in (and) the fuel cell had sort of come in. You could get hurt most anywhere you went tire testing," he said. "And it didn’t bother Buddy one bit."


Baker, Wheeler noted, is in the International Motorsports Hall of Fame and the National Motorsports Hall of Fame.


"And there is no doubt,” Wheeler said, "that he will soon be brought into our NASCAR Hall of Fame.


"Buddy was a great driver and fantastic human being."


Baker has been among the 25 nominees for induction into the NASCAR Hall for the past two years. His father, Buck, was enshrined in the Hall in 2013. 

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