Buddy Baker, a former NASCAR racer known as the “Gentle Giant” for his 6-foot-6 frame and as “Leadfoot” for his uncompromising, flat-out driving style, died Monday. He was 74.
Baker, who became a racing commentator after ending his driving career in 1992, left his job on Sirius XM NASCAR radio last month after announcing that he had a “huge” inoperable lung tumor.
He died at his home in Lake Norman, N.C., the radio outlet announced.
With his Southern drawl and his good-ol'-boy manner, Baker gently let his audience in on his grim prognosis: “There comes a time when you talk to the doctor and say, ‘What are my chances?’ and there’s dead silence. I went, ‘How long?’”
“‘Well, we don’t own the hotel, we don’t know when we check out. It’s something that we cannot fix.’”
He stepped down from the show after his July 7 announcement.
Baker raced for more than 30 years and, in 1998, was honored as one of NASCAR’s 50 greatest drivers. In 1970, he became the first driver to exceed 200 mph on a closed course. He set the record at Talladega Superspeedway, NASCAR’s fastest track, where he won four times.
In 1980, he won the Daytona 500 with an average speed of 177.602 mph — a record that still stands. In all, he won 19 races in 699 starts.
“I know 19 might not seem like a whole lot, but I’m proud of them because of where they mostly came,” Baker said at his Motorsports Hall of Fame induction in 1997. “Not many drivers can say they’ve won at NASCAR’s Big Four tracks during my era — Charlotte, Darlington, Daytona and Talladega — so I feel real special about being among those who can.”
His victories included the 1970 Southern 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 in 1968, 1972 and 1973. He had 202 top-five finishes and 311 top-10s — but he was quick to downplay anything but a first-place showing.
“It killed my pride if I didn’t run up front,” he once said. “And if you didn’t win, it was like being the second man to discover America.”
In a statement, Hall of Fame driver Richard Petty paid tribute to Baker’s competitive spirit.
“Buddy was always wide open and that’s the way he raced and lived his life. He was always full of energy,” Petty said. “He was a person you wanted to be around because he always made you feel better.”
Born Elzie Wylie Baker Jr. in Florence, S.C., on March 25, 1941, Baker was the son of two-time champion and NASCAR Hall of Famer Buck Baker. He made his Sprint Cup Series debut in 1959 and ran his final race in 1992.
He grew up in Charlotte, N.C., where he played high school football before getting into car racing.
After retiring from the sport, he taught it at the Buck Baker Racing School in Rockingham, N.C., He was a broadcaster for the Nashville Network, then CBS and finally SiriusXM NASCAR Radio when the station started a NASCAR channel in 2007.
Baker’s survivors include his wife, Patricia Shane Prendergast Baker; sons Bryan and Brandon; and two granddaughters. A brother, Randy Baker, and a sister, Susie Sanders, also survive him.
Two weeks before his death, Baker told a writer for the Charlotte Observer that he was prepared for it.
“I’m right with the man upstairs,” he said. “If I feared death I never would have driven a race car.”