-- So, the story goes that there was this hearse . . .
OK, it was an ambulance. But it used to be a hearse and it had been converted into an ambulance and on this night it was being used at Smoky Mountain Raceway, a dirt track sliced into the Smoky Mountains of eastern Tennessee. And the Pontiac had an American Indian head hood ornament that lit up when the vehicle's lights were turned on. Seriously.
Anyway, inside the ambulance, strapped to a gurney was one Mr. Elzie Wylie Baker Jr.
Just a few moments earlier, the driver everyone called Buddy was running away with the race, but blew a tire and damn near knocked the fence down. With broken ribs, he'd been unable to get out of his mangled race car, and the two-man medical team (one was described as "Bubba" and the other "Barney Fife") that arrived in the head-led hearse had bungled Baker's extraction, then strapped his massive body onto the stretcher and loaded him into the ambulance.
However, as the car started rolling across the track to leave, Bubba was spooked by the sight of a flock of snarling race cars now blasting off pit road and seemingly coming right for him. So he gunned it. And the stretcher in the back -- the one with the wheels that hadn't been locked -- started rolling. And the back door of the ambulance -- the door that hadn't been locked -- flew open.
So there was Buddy Baker, rolling backward at around 35 mph across the racetrack into oncoming traffic as he desperately tried to get an arm free to signal to the men he'd just been racing against, asking them to please not run over him now.
They missed him. But when his runaway gurney hit the mud embankment on the apron, it flipped over and he landed facedown in the wet red clay.
"Are you OK?" the ambulance driver screamed as he worked to flip Baker back over.
"Yes," the racer yelled back. "But as soon as you get me turned over I am going to kill you!"
Buddy Baker's life was one continuous racing story. And like any great story, Baker was larger than life.
He was a physical giant in a sport packed primarily with light, little competitors. Like any great story, no one ever wanted Baker to stop. They didn't want him to stop racing and then they didn't want him to stop broadcasting. Like any great story, Baker had a great beginning, an even greater middle, and, sadly, he also had an end. He died early Monday morning at the age of 74, taken by lung cancer.
Just a month ago, Baker ended his nightly show on Sirius XM NASCAR Radio by saying that he was signing off for the last time. He revealed that he had a "huge tumor" in his lung and that it was inoperable. He asked that no one feel sorry for him and added: "Do not shed a tear. Give me a smile when you say my name."
It's impossible not to.
So, the story goes that there were these alligators . . .
Somehow, some way, the three biggest men in NASCAR were crammed onto a fishing boat on the fabled Santee Cooper Lake in South Carolina. Tiny Lund, who was not tiny, was joined by NASCAR Hall of Fame writer Tom Higgins, who is not tiny, and Baker, who was perhaps the biggest of the three.
It was hot. Damn hot. And despite Lund's carrying on about a recent rash of alligator attacks, Baker announced that he was going into the water to cool off. When he went over one side of the boat, he failed to see Lund go over the other side, submerging stealthily.
Just as the water was washing over Baker's broad shoulders, he felt something beneath the surface, clamping down hard on his crotch. He screamed. He thrashed. He scrambled to try and get back into the fishing boat. After all, an alligator was in the process of gnawing off his manhood.
Only after he got back into the vessel did he hear Lund's laughter.
Buddy Baker grew up the son of a legend, NASCAR Hall of Famer and two-time series champion Buck Baker.
Buck showed Buddy how to build cars, how to race them, and how to party after successfully completing tasks A and B. In 1959, after Buddy turned 18, his daddy let him start racing.
He made his Grand National (now Sprint Cup) debut at the half-mile Columbia (South Carolina) Speedway in a 21-car field that featured five future Hall of Famers. He finished 14th.
Just two months later, he returned to Columbia and finished seventh, the first of his 311 career top-10 finishes.
His is that rarest of careers that first witnessed the pioneers, then went to race against them as well as the next three generations of NASCAR stars.
"The Gentle Giant" is the name that Baker found himself tagged with as his driving career started gaining momentum in the 1960s. To his last days, he scratched his head about it. But around the garage it was very easy to see that he was a nervous sort. That's why buds like Lund continued to unleash pranks that preyed on his skittishness.
Remember in "Talladega Nights" when Ricky Bobby found a live cougar in his car? Well, one night on the road Baker settled into his motel bed, only to hear a growl in the darkness. When he turned on the light, he realized he was being stared at by an angry cheetah, snuck into the room by Lund.
There was a method to his manic ways. It was part of every weekend's racing routine for competitors to watch Baker pace incessantly around the NASCAR garage. That was especially true during pole qualifying, when he would follow his hot laps by walking laps of the paddock, checking the speed charts, checking in on rivals, checking the scoreboard. That process won him 38 pole positions, ranked 14th all time.
As the years rolled on, there was also plenty of reasoning behind his paranoia. For every race he won -- 19 in all -- there were dozens that he should have won but didn't.
He broke parts. A lot of parts. He blew engines. A lot of engines. And his legendary employers, from Cotton Owens to Ray Fox to Richard Petty to Bud Moore, were as frustrated by him as much as they loved him, wishing his hammer-down style wasn't so hard on equipment.
Baker himself liked to say that he is the all-time winner not of the Daytona 500, but the Daytona 475. His equipment fell apart before he got to 500.
This was the man who first broke the 200 mph barrier in stock car in 1970. The man who earned all but two of his wins on NASCAR's biggest, fastest racetracks. The man who was so good on superspeedways that teams still hired him to shake down their race cars more than a decade after he stopped racing full time in 1988.
He'd go as fast as possible and just hope the cars could keep up.
"That's just how Buddy races. All out," his father explained in 1998, during NASCAR's 50th anniversary celebration, when both Bakers were named to the sport's 50 greatest drivers list. "People joke about how he's scared of stuff. Hell, they never saw him on those big racetracks. Daytona and Talladega. He could pick up speed like you've never seen. He could draft off a damn hot dog wrapper."
So, the story goes that there was a punch to the nose . . . OK, punches to the nose . . .
It had taken Baker nearly eight years to earn his first Grand National win and by 1971 he had managed only three victories. The chatter about him being "fast but soft" wasn't going away.
So during the winter leading into the '72 season, the man who'd overseen Baker's legendary testing effort with Firestone tires decided to help his favorite test driver toughen up so he could finally close the deal in NASCAR's longest, most grueling races.
Humpy Wheeler, a Golden Gloves boxer, gave Buddy Baker a pair of gloves and the two started sparring. Baker loved it. He lost weight. He built stamina. He knew that with a little more of this, and making it through 600 miles at Charlotte in the May heat would be a piece of cake.
Then, one day, Wheeler got in a little too good of a shot directly into Baker's face.
The Gentle Giant went berserk. The two friends made like a couple of schoolyard pals who suddenly crossed the line from roughhousing to all-out brawling. They punched, moved and punched again. The bout spilled out into the field next door, the shouting, chasing, and upper-cutting eventually prompting a neighbor to call the police.
The cops forced the men apart, both snarling and huffing . . . and then, they snapped back into reality, laughing.
That May, Buddy Baker won the World 600 at Charlotte.
For an entire generation, Baker isn't remembered as a race car driver. He's known as the guy who talked about the race car drivers.
In the mid-1990s, just as NASCAR was entering the period of its most explosive growth, "Buddy" took a seat alongside race fans in their living rooms via portfolio of TV channels, including TNN, TBS and CBS.
His ability to tell a story, usually beginning with, "I'll tell you one thing . . . " endeared him to audiences. His rough-around-the-lips delivery of his analysis proved the perfect counterpoint to the polished tones of his play-by-play partners.
And his willingness to tell it like he saw it rubbed a lot of racers, including longtime friends, the wrong way.
"They come complain to me," Baker explained last summer, "and I'd tell them, 'You know what happened. I didn't make anything up, did I? We can go look at the tape if you want.' And that would usually end it right there. Am I supposed to lie to the American public because I know the guy that screwed up?"
That same honesty is why his evening satellite radio show became so popular with a fan base that seems so increasingly hungry for some sort of tie to the earlier eras of NASCAR.
That group of listeners campaigned loudly for Baker during the spring, when his name appeared on the ballot as a nominee for the NASCAR Hall of Fame. He failed to make it in during May's vote, but continually, politely deflected disappointment.
Right up until his final broadcast on July 7.
So, the story goes that the damn car would just materialize . . . pop up out of the blacktop like it was sprung from a trap door . . .
It was February 1980, Daytona Speedweeks, and a favorite to win the 500 had emerged. Actually, there was no emerging to it. It popped up in opponents' rearview mirrors like some sort of 200 mph aberration.
Buddy Baker's Oldsmobile, owned by Harry Ranier and prepared by crew chief Waddell Wilson, was fast as hell and scary as hell. It's dark paint scheme, unveiled the year before, was so close to the color of Daytona International Speedway's asphalt that rivals complained they couldn't see it coming. The whining grew so loud that NASCAR forced Baker to run Day-Glo stickers around the car.
They called it the Gray Ghost.
In '79 the Ghost won the inaugural Busch Clash All-Star event, the Daytona 500 pole and the 125 qualifying race. But on race day, an ignition issue cost Buddy the Great American Race. Just as a blown tire had cost him a 27-second lead in '78 . . . a timing chain in '75 . . . another engine in '73, and so on . . .
But in 1980 there were no issues. That didn't stop Baker from being his typical nervous self over the final frantic laps. With his team screaming for him to back it down and him screaming back that he was going to outrun any problems, he took the checkered flag with an average race speed of 177.602 mph, the fastest 500-mile race ever. He led 143 of 200 laps, surrendering the point only during pit stops.
That night, unable to sleep, Baker decided he'd just drive on home to Charlotte.
"About two in the morning, I'd just crossed over into Georgia," he recalled earlier this year. "My radar detector went 'ZING!' and I knew I was busted. I just pulled over and let the state trooper drive up to me. He got to the window and said, 'Buddy Baker! You're my favorite driver. I always root for you. But man, you always have had the worst luck . . . "
Confident that less than 12 hours earlier he'd given this trooper fan the thrill of his life, the Daytona 500 champion smiled. Then the trooper handed him a speeding ticket. "You do your job pretty well," the officer explained. "And so do I."
As Buddy Baker told the tale, for likely the thousandth time, he laughed as if he was telling it for first time. Then the Gentle Giant put a period at the end of his sentence.
"So, that's how that story goes."