2008-12-25 / Sports

Buck Baker Would Find A Way

By Gerald Hodges THE RACING REPORTER

Buck Baker in the early 1950s Buck Baker in the early 1950s The season is over and Jimmy Johnson has been crowned champion. Now maybe we can contemplate what has happened during the past few months and focus on the future.

The slow economy continues to take its toll on sponsors, fans and teams. No one should take these times lightly.

Just like in racing, you've got to come out with hope, expecting that you're going to be there at the finish line. Anyone that has been in the pits before the start of the race remembers the optimism among all the drivers and teams.

Come the end of the race, there is only one winner. But prior to the next race, the hope and adrenalin forces it way back to the top.

Even as the year comes to a close, there are reasons to look forward to the arrival of the new season.

Elzie Wylie Baker, known as "Buck" was one of the toughest and most capable drivers of the 1950s. A hard-nosed competitor in the rough-and-tumble Modified division, Baker won his share of battles on the racetrack, and compiled an enviable record in postrace fisticuffs.

I met Baker once and what I remember about him was the odds he overcame to win and his optimism.

"You can't let anyone think you're not going to win a race," he said during the interview. "If you talk yourself out of believing you are a winner, then you might as well stay in the pits and let someone else do the driving.

"There were times we left home without money to buy new tires. We didn't know where the money was coming from. Heck, there's times we didn't have money to put gas in the truck to get to the track.

"But someone always came through for what we needed. We always could have used more and better equipment, but I'm talking about don't let yourself believe you can't be a winner."

During the 1950s, Baker was active in all branches of the NASCAR racing tree. He divided his time between the tumultuous short tracks and the popular NASCAR Grand National circuit - and also took time out to win the championship for NASCAR's short-lived open-wheel Speedway Division tour in '52.

He was a driver held in high esteem among team owners, who became sought-after to drive other teams equipment when he wasn't campaigning his own.

In his two championship years of 1956 and '57, Baker won 24 of his 46 career NASCAR Grand National victories.

In addition to his two championships, he won the Southern 500 at Darlington three times.

Perhaps the 1960 Darlington race is the best example of his desire to race and overcome adversity.

Jack Smith had a bad wreck at Darlington in 1958 and refused to drive any more at the track. Baker took over as his substitute.

As a replacement, Baker wheeled Smith's Pontiac to victory in dramatic fashion. He finished the race on three wheels, throwing up a shower of sparks after blowing a tire with two laps remaining.

His final superspeedway triumph came in 1964 at Darlington, driving a Dodge for Ray Fox. It turned out to be the final win of his career, but even at the age of 45, he proved he hadn't lost the edge.

Baker retired as a full-time driver from NASCAR Grand National competition after the 1968 season. Not content to sit around he switched to the Grand Touring Series, which featured Mustangs and Camaros. He was a front-runner in that series too, winning eight times in four seasons.

After kicking around the short tracks throughout the Carolinas, Baker got restless and wanted to test the big-league waters one final time.

In 1976, at the age of 57, he struck a deal with team owner Junie Donlavey to make his return at Darlington for the April 11 race. After qualifying 13th, Baker went on to finish in sixth place.

What makes Baker stand out as one of my heroes is he never gave up.

Growing up on a farm near Chester, S.C., Baker had to outrun the police on his very first whiskey run in order to stay out of jail.

"If there was something going on that you dare not go to, like the roughest side of town or roughest joints, that's things I played," he told a reporter shortly before his death in 2002.

"I was brought up like an alley dog. I kind of felt like I was Buck Baker, a tough somebody. That may have been because I didn't have the care of a mother and father, maybe brothers and sisters."

"Maybe I just had a bad outlook on life. I lived like that for an awful long time, but I never went to jail in the 1930s."

Baker quit school after the ninth grade. His many activities included boxing, football, golf, working in a bakery and selling automobiles.

After a hitch in the Navy during World War II, he and his family (wife Margaret and son, Buddy), moved to Charlotte where he found work as a Trailways bus driver.

Baker got his first notion about driving a race car at the age of 27, when he was older than most of the other drivers who were already running a circuit. He competed in his first race in 1946. In 1952, after beating out Lee Petty at Columbia, S.C., he decided to become a NASCAR series regular—at the age of 34.

During his career in NASCAR Grand National racing, Elzie Wylie Baker competed in 636 races, won 46 times and was the first driver to exceed $300,000 in official career earnings.

The world needs a lot more people like Baker in these troubled times. If he didn't know what to do, he would either find a way or make one.

Next week: "Tiger" Tom; Little Man With a Big Desire

Racing trivia question: Which state is Kasey Kahne from?

Last week's question: What year was the first Daytona 500 held? The year was 1959 and it was won by Lee Petty.

You may contact the Racing Reporter at: hodgesnews@ earthlink.net.

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