Retirement suits Baker better than pack finish Broadcasting keeps him close to sport

September 03, 1993|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Staff Writer

Retirement hit A. J. Foyt all at once last May at Indianapolis. It came unbidden, in a serious crash to Bobby Allison at Pocono in 1988. And last year it came slowly, by way of a farewell tour, to Richard Petty, who needed to ease himself into it.

They are all contemporaries of Buddy Baker, who told friends this week that retirement simply has sneaked up on him. At age 52, Baker, who holds the record for the fastest Daytona 500 in history, has called it quits.

"There comes a time when you simply have to look reality in the eye," says Baker, whose racing schedule had gone from full time in 1988 to just 16 races over the past three seasons.

Cale Yarborough, who raced against Baker on the Winston Cup circuit, says: "Racing is the kind of sport that, if you're going to do it, it has to be a every weekend. If you're going to do it part time the way he has, you can be asking for trouble. I think all of his friends are very happy he's made this decision."

Baker says: "I heard a major-league pitcher say once, 'I used to pitch no-hitters, now I just pitch.' It's been like that the last two years. I was out there, almost on a lark, but deep down I didn't like it. I don't think you ever get over winning. And being a pack animal -- a guy back in the pack -- is not for me."

Buddy Baker has raced against three generations of the Petty clan -- Lee, Richard and Kyle -- and driven for them too. He won only 19 races in his 34-year Winston Cup career, but 17 of those wins came on superspeedways and Baker has won every major race on the books, including this weekend's Southern 500 at Darlington.

He is the first driver to win "The Big Four:" Daytona, Talladega, Darlington and Charlotte. He is also the first to have driven more than 200 mph on a closed course. He did it at Talladega in 1970. In 1980, he won the Daytona 500 at an average speed of 177.6 mph and 13 years later no one has driven it faster.

This week, Baker was recalling a lot of memories as the rest of the Winston Cup tour headed for Darlington and Sunday's 500.

For Baker, a native of Florence, S.C., Darlington was a family affair. His dad, two-time Winston Cup champion Buck Baker, won there three times and Buddy has won there twice.

But Darlington, Buddy Baker says, is not a nice place.

"I've finished first at Darlington. I've finished last at Darlington. They're both overrated," he once said. Wednesday he explained.

"What I meant was there have been races there in which I raced harder and better than I did on the days I won," he says. "But The Lady in Black [Darlington] is fickle. Just at the time you or someone else thinks it's under control, she jumps out at you and, bang, you're out of it."

Like that day in 1970, when he and Yarborough were burning the field. Yarborough went low to pass a car and looked to be pulling ahead, but Baker went high. The driver in the middle glanced in his mirror, saw Baker and moved down to give him room, unaware that Yarborough was already pulling along his inside.

"Cale crashed and left me all alone with an eight-lap lead," Baker says, enjoying the victory all over again. "We had everybody killed that day, but Darlington bit Cale and he finished third.

"Darlington requires every driver's full concentration. Driving at Darlington is like riding a black snake."

These days Baker is pulling multiple duty. He works nine races a year for TNN as a color commentator. His next assignment is at Dover, Del.

Yarborough says: "Buddy can still be involved from the broadcasting end. He's not just walking away. That would be awful tough."

In addition to broadcasting, Baker runs a driving school with his father at Rockingham, N.C., and Atlanta. And he tests cars for Hendricks Motorsports and Diamond Ridge Racing and acts as a spokesman for Norwegian Tour Lines. He plans to spend his spare time antiquing and bass fishing.

All of which makes his wife, Shane, happy.

"She's glad I'm not going to be in the car anymore and she's equally happy that I'm not going to be in the house any more than I have been," Baker said. "Her name is Shane, the same as the gunfighter in that old movie, and I've found out there is a reason for that.

"When I stopped racing full time in 1990 [after recovering from a head injury], I was in the house one day when she was cleaning and I suggested she dust the top of a cabinet before she vacuumed. Her response was as well-aimed as a gunshot. She told me, 'I don't know what you're going to do, but you're not going to hang around with me.' "

Buddy Baker, the 6-foot-5 now-former driver who has been called everything from a Gentle Giant to Bigfoot, laughed.

"I'm living a perfect little life," he said from his Lake Norman, N.C., home. "I just sit here and wonder how can all this have happened to me."

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