The only desire stronger than Buddy Baker's to win the Daytona 500 last Sunday was the collective wish of the 100,000 fans at the Speedway for him to win it. Baker, a 6'5", 215-pound bear of a man so full of emotion he fairly overflows with it—something the fans can't seem to help loving him for—finally found himself around for the finish of a 500. The faithful have been saying for the 18 years he has been trying to win the race that if Buddy Baker ever runs strong for 500 miles, he'll smoke 'em all. Which is just what he did, leading for 143 of the 200 laps and setting a record for a 500-mile auto race of any kind—including the Indy 500—of 177.602 mph.
Oh, he had come so close so many times. Each year it was the same old story: the big guy gets a broken heart. "I never wanted anything in my life as much as I wanted to win the Daytona 500," Baker said in Victory Circle. "I'll tell you, the pleasure that I have right now, if I had to quit tomorrow I'd feel as if I'd had a great racing career."
When Baker rolled back to his pit after taking the checkered flag, his crew leaped all over his car and his 14-year-old son jumped inside, his eyes full of tears. Baker was so happy he couldn't even smile at first and so excited he felt sick to his stomach, which has always had a propensity for butterflies. "My boy was crying," said Baker, "and it was all I could do to hold back the tears myself."
Baker's stylish black-and-silver Olds-mobile Cutlass, called the Silver Ghost—partly because it always seems to vanish before the finish—was easily the fastest car in the race, as it had been all week. No sooner was qualifying over and Baker installed in the pole position for the second consecutive year—this time at a speed of 194.099 mph, slightly slower than his 1979 record because of a headwind down the backstretch—than he was being pegged a winner by those who should know. Said Benny Parsons' crew chief, David Ifft, who keeps his ear so close to the ground that one earlobe is perpetually cold from the concrete on the garage floor, "You watch—Buddy's gonna win this thing."
In Sunday's race the only car that could even begin to match the Silver Ghost was Cale Yarborough's Olds, sponsored by Busch beer and consequently painted with blue-and-gold mountains, making it look somewhat like a streamlined can of the brew. True to form, Baker charged to the front early—as if all of his 215 pounds were concentrated in his right foot when he saw the green flag. Nine other cars lined up in single file behind Baker, drafting him, the Silver Ghost becoming a 200-mph vacuum cleaner as it sucked slower cars through the wind. Yarborough and the others took turns hounding Baker, the rabbit. Two drivers who didn't mind being sucked along were Bobby Allison and Neil Bonnett, both in Mercury Cougars, cars that could keep up with the Olds-mobiles but couldn't stay ahead of them.
But soon the lead pack was down to Baker, Yarborough, Bonnett and Richard Petty. Yarborough tangled with Dave Marcis in Turn 4, then dropped back with gearbox problems, and then Petty and his Olds went out with a burned clutch. With 20 laps remaining, Baker led the Olds of Dale Earnhardt, who had weaved up from the 32nd starting position, Bonnett and Allison. From that point on, the race was settled in the pits.
Allison and Bonnett pitted together, each taking on two cans (22 gallons) of gas, Allison in 12.2 seconds, Bonnett in 11.5. Earnhardt pitted and his crew fouled up a tire change; so much for him. Baker's crew chief, Waddell Wilson, gambling in order to save precious seconds, gave Baker only one can of gas and got him out in six seconds. But Baker didn't even get a full can. As the gas was flowing, Wilson shouted to Baker, "Get ready to go!" and Buddy, hearing the word "go," took off, leaving some gas in the can.
That little misunderstanding almost led to another Baker calamity, another "Bad Luck Buddy" story on the Monday morning sports page. With one lap left, the needle on Baker's fuel pressure gauge sagged, and so did his heart. But just then the yellow flag came out and Baker was able to ease off and cruise home a winner. "If I'd had to go another lap I'd never have made it," he said.
Allison finished second, with Bonnett third after blowing his engine on the 198th lap, and Earnhardt fourth.
"If there ever was a perfect race car to bring to Daytona, I had it here," said Baker. "The way the car was running today, all I had to do was keep it between the two walls in order to win."
The Silver Ghost was not only the fastest car but the most meticulously prepared as well. Body putty had converted the small lumps and ridges of the stock GM styling into shapely swoops and curves that provided better aerodynamics. "That's one fine race car," said Benny Parsons admiringly as the field lined up on the grid. Parsons would finish fifth.
On Thursday there had been two 125-mile races to determine Sunday's starting positions for all but the front row where Donnie Allison, qualifying at 193.440 mph, joined Baker. Year after year, these mini-races are generally the most exciting action at Daytona because they are so short and so much is at stake, especially for the back runners, for whom the two races often add up to a make-or-break situation: do well enough to make the 42-car field for the rich 500 or break trying.
"The 125-milers are the most dangerous races we run," says Baker. "There are only two things you can do to win: shut your eyes and keep the accelerator mashed."
Bonnett edged Yarborough in the first of the mini-races. In the second, easily won by Donnie Allison, a 28-year-old rookie named Ricky Knotts was killed. It was the fourth stock-car fatality in the Daytona Speedway's 22-year history and three have occurred during 125-milers.
"I've been coming here nearly all my grown-up life," said Allison after his Thursday victory, "and there have been these races all that time. So I've just grown to accept that fact. Every time you buckle up in one of these things you take a chance. The thing that makes me feel bad is I don't think the rookies have enough time to practice. You know that they're nervous, and it makes you nervous."
There had also been an accident in the first race, one that took out eight cars, including the Dodge of Kyle Petty, 19, the son of King Richard, the reigning NASCAR champion and six-time Daytona 500 winner.
The relationship between Richard Petty and Kyle, his only son, is especially close. And Kyle is very much the son of Richard. They both speak in the pleasant slow vowels and muffled consonants of their native North Carolina. They have the same curly hair, the same mustache, the same 6'2" frame, although Kyle is a healthy 190 pounds to Richard's ulcer-wracked 175.
There was probably never really much doubt as to young Petty's destiny, although the evidence that he was being molded for a bucket seat was not clear-cut. His debut last year at 18 came as a surprise to most. "I tried discouraging it," says Richard, "but I knew Kyle wanted to do it and I knew I wanted him to do it."
When they're not in the same race, Richard watches Kyle's every move from the roof of the team's tractor-trailer. And when they are in the same race, and Richard sees the yellow flag come out indicating a crash or spinout or other trouble, his heart skips a beat and his first thought is, "Where's Kyle?" He doesn't stop holding his breath until he finds out.
Richard was watching the first of the 125ers when Gary Baker, a rookie not related to Buddy, spun and was knocked by another car into Kyle's path as they all came out of Turn 4. A few skipped heartbeats later, Kyle's Dodge was wedged backward against the wall just short of the start-finish line. Kyle climbed out the window of his car and stood on the roof so that his father could see he was unhurt. Richard got down off the tractor-trailer, went to Kyle and walked him back across the track, an arm around his shoulders.
Richard Knotts, Ricky's father and No. 1 fan, didn't have the chance to drape an arm over his son's shoulders. When Ricky spun in the second 125-miler, his Olds slid broadside and backward against an infield wall at about 100 mph. Ricky died instantly of head injuries.
Richard Knotts and his only child also had an especially close relationship. They had driven from Paw Paw, Mich., just the two of them, to race at Daytona. Ricky had been racing since he was 14 and all he ever wanted to do was be a Grand National stock-car driver, which is all his father ever wanted, too. To this end Richard Knotts worked at a Chevrolet dealership in their hometown and supported Ricky's racing. "The only thing that mattered to them was Ricky's making it to the Speedway," said Dave Maleski, a mechanic friend. "It was his first Grand National race. They were the happiest men in the world when Ricky climbed in that car on the starting line."
"I didn't just lose my son," said the tearful Knotts. "I lost my buddy."
Earlier that week someone had said in the drivers' meeting, "If you lose it and you keep it off the wall you're lucky, not good." The Knotts and the Pettys had both been to the wall, but the Pettys had had the luck. And Buddy Baker, at long last, had both luck and glory.