Now here's a guy who has been through it all. Picture everything awful that can happen to a man and his stock car, and Buddy Baker has been there, from racing upside down to end-over-end, aerial pirouettes and "Look, no fenders"—all of it punctuated by the familiar kapow! of exploding engines. He has also sat squirming through a few flaming crackups and finds them no fun at all: "There's no other feeling," he says, "quite like watching your own goggles melt in front of your eyes." With all of that, what a gentle comfort it is to learn that Baker has now reformed.
Well, to be safe, we'd better say that he has matured. Indeed, on the racing circuit, at 44, with exquisitely graying temples. Baker may be the newest oldest officially certified NASCAR yuppie. A man of means and property, which we'll get to in a minute here.
The new Buddy Baker looks pretty much like the old one: At 6'5" and 220 pounds, he's the biggest of all the NASCAR drivers. No contest. He's stronger than a Cape buffalo and large enough to stroll through the pits carrying an Andretti under each arm and not even breathe hard, let alone break out in a sweat. "I was, oh, maybe 80 pounds when I was born," he says, "and right now, heck, my bones weigh maybe 200. I mean, I really got to watch my weight."
And moving gracefully for such a massive man, Baker climbs in through the window and wriggles himself comfortably behind the wheel of a shiny new 1985 Oldsmobile Cutlass. The car weighs 3,700 pounds. Under the hood, swelling up to fill every inch of space, is a 358-cubic-inch engine that will turn out 620 hp at full gallop. Which is exactly the way Baker has always driven. "Back when I was just learning this game," he says, "I'd be charging along, closing in on the pack, and I'd look up ahead and if it seemed like there was a space between two cars that maybe the driver's seat would fit in, I'd take the whole damn car through. I didn't care a hoot about fenders. Sometimes I'd leave them hanging on somebody. Heck, after some races I'd go hide in the truck, in case somebody came looking for me."
November 11, 1985
But fenders and bumpers and all the essentials are on the car now—it being a lull between races—and the mostly white Olds, No. 88, presents quite a picture. In a purely NASCAR sense, it's a pretty car, entirely dappled with sponsor decals over roof and flanks—every available display spot has been sold except Baker's upper lip. Painted in a bilious green, a fat trademark bullfrog squats on both hood and trunk. It represents Bull Frog Knits, a line of sporting togs for kiddies. The other two major sponsors, whose stickers loom as large, are Liquid Wrench, a lubricant, and Auto Shack, a chain of discount auto parts stores. Other backers get decals proportionate in size to the bucks they kick in. "It's not cubic inches that makes this here car go fast," says Baker. "It's cubic money."
At ripe middle age, after 26 years of racing for at least 16 different sponsors; after 19 Grand National wins, 17 on super speedways (with nary a NASCAR points championship); after becoming the fifth driver to exceed $2 million in earnings; and now ranked eighth among active drivers, Baker has stopped being a hired gun. He has become a co-owner, a sure-enough executive with his own money at risk—and thus stands with one foot in each world.
Not many drivers are willing to take such a chance, certainly no other in Baker's class. And if ever there was a subplot in the drama of a racing season, this one's it. What's warming the hearts in the grandstands around the circuit this season is to see big ol' Buddy making a run at them in his very own car. Why, look at him down there—the last of the undiluted, down-home drivers, a man you can hang your hat on. Never mind that he's having a reasonably awful season and surely isn't going to win diddly, as folks say. With two events left in the season, Baker has ranged from did-not-finish (12 times) to 15th, 12th, on up to a couple of fourth-placers. And his current 16th-place standing is not considered exactly within striking distance of winning the Winston Cup.
One looks around quickly for hopeful signs, for omens. Well, how about this? Baker has managed to stay right side up through this shakedown season.
In the old days, when Baker crashed there usually wasn't much left to salvage. Most smashups back then managed to strew bits and pieces of car through at least two turns and over half an acre or so of infield—and victories didn't go to the swift, but rather to the survivors.
Hark back to 1973 and the Winston 500 at Talladega: There was Baker out front, hitting maybe 200 mph in a Dodge owned by a gentleman named Harry Hyde. And tucked in tight behind Baker, grille-to-tailpipe, came Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison, the three of them rolling along like the world's fastest freight train. "We were going into the number two turn," Baker says, "when I looked up ahead and did a quick oh-my-god."
With good reason: The entire back half of the pack in front of them was crashing, cars tumbling and spinning out of control. Black smoke was punctuated with bright flashes of fire. "At 200 miles an hour, we're talking about split seconds," Baker says. "Ain't nothing to do but hit the kill switch and shut her down while rolling into that smoke. And then comes the part that I dread: There's always one moment of perfect silence before you get creamed. And then pow! I hit somebody a hell of a lick. And whap! Somebody hit me from the other side. And next thing I knew, the damn motor had fell right out, and I could look down between my feet through the floorboard and see the bare track spinning around."
Behind Baker, Yarborough was taking the same sort of blows, one of which bounced him aloft like an unguided missile. "Old Caleb came right up over the top of my car," Baker says, "and I remember looking up and seeing his whole bottom side passing close over my head—wheels clawing away at that empty air. But then somebody else hit me again, and I looked down, and this time I could see grass under my car. And while all this was going on, Harry Hyde was back in the pits, jumping up and down and screaming into my headphone radio: 'Yellow Flag! Yellow Flag!' Now, I sort of had that figured out for myself."
When the crashing finally stopped, along came one of those spontaneous moments in racing that make it so dear to its fans. "I sort of ran a mental checklist while climbing out of my car," Baker says, "and determined that I wasn't even scratched. Same time, not too far away, Cale must have been doing the same thing. And when we both ran over to each other we were so glad to be alive, we started bear-hugging and backslapping each other like fools. Hell, I'm still glad."
Who knows? Maybe it's a case of being born to it. Baker's father was the legendary Buck Baker, now ensconced in the stock car racing Hall of Fame—one of the hardest-driving high rollers of them all, NASCAR champ in 1956 and '57. And the racing style born in those days is in full blast today: Finesse and guile be damned, Baker prefers to wheel flat out, to drive it till it breaks, totally fearless and tough on equipment.
Baker was also the first man to break stock car racing's 200-mph barrier on a closed course, with a 200.447 record run at Talladega, prompting the Chrysler Corp. to come up with a promotion campaign touting him as America's No. 1 "Dodge Boy." "So far," says Baker, "I've never gone too fast in a car." Or too hard. Or too cautiously. If Baker had been content to back off just a bit when running out front, he might now be NASCAR's alltime winningest driver.
Now an air of earnestness is gradually coming over the old charger. Here's a guy who cheerfully confesses, "Some parts that nobody ever heard of seem to have flown off my cars"—and now he's suddenly cost conscious, for heaven's sake.
Just the perfect spot to introduce Danny Schiff, the man most responsible for Baker's new mood. In fact, there really ought to be some appropriate entry music, the theme from The Odd Couple perhaps, because these two men are the strangest partners since playwright Neil Simon dreamed up Felix and Oscar.
Schiff, 45, is the president and CEO of Bull Frog Knits—"Six million pieces a year of active apparel for kids"—and the co-owner of Baker-Schiff Racing. It's an equal split: He put up half (not counting his $300,000-a-year sponsorship of the car), and Baker put up half, and away they went. That was last November; by December, Schiff figures, the partnership will have spent $1.4 million to go racing with the big guys.
But wait. Lest those figures sound intimidating to anyone who started racing backwoods dirt tracks in a '40 Ford flat-head, Schiff has a wonderfully candid way of explaining the facts of NASCAR life in the mid-1980s. "Listen," he says, "more and more big corporations have discovered what's going on here. Pretty soon you're gonna have more businessmen in here than race drivers. This isn't a game anymore; it's all business. Look at the figures, it's all there for anybody to see: With a good team, there's no way, no way, you can't make a profit doing this."
And this is some team: Schiff is all ebullience and New York garment district chutzpah, while Baker is Southern reserve. Schiff talks much faster than Baker; Danny can leap upon a problem, discuss it from every possible angle, shake it all around and have it solved while Buddy's just clearing his throat. "Danny ain't got but one speed," says Baker, "and that's flat out." Schiff's accent is classic Broadway; Baker's is rural two-lane blacktop. But they're both obvious NASCAR high-society these days: buttery-soft leather Italian loafers, tailored jeans, the soft glow of gold jewelry everywhere. And both wear gold pinky-finger signet rings showing the graven image of the trademark bullfrog. With—what else?—real diamonds for eyes.
With all that, the only thing left to do is to start winning. They're setting about it methodically. Baker-Schiff Racing is tucked away where its secret stuff will be safe, in Kannapolis, which is about 15 miles northeast of Charlotte, which is where most of the big-time Grand National teams hang their torque wrenches. Current inventory in the 12,000-square-foot shop includes nine race cars at $60,000 to $70,000 a pop, stacks of engines and what looks to be every transmission in the Carolinas. Between races, Baker lurks about, counting pennies for the first time in his career.
"Nowadays," he says, "if I have to buy some spare parts, I don't just throw 'em in the back of the pickup truck. I put 'em up front with me, right there on the seat, where they won't get hurt."
Not far from the shop, on Lake Norman, Baker leads a laid-back life in a hillside house filled with valuable Chinese art, and has a speedboat tied up at the dock. His two sons, Bryan, 24, and Brandon, 19, work for dad at the shop and help crew the car—and one or both may go into racing some day, thus loosing yet another generation of Bakers on NASCAR.
Meanwhile, the high-speed team of Baker and Schiff is quietly lining up even more sponsors for the season ahead. General Motors has already delivered all the parts for the 1986 Oldsmobiles; they're a slightly more slippery design that will permit even higher speeds. "How about this?" Baker says. "After 26 years of racing, I'm just getting started." Turn that bullfrog loose.