Racing was always in Elzie Wylie Baker Jr.’s blood.
If you have no idea who Elzie was, perhaps you might know him by his more recognized name, Buddy, or one of his nicknames the “Gentle Giant” (he was 6’ 6” after all) or “Leadfoot.” He was the son of two-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Buck Baker.
When he was born on January 25, 1941, his father Buck, a retired bus driver, had been racing competitively for two years. Eight years later when NASCAR hosted its inaugural premier series race at the old Charlotte Speedway, the elder Baker was among the 33 drivers in the starting field. He finished the race 11th.
His biggest fan at the track that day was most likely his eight-year-old son, Buddy.
In 1956, when Buddy, the oldest of four children, was 15 years old, his father won his first of two consecutive titles – the first driver in NASCAR’s premier series to win back-to-back championships. By this time, the racing bug had already seized hold of the younger Baker.
In 1959, at just 18 years of age and two years after his father’s second title, Baker suited up for his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race – the 100-mile event at Columbia (S.C.) Speedway. After starting the race 18th in the No. 89 Chevrolet owned by his father, he finished 14th, five spots in front of his dad. The younger Baker only completed 53 of the 200 scheduled laps due to problems with his car’s shocks.
He competed in just 12 events during his rookie campaign. His best finish that season came in the season finale at Concord (N.C.) Speedway where he finished fourth – one spot behind his dad. He drove the No. 88 Chevrolet for Lynton Tyson in the race.
The following season (1960), Baker competed in 15 of 44 races, driving seven different cars for five different car owners. In 1961 and 1962, he drove a Chrysler for his father. His best finish during that timeframe – and his best up to that point in his career – was a third-place showing at North Carolina’s Asheville-Weaverville Speedway in March 1962.
In the third-to-last race of the 1967 season, Baker finally made his way to Victory Lane at Charlotte Motor Speedway after beating the rest of the field to the finish line by more than a lap. On his way to the checkered flag, he led 160 of the event’s 334 laps. He was behind the steering wheel of the No. 3 Dodge Charger 500 owned by Ray Fox.
The partnership between Fox and Baker first began in 1964 when the latter drove the Fox-owned No. 3 Dodge in one race. Baker drove off and on for Fox over the next three years before finally driving exclusively for the car owner starting with the 1968 Daytona 500. Between 1968 and 1969, Baker drove the car in 43 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races.
One of the events Baker entered while driving Fox’s No. 3 Dodge Charger 500 was the 1969 Daytona 500. Heading into the biggest race of the season, he was pumped up about the prospects of winning the race in the car.
“We won the pole and we should’ve won the race, but we had a pit stop problem,” Baker told Phil Blount, president of University of Racing, as the driver signed windshields for upcoming die-cast. (Autographed and non-autographed die-cast of Baker’s never-before-offered 1969 No. 3 Dodge Charger 500 are available here.)
He led 22 laps before finishing the race fifth, two laps behind winner LeeRoy Yarbrough.
Baker drove for Fox only four more times before signing on to drive the No. 6 Dodge of Cotton Owens. Over the next 25 years, Baker drove for some pretty big owners. In addition to suiting up for Fox and Owens, he also spent time in the cockpit of cars owned by Petty Enterprises, Nord Krauskopf, Bud Moore, Harry Ranier, Hoss Ellington and the Wood Brothers.
Baker always had a knack for the big tracks, especially Talladega Superspeedway. On March 24, 1970, he was the first driver to eclipse the 200-mph mark in a stock car, doing so during a test session at the 2.66-mile superspeedway. Later that year, he won Darlington Raceway’s Southern 500, something he had dreamed of since he was nine years old.
In terms of wins, 1975 was his most successful. In only 23 starts (out of 30), Baker won four times while driving for NASCAR Hall of Fame car owner Bud Moore. That season, he won both events at Talladega and a win apiece at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Ontario Motor Speedway (the last two races of the season). He only had one other season where he posted more than two wins; he won three events in 1979.
Perhaps the crowning win of his career came in 1980 when he started the Daytona 500 on the pole in the Ranier-owned No. 28 NAPA/Regal Ride Oldsmobile Cutlass that was nicknamed the “Gray Ghost.” Several teams thought Baker had an unfair advantage because the silver and gray design made the car blend into the track’s asphalt. When the race ended under caution, Baker was out in front of Bobby Allison – the only other driver on the lead lap. That day he set a track record for the fastest Daytona 500 ever (177.602 mph), which still stands today.
In 33 seasons of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series competition, Baker only ran two complete seasons (1976-77). During both seasons, he piloted the No. 15 Ford for Bud Moore, winning the spring Talladega event in 1976. In 1977, he finished fifth in the final points standings – the best finish in his career.
In 1985, Baker fielded his own car and did so through the 1988 season. He took the following season off only to return in 1990. Over the next three seasons he only competed in 17 races before finally hanging up his driving gloves for good after the spring 1992 race at Talladega where he finished 31st.
When the time came for him to finally retire for good from a driving career that spanned more than three decades and 19 wins in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Baker easily transitioned into his new role. From 1992 to 2015, he provided racing commentary and analysis for The Nashville Network, CBS and Sirius XM Radio.
Then on August 10, 2015, NASCAR’s “Gentle Giant” lost his fight with lung cancer at the age of 74 while at his home in North Carolina.
Although Baker’s infectious smile, affinity for a good story and insightful commentary will be missed by all who were able to know or listen to him, his speed and competitiveness on the race track is what legends are made of.