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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.