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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."
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."