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."