CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Friday night’s NASCAR Hall of Fame induction ceremony marked the end of a long-awaited road for late driver and broadcaster Buddy Baker.
After six years on the Hall of Fame voting ballot, it was finally Baker’s time to be in the limelight.
The man known as NASCAR’s Gentle Giant was one of five new inductees into the Hall of Fame, comprising a part of the Class of 2020 and taking his place forevermore among stock-car racing’s elite.
Baker won 19 times during a 35-year Cup Series career, including the 1980 Daytona 500, where he set a race-record speed of 177.602 mph that still stands four decades later as the event’s fastest running.
He only ran a full season twice – back-to-back years in 1976 and 1977 – but finished among the top 10 in Cup Series points five times, including a career-best fifth during his 1977 campaign with Bud Moore.
But Baker’s most well-known attribute was his sheer speed behind the wheel.
In addition to his record-setting Daytona 500 win, Baker was the first man to crack the 200-mph threshold, hitting the hallowed speed during testing at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway and leading to the nickname “Leadfoot” by some of his contemporaries.
It was a quality that Roush Fenway Racing’s Ryan Newman nodded to when he introduced Baker to the Hall of Fame audience in attendance during Friday night’s induction ceremony.
“You can tell you’re in trouble when you feel the air on the back of your neck instead of in your face,” Newman said, quoting the late Baker. “It’s a motto I live by every time I take the track.
“The only thing faster than Buddy’s wit was his speed in a race car. Once he got out front, no one was getting by him.”
After his driving days ended, Baker went on to a long broadcasting career in both television and radio, representing some of the most well-known brands in the sport: TNN, TBS, CBS, and later SiriusXM.
Baker was first nominated for the NASCAR Hall of Fame ahead of the vote for the class of 2015, but much like the Harley J. Earl Trophy, a nod by voters to put him in the Hall of Fame remained elusive.
Five times his name was on the nomination list, but all five times, his name was never called.
That finally changed last May, as Baker was selected on 70 percent of the 57 ballots cast and finally was awarded his place in NASCAR history for all time – a place many felt was long overdue.
Waddell Wilson, Baker’s former crew chief who was also enshrined on Friday night, spoke to that fact during his post-induction availability with media members at the Charlotte Convention Center.
“It’s a shame he couldn’t be here with us to enjoy this, because it’s a moment that he would have dreamed about,” Wilson said. “He definitely deserved to be in, for a lot of reasons. “People don’t know it, but back in the 60s when they first built Daytona with (Big) Bill (France) in ‘59, Buddy probably did more testing at Daytona than any human being, with Firestone at the time when they were in NASCAR and then with Goodyear. Nobody had the amount of laps that he did at Daytona.
“I remember when he was getting ready for the ‘80 Daytona 500, he came to me and he said, ‘I’ve been trying for 19 years to win this race; I sure would love to win it,’” recalled Wilson. “And I was so happy for him when he won it, because you could see him coming down pit road and I’d never seen a smile like that on his face like it was that day. I imagine that’s what he would have been like tonight if he’d been here.”
During his final SiriusXM show in 2015, a month before he passed away, Baker revealed his diagnosis of inoperable lung cancer to the fans listening nationwide and asked a simple request of them all.
“Do not shed a tear, but give a smile when you say my name,” Baker noted.
And Baker would have been happy to see all the beaming grins surrounding the induction ceremony when his name was called one more time on Friday night.
After a long wait, the Gentle Giant’s legacy became cemented once more.