Hall Pass Spotlight:
NCSHOF MEMBER (Class of 1992)
By HELEN ROSS
Two things you probably didn’t know about Buck Baker, one of NASCAR’s greatest drivers.
First, his given name was Elzie Wylie Baker Sr. and second, he started out driving a relatively sedate city bus in Charlotte, not a souped-up stock car.
According to his son, Buddy, who was also an accomplished NASCAR driver, the nickname stuck because he was “wilder than a buck rabbit.” His father honed his skills behind the wheel like many drivers of his generation, running moonshine and outracing the law.
Baker started racing when he was 34 and entered his first NASCAR race in Charlotte in 1949. He picked up his first NASCAR win in 1952 in Columbia, S.C., and his last came in 1964 when he won his third Southern 500 at Darlington, S.C., this time as a 45-year-old grandfather.
His experience was key in that final Southern 500 win, too. Baker, who was known as an aggressive driver, held steady while wrecks and mechanical issues took 31 of his competitors out. As a result, he won by a whopping two laps.
When Baker retired in 1976, he had 46 victories as well as a phenomenal 372 top-10s in 682 starts. He was the first driver to win consecutive premier series championships in 1956 and ’57 and he bookended those with second place finishes in the season-long competition. Baker also finished in the top five four more times.
“He was one of the first heroes of NASCAR — almost like a movie star,” Junior Johnson said in Baker’s 2013 NASCAR Hall of Fame induction video.
“He didn’t seem to have to work as hard at it as a lot of other drivers to become very good,” fellow NASCAR Hall of Famer Ned Jarrett said in the same video. “Just a natural born race driver.”
Baker and Johnson were both members of the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame’s Class of 1992. Jarrett joined his friends in the NCSHOF in 2011.
As impressive as his longevity and competitiveness were, Baker was also known for his versatility as a driver. He drove modified cars, stock cars and open wheel cars – and he won his back-to-back premier series titles for different teams and one year in a Chrysler and the other in a Chevrolet.
In addition to competing, Baker and two partners leased racetracks like the Charlotte Speedway and Air Base Speedway in Greenville in the 1950s to promote races. When Baker retired in 1976, he continued to stay involved in the sport, opening up driving schools in Rockingham, N.C.; Bristol, Tenn., Atlanta and Darlington. Among the graduates? Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman.
Baker, and his son Buddy, who won 19 NASCAR races, were both selected among NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers in 1998.
“Throughout the entire racing world, I don’t know of anybody who would have said he didn’t give 110 percent from the time they dropped the green flag until the time the race was over,” Buddy told Motorsports.com when his father died in 2002 at the age of 83.
“He was that same way in life, too.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Photos with this story are courtesy the NASCAR Hall of Fame, both from 1957. We are grateful for its assistance.
PIONEERING NASCAR DRIVERS HONORED IN NCSHOF
Hard-charging Buck Baker, inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame in 1992, was certainly one of the greats from the early days of NASCAR racing.
But that induction class of 1992 featured a couple of other tremendous names from the history of racing in our state.
Herb Thomas was another pioneer NASCAR driver in that induction class who won 49 races in the 1950’s, taking the checkered flag an incredible 12 ties in both 1953 and 1954.
Thomas, born in Harnett County and raised in Olivia, NC, captured three Southern 500s and won the series points championship in both 1951 and ‘53 and was runner-up three times from ‘51 to ‘56. His active racing career was cut short by a wreck suffered in Shelby in 1956.
Robert Glenn “Junior” Johnson was also a part of that induction class in 1992 who got his “racing” start running moonshine near his home in Wilkes County. From there he began racing in the mid-1950’s and was also one of the great early stars.
Johnson won 50 races in his career, including a whopping 13 in 1965, and was the first driver to win at each of the four original superspeedways: Darlington, Dayton, Charlotte and Atlanta.
He became a successful stock car owner after retiring from driving a race car in 1966.
The first NCSHOF inductee who was affiliated with racing was the immortal Lee Petty, the father of the “King” of later years, Richard Petty. Lee Petty, born in Level Cross, NC, in 1914, joined the NCSHOF in 1966, competed in the first NASCAR events and won the inaugural Daytona 500.
His career as a driver ended after a serious wreck at Dayton in 1961. He had 54 career victories and went on to oversee the well-known Petty Enterprises racing empire.
The early days of NASCAR, with deep roots in North Carolina, are well represented in the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.