Elzie Wylie Baker Sr., better known to everyone as Buck, was one of the roughest, toughest, bare-knuckled racers in NASCAR history. And he was the love of Susan Baker’s life.
Buck Baker, who won 46 races and two championships in what is now known as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, was posthumously inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame Friday night, along with Leonard Wood, Rusty Wallace, Cotton Owens and Herb Thomas.
As it is each year, the ceremony was a moving experience, as were the subsequent press conferences, when the heroes of the sport were recognized and remembered.
Although Buck Baker passed away in 2002, his legacy in the sport remains strong, as does Susan’s devotion. She remains the president of the Buck Baker Racing School, which Buck founded in 1980 and counts Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart among its graduates.
“Buck always made an impression on people, whether it was good or bad,” said Susan. “If you ever met him, you never forgot him. It was never boring being married to Buck, either. He could make me laugh like no one else could and had that same effect on others. He was very handsome in a rugged kind of way. We had a wonderful life together, going to NASCAR races, visiting family and friends, and later meeting the thousands of people through our racing school.
“It's hard to describe him and what he meant to me,” Susan said. “As I said, he was the love of my life. I was just so honored to be there tonight and to accept it. I just wish he could have been here.”
It was an emotional night for Susan and for Baker's son, Buddy, as well.
“I'll tell you, I never have been one that had to look for words, but when you induct your father, that's a different story,” said Buddy. “I had anxiety today. … I said, ‘God, don't mess this up.’ That was my childhood hero. When I started racing, he was my hero, and when he passed away, he was still my hero. That's pressure. It's so much pressure because you want to do it right and make sure that everybody knows to me he was the champion on the racetrack, he was the champion in life.”
In the end, of course, Buddy did right by his father, whom he remembered as a hard-nosed racer and a great teacher, as well.
“I didn't realize how smart he was until I got a little bit older and realized what he passed on to me, because how many people have ever had a live in pro in their house?” Buddy said of Buck. “When I first started racing, I'd go to him and sit down, and I'd say, ‘What did you think of the way I was running on this dirt track?’ He said, ‘Well, I'll tell you, you've got some work to do.’ And I said, ‘In what way?’ And he laid it out just like if you lived with Arnold Palmer and you were a golfer. He said, ‘You need to get the car set, you don't need to use as much brake.’ I mean, he was watching all that, competing at the same time I was.”
Buck Baker personified the old-school mentality of the racers back in the day.
“My father was the most giving person in the world,” said Buddy. “…When Richard Childress was starting out, he came to the back of my dad's truck and wanted to borrow something, and he just opened the truck up and said, ‘Get what you want.’ He was that type of guy.
“But that same guy with 10 laps to go, he might put you out of there if you run into him. He lived by that theory. He raced you the way you raced him. If you come down there mad after the race, he'd stop you about six feet away. He'd say, ‘You take one more step, I know what you're here for, and they're going to carry you back where you came from.'”
That’s how racers were in those days.
“All those guys, they just got out,” said Buddy. “They had fought a war, got out of the Navy, come back to no jobs, no anything, and it was a means to feed the family. And they took it to heart. Like my dad said, I wouldn't want my own grandmother in that corner ahead of me on the last lap.”
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100.