CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Buddy Baker, who won the 1980 Daytona 500 and at 6-foot-6 was NASCAR's “Gentle Giant,” died Monday. He was 74.
Mr. Baker died after a brief battle with lung cancer, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio said. Mr. Baker left his job as co-host of “The Late Shift” for the station last month when he announced he had a “huge” inoperable lung tumor.
“Do not shed a tear. Give a smile when you say my name. I'm not saying goodbye. Just talk to you later,” Mr. Baker said in his final radio appearance.
Mr. Baker drove for more than 30 years and was honored as one of NASCAR's 50 greatest drivers in 1998. He was the first driver to exceed 200 mph on a closed course. The milestone came in 1970 at Talladega Superspeedway, where he won four times.
Born Elzie Wylie Baker Jr., Mr. Baker was the son of two-time champion and NASCAR Hall of Famer Buck Baker. He made his Cup Series debut in 1959 and ran his final race in 1992.
Mr. Baker won 19 races, highlighted by the 1980 victory at Daytona. He also won the 1970 Southern 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 in 1968, 1972 and 1973. He ranks 14th in NASCAR with 38 poles from 700 starts from 1959-1992. He had 202 top-five finishes and 311 top 10s.
“Many of today's fans may know Buddy Baker as one of the greatest storytellers in the sport's history, a unique skill that endeared him to millions,” NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France said. “But those who witnessed his racing talent recognized Buddy as a fast and fierce competitor, setting speed records and winning on NASCAR's biggest stages. It is that dual role that made Buddy an absolute treasure who will be missed dearly.”
Mr. Baker raced for Petty Enterprises in 1971 and 1972, winning one race each season.
“Buddy was always wide open and that's the way he raced and lived his life. He was always full of energy,” Hall of Fame driver Richard Petty said. “He was a person you wanted to be around because he always made you feel better.”
After retiring from racing, Mr. Baker remained involved in NASCAR. He was a broadcaster for The Nashville Network, then CBS and finally SiriusXM NASCAR Radio when the station started a NASCAR channel in 2007.
“I just want to say goodbye to everyone,” Mr. Baker said before signing off from his final broadcast, which lasted about 40 minutes. “Thanks for being a friend.”