Buck Baker won the first 500-lap NASCAR Grand National (Winston Cup) race, the April Virgi
Junior Johnson, here as a team owner, talks things over with driver Terry Labonte in 1989.
Jeff Gordon, here a champion Sprint car driver in 1990, got a taste of driving Stock cars
Buddy Baker in 1988.
Good for Laughs
I recall several funny incidents, considering that no one got hurt, particularly at Darlington. We were there for the first Southern 500 in 1950. It was miserably hot as usual on Labor Day, and I’d never driven 500 miles. I thought what a treat it would be to have something cool to drink in my thermos bottle, located behind the seat and fitted with a rubber hose for sipping. So I filled mine with tomato juice. I wrecked early. I wasn’t hurt, but the juice splattered all over me. The first person to the car looked inside and saw me covered with what he thought was blood. "Gawd, get an ambulance," he exclaims, "Baker’s done cut his head off!"
Another time, at Hillsboro, North Carolina, I put beer in my thermos. After a few laps, the beer, jostled by the bumpy ride, foamed and the top came off the jug. The inside of the car looked like a washing machine. I had to explain that one to Bill France (NASCAR founder and president).
There was an Indy-car race at Darlington. One of the drivers had an artificial leg. He got in a wreck, and his artificial leg flew out of the open-wheel car onto the track. Fans were horrified. They couldn't see the Winn's Friction Proofing--an engine additive--sticker on the leg.
In yet another incident at Darlington, Joe Rumph was our crewchief, and Jimmy Thompson was driving my car. I don't remember why, but Thompson came into the pits in a hurry, running over the jack and other stuff. He asked who was leading the race? Rumph, livid, told Thompson that he was and to get out of there before he killed him. Thompson went back in the race in about 20th place.
Racing and the competitors were wild in the early days. The wildest night I can ever remember at a racetrack was at Pageland, South Carolina, a half-mile rut cut in a pasture, in the s. There was a bunch of fans sitting on the water wagon used to wet the track. A race car smashed into the center of the truck and people flew everywhere, although I don’t think anybody was hurt. After the race, a drunk decided he was going to drive around the track and plunged nose first into a pond off the backstretch used for filling the water truck. You couldn’t see anything except the car’s rear windows gleaming in the light. Soon the drunk surfaced, gurgling muddy water. I asked him if he wanted a wrecker. "Hell no," he says. "I’m going to drive this thing out of here."
Friend of Foe?
The late Chick Morris was one of the greatest friends I’ve ever had. I remember how we met. He walked up to me at the race in Pageland and asked if I was Buck Baker. I said, yeah, why? Back then we’d race 30 laps and fight for 45 minutes, so I was ready to defend myself. He quickly said he just wanted to meet me.
There was a Japanese restaurant in Atlanta that was a favorite of racers at that time. Morris would make a bunch of sound effects, such as tires squealing, motors revving, and stuff like that, anything for a laugh. The manager would come over and beg Morris to stop doing that. Morris would just laugh, a laugh that could be heard out in the street. Chick would kid the manager that if he didn't give him a recipe for something he was served he'd take it to the Pure Oil lab and have it analyzed.
Racing lost a true competitor when Junior Johnson retired. He was a go-or-blow driver and as a car owner he had some teams that were almost unbeatable. I remember going to Junior’s for a cookout one time when we were racing at nearby North Wilkesboro Speedway. They had mountain oysters and plenty of moonshine whiskey. I wasn’t familiar with mountain oysters. I ate some, which had been grilled or fried like chicken. They were delicious--until I found out that they were hog nuts (testicles).
Happy for Scott
I don’t think Wendell Scott (the first black driver/owner in Winston Cup and for many years the only one) had a closer white friend than I believe I was. Many racers gave him a hard time, including some of my friends, but I got along fine with him and tried to help him. He did as well as anybody with the equipment he had. I was flagged the winner of a 100-lapper on a half-mile dirt track at Jacksonville, Florida, in 1964 and went to the winner’s circle. Scott protested and asked for a check of scorecards, which revealed that his scorer had missed two laps. By the time he was declared the winner, all the fans had left the track. I’ll always believe that I won the race, but I don’t want to take anything from Scott by saying that. It was OK with me, and I was happy for him. (Scott’s only career victory came at age 42.) He came to the next race driving a big, long Cadillac that looked like a limousine. I asked why he got the car. He says, "Well, Mr. Buck, I’d won a race and wanted to look the part."
In 1964, I drove Ray Fox’s Dodge in the Southern 500. I was 45 years old at the time. Fox was concerned that I was too old to run 500 miles. Others had written me off as too old. I told Fox not to worry about the horse, just load the wagon. Buddy (Buck’s son) was there, and toward the end of the race, Fox was seriously thinking that I might need relief. Buddy told him there was absolutely no need to say anything to me, because I wouldn’t get out of the car. And he’s never been more right. The victory was my third in the Southern 500 (the others were in 1953 and 1960), and it was the biggest thrill I had in racing. There was nothing left for me to prove to those who had said I was finished. (Only one other driver, Herb Thomas, had won three of the storied fall classics at Darlington to that point in time. Cale Yarborough won five in his career. Jeff Gordon has won an incredible record four in a row).
Before I started racing regularly, I drove a commercial bus. I was on a run one night, headed for Union, South Carolina, the final destination. There were about 20 passengers on board. Somebody said there was a square dance in the town of Chester. The vote to go to the dance was unanimous among the passengers, who were singing and having a good time. So I parked the bus and we all went in. Meanwhile, the dispatcher had the police out looking for the bus. We got to Union three hours late and in bad shape. The passengers were half drunk, hanging out the windows and waving and carrying on. Driving into the garage to park the bus, I almost ran over the owner of the company. He fired me on the spot and rehired me the next morning before it was time to make another run.
Like several pioneer drivers, I flew my own airplane. I was a daredevil, doing about as many crazy things in planes as I did in Stock cars. One time, I landed my twin-engine plane in the infield at (1.017-mile) North Carolina Speedway. The track president, L.G. DeWitt, told me I’d have to disassemble the plane to get it out of there. I says the only way I’ll disassemble that thing is if I hit the wall or something else while leaving there. I didn’t hit anything.
Years ago, I flew Bruton Smith in my single-engine plane to the used-car auction near Darlington Raceway. At that time, Bruton bought one car at a time. Now he's so wealthy he can buy all of the cars at numerous car auctions. In spite of my antics, I was a pretty decent pilot. I could land the single-engine about anywhere that had 700 feet. I landed in the parking lot, knocking down a wooden well shed--not an outhouse as reported many times--in the process. The plane was damaged and had to be hauled away, but I didn't have to disassemble it.
I like this story best. Buddy and I were flying near Rockingham. One of the engines began to sputter, and I didn't know why, although later I found a crimped fuel line. I decided to land in a pasture that was full of cows. I made a pass to scare the cows so I had room to land. After I landed, we got out and started walking, and here comes a bull that must have weighed 1,000 pounds. Both of us climbed a pine tree. The bull sort of camped out at the base of the tree, and we had to stay there for at least two hours.
Wierd Mr. K
In 1955, Karl Kiekhaefer, a wealthy perfectionist and one of the most unforgettable characters I’ve ever met, hired me away from the Ford factory team to drive his Chrysler 300s. I won 14 (of 48) races and the NASCAR Grand National championship in 1956. Stories on Kiekhaefer, who got into racing to promote his Mercury outboard motor business and made the Hall of Fame, are legendary. He was the type of guy who would buy a car off the showroom floor at a dealership in the town where we were racing and put it on the track. He’d ask to buy a restaurant where he got poor service. He’d check the texture of soil at racetracks and had a weatherman with him to measure the moisture content in the air. One of his pet peeves was his employees sitting around during work hours. One day, a big van arrived at his boat-motor plant in Wisconsin. Having to wait to unload, the van driver got out and sat down to rest. Kiekhaefer came along, smoke trailing from his long cigar. He approached the driver and asked how much money he made per week. The driver told him and Kiekhaefer paid him that amount. Then he walked inside to the plant foreman and told him he’d better get someone to replace the truck driver, that he had just fired him. "Hell, Mr. K, you can’t do that," the foreman says. "He doesn’t even work for us."
Gordon’s Career Decision
Racing people know about everything there is to know about Jeff Gordon. But, it’s not common knowledge that he made his decision to make a career in Stock cars at my driving school in Rockingham. Gordon was 19, too young to rent a car legally, so his mother (Carol) came along. On the day Gordon attended the school, his mother allowed him to drive the rental car to the track while she stayed at the motel, saying she didn’t want to embarrass him. I had seen Gordon race Sprint cars on TV and was impressed, but he hadn’t driven a heavy Stock car. That didn’t matter. He turned North Carolina Speedway about three seconds faster than the school car he was driving had ever gone. He drove to the motel and told his mother that Stock car racing was what he was going to do for the rest of his (racing) life. I knew then that he was going to be a hell of a driver. I guess the rest, shall we say, is history in the making.