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Legendary NASCAR Driver Buddy Baker Dies Of Cancer At 74

Buddy Baker, the 1980 Daytona 500 winner, has died at age 74. Here, he poses at Daytona International Speedway in 2007.
Marc Serota
Getty Images for NASCAR
Buddy Baker, the 1980 Daytona 500 winner, has died at age 74. Here, he poses at Daytona International Speedway in 2007.

He was one of racing's fastest drivers, the first in NASCAR to take a car to 200 mph on a closed course. When his career in racing ended, he became a commentator. Now, a month after lung cancer forced him to finally retire, Buddy Baker has died at age 74.

Baker won the pole position 40 times and finished first in 19 NASCAR races. In 1980, he won the Daytona 500 by driving at an average of more than 177 mph – a mark that still stands as the fastest in the race's history.

Born in 1941 in Florence, S.C., Baker's full name was Elzie Wylie Baker, Jr. He died at his Lake Norman home, outside of Charlotte, according to The Charlotte Observer.

"He brought a wonderfully engaging personality to the airwaves and his storytelling ability made his show a joy to listen to," SiriusXM NASCAR Radio said Monday. "As one of NASCAR's great competitors, he generously shared a wealth of knowledge – developed over many decades in the sport – with our listeners. He is greatly missed, and our thoughts and prayers are with his family."

Baker had two nicknames: "Leadfoot," for his talents behind the wheel, and "Gentle Giant," both for his height – 6 feet 6 inches – and for his demeanor. As that combination suggests, Baker, the son of legendary NASCAR driver Buck Baker, always wanted to be the first to cross the finish line.

"It killed my pride if I didn't run up front," Baker once said. "And if you didn't win, it was like being the second man to discover America."

With a 33-year career as a NASCAR driver, Baker could be said to be part of several generations of the sport. But he's perhaps best remembered for driving against fellow greats such as Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, David Pearson, and Bobby Allison. And Baker did it in what could be called the hard way, racing for more than a dozen teams (including his own) and in a variety of cars.

In 1970, Baker drove a winged Dodge Charger Daytona beyond what were then the limits of his sport, turning in a lap of more than 200 mph at the big track in Talladega, Ala. Afterwards, he said, "Gosh, I'm just tickled to death."

After Baker's final NASCAR race in 1992, he covered races for TV and radio; until recently, he was regularly heard on SiriusXM. When he retired from the satellite network in early July, Baker joked that it was the latest in a string of retirements.

Baker also said, "And to have a long career like I've had, do not shed a tear. Give a smile when you say my name."

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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