Ten years ago last month, Buck Baker died.
When I first saw the news, I sat for a while looking at the words, not really comprehending. Buck was not exactly a spring chicken when he died - in fact, he was 83. So it's not that he was too young to go, or that he died before realizing his true greatness. Anyone who knew Buck knew that he was great because he was... Buck.
It's just that I always thought the sumbitch was too tough and mean to die.
A whole generation of race fans is following stock car racing without ever hearing of Elzie Wylie "Buck" Baker, except perhaps as the father of former racer Buddy Baker (who himself is best known for his TV career to today's fans). And perhaps that's why NASCAR doesn't feel as soulless to them as it occasionally does to me.
Maybe, though, Buck's induction yesterday into the NASCAR Hall of Fame might inspire one or two fans to get to know the guy. Lord knows that anyone who puts any stock into NASCAR's rough-hewn, blue-collar image (which is basically window dressing at this point) ought to at least read up on Buck and his contemporaries.
Thankfully, before he went to that great speakeasy in the sky to kick the shit with his pals, I got to share a meal with him... and what an experience it was.
Buck was one of a hardy bunch of gritty, mud-encrusted, speed-loving maniacs upon which the great American tradition of stock car racing was founded. He drove in Carl Kiekhaefer's Chrysler 300s and Holman-Moody's fabulous Fords. The hard-drinking and harder-partying crowd he hung with included guys like Curtis Turner, Joe Weatherly, Tim Flock, and a long roster of other raconteurs and ne'er-do-wells who basically dominate NASCAR's list of best-ever drivers.
He drove for years without making more money than a moderately-paid cubicle monkey does today. After he retired, he started up a self-titled stock car racing school and settled down into the same pitiless anonymity in which most of NASCAR's early, and eventually forgotten, heroes lived out their old age. But about the only thing age softened on Buck was his voice, and all that basically did was to make it just a tiny bit harder to hear the epithets that rolled off his vulcanized tongue.
I met Buck at his driving school fifteen years ago, around the same time that I was beginning my professional career in racing. I was there for a three-day class at Rockingham Speedway. On the second of the three days, Buck invited Alex Padilla, an erstwhile Indy Lights driver who was exploring the possibility of a NASCAR career, out to dinner at a local restaurant called the Lob Steer. Alex was kind enough to invite me and my companions along, and what followed was an experience I will never forget.
We all sat around the table at the Lob Steer with Buck and his lead instructor, Joe Poindexter. Naturally, Buck was royalty at the restaurant, and the cook came out to attend to us personally. "Get these sumbitches whatever they want," Buck told the cook. After the chef left to carry out the order, Buck leaned over conspiratorially, his eyes glinting in merriment, and muttered, "I let him drive at the school for free in exchange for food. The sumbitch can't drive worth a shit, but he sure can cook."
We were to learn that if Buck called you a "sumbitch" or an "asshole," it meant you were all right in his book.
I can't remember everything I asked Buck over dinner. I tried to let him eat, but the temptation to plumb his vast wealth of experience and history was too overwhelming. Buck didn't seem to mind -- in fact, he appeared pleased to find someone interested in his career. He told us about the time he was late for a race and had to land his aircraft in the Rockingham infield ("They told me we had to take it apart to get it out," Buck remembered. "I told them that the only way we'd take that sumbitch apart was by flying it through the turn two wall."). He regaled us with his experience driving a group of petrified media scorps around Rockingham -- at speed, mind you -- in a Greyhound bus ("Damn fools thought it was gonna tip right over," he cackled). And he reminisced about his old racing pals, some of whom were long dead. He spoke of them fondly but manfully, almost like an old soldier would talk about his departed comrades in arms. No unnecessary sentiment, no descent into maudlin emotion or a sense of years lost... just a gruff, good-humored recollection of good days.
I was impressed by his equanimity. Life owed him nothing; time had not stolen anything from him. The passage of years was simply a journey he faced with the same single-minded, independent frame of mind that he applied to his racing. He was still hanging on and enjoying the ride, and he proved it to us the next day.
I had just gotten out of my car after a lapping session when I saw Buck walking slowly, in that creeping shuffle he used, over to his son Randy's spanking new Craftsman Truck on pit road. Gingerly, Buck pulled a white helmet over his silvery hair, then slowly, delicately climbed into the cockpit with the help of a couple of instructors.
The next thing we knew, we were a captive audience as Buck Baker, aging NASCAR legend, proceeded to terrorize the group of students out on the racetrack. The truck screamed into the turns and swept high to pass a student, who likely was soiling his driving suit at the sight of this white bullet streaking by him only inches away.
For nearly the whole lapping session, Buck gave the terrified students a hint of what it was like to be on the asphalt with someone who knew what to do with a steering wheel and a gas pedal. Most likely, the only thing keeping him from swapping paint with the greenhorns on the track was that the legal waiver the students signed didn't mention anything about "rubbin'."
He wasn't on track long - after all, it was hot, and even for someone who wasn't 83 years old the cockpit of a stock car in North Carolina's summer heat is not the most comfortable place in the world. It was long enough, though, to drive home the unquestionable reality that Buck Baker had no intention of taking life on anything but his own terms until they stuffed his weathered ass into a box.
Afterwards, when Buck had calmly pulled onto pit road, he carefully and slowly pulled himself through the driver window. Removing his helmet, he meticulously pushed his silver hair back into place. Then this tough old bird turned to us with a grin, and flashed an "OK" sign to us. We all knew what was coming - Buck had explained the significance of this on day one - but we waited for the punch line with gleeful anticipation nonetheless.
"That don't mean y'all are okay," he said with a twinkle in his eye. "It means y'all's a bunch of assholes."
Halls of Fame tend to sterilize those they honor with respectful, distant, impersonal biographies. I'll always be thankful for those three days that put a human face to the name that now adorns so many NASCAR record books. And if I ever make it out to the NASCAR Hall of Fame, I will look at Buck's exhibit and flash him the "OK" sign while no one is looking.
I think he'd appreciate the gesture.