Higgins' Scuffs: Give Buddy a break

ThatsRacin.com ContributorJuly 31, 2013 

Random thoughts on Buddy Baker, Ryan Newman and Randy Earnhardt…

When the NBC brass begins casting for the telecast team that will work its NASCAR races starting in 2015, here’s hoping they consider Buddy Baker for an analyst spot.

The former driver, winner of every major superspeedway event that was on the schedule when he competed, is knowledgeable, witty and conveys information to viewers in a way that’s easy to understand.

Buddy, who drove from 1959-92, formerly worked in the booth for both CBS and ESPN. He presently hosts a popular motorsports talk show on Sirius Radio.

Few know the history of the sport like Buddy. He has seen it from the beginning on June 19, 1949 at a dirt track in Charlotte. His father, NASCAR Hall Of Famer Buck Baker, was in the field for the sanctioning body’s inaugural race.

He isn’t shy about contradicting colleagues who utter something incorrect. For example, an anchorman once said that a crash into the barrier in a turn at Dover Downs “has moved the wall.”

Observed Baker, “That wall is boiler plate steel backed up by the state of Delaware! That wreck didn’t move it.”

And he was right.

During an interview one of the current drivers who fancies himself a sharp wit once asked Buddy at superfast Talladega, “Baker, think you could handle the speeds we’re running here nowadays?”

Buddy gave him a chilling stare.

“Son,” replied Baker, a four-time winner at the Alabama track, “I never ran THIS SLOW at Talladega.”

It would be a delight to have Buddy back in a big-time booth.

NASCAR has produced some especially heartwarming victories through its long history. Benny Parsons rallying from a wreck in the season finale at Rockingham to take the Cup Series championship in 1972 ... Richard Petty winning his 200th race in 1984 at Daytona with President Ronald Reagan in attendance ... Bobby Allison and son Davey finishing a close 1-2 in the 1988 Daytona 500 ... Ernie Irvan coming back from life-threatening head injuries to win at New Hampshire in 1996 ... And now Ryan Newman winning the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

I imagine that every kid in Indiana at some time has dreamed of driving to victory lane at the famed Brickyard. A native of South Bend, it was more that a dream for Ryan. It was a passion. Sunday he made it happen, and that is special.

Pick any cliché about nice guys and it applies to Ryan.

Example: In 2004 I was a consultant to a TV crew filming shows featuring NASCAR figures for the Outdoor Life Network.

We went to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western N.C. for trout fishing with Ryan as the star. My grandson, Jeffrey McCarter, then 9, went along. His favorite driver was Ryan, who in Jeffrey’s first trip to a track, had won a Nationwide Series race.

The kid was in such awe he hardly could speak.

Ryan put him at ease, sat with him at a picnic table during lunch, heartily congratulated him on his catch of a big trout and then gave him a ride along a trail on an ATV.

Jeffrey will treasure that day forever, just as Ryan will treasure Sunday at Indy.

Newman presently is looking for a ride in 2014.

With his pleasant personality and command performance in the Brickyard 400, I doubt this founder of an animal rescue organization will have to look very far.

My heart-felt condolences to the family of Randy Earnhardt at his passing a few days ago.

A younger brother of 7-time Cup Series champion Dale Earnhardt, Randy died of cancer at age 60.

Randy was part of a most memorable incident I experienced with the colorful driver. I relate it again:

After Dale won his first title in 1980 at Ontario Motor Speedway in California, he asked me to stop over in Las Vegas with him and his younger brothers, Randy and Danny, en route home to Charlotte. I planned to go any way, but a day later.

I hurried through my stories, fetched my bag from a hotel and made it to the airfield for a commercial flight to Sin City with the Earnhardts. Broadcaster Barney Hall was along and so was Sam Moses of Sports Illustrated.

A crowded, hectic Circus-Circus had rooms waiting for each of us -- EXCEPT Dale and his brothers. Barney and I headed for an elevator gleefully waving our keys at the red-faced champ. Shortly my phone rang. Randy was on the line. “Tom, Dale says to get up here to our room right now or he never will give you an interview again.”

Anxious to gamble, I grudgingly went. Barney arrived at the same time. Randy answered the door. The room was opulent. There were statues of Venus de Milo and other fabled figures. A candelabrum sat on a grand piano. We found Dale in a separate room. Barefooted, he lay on a giant, circular bed that rotated slowly. He had a bottle of iced champagne in each hand.

“Do your rooms look like this?” he demanded sharply. “If not, I better never see or hear a story about me not having a room!”

He didn’t ... At least not until I returned to Charlotte.

Surprisingly, Dale never retaliated. He liked me writing about his hunting exploits too much, I suppose.

Every time I saw Randy in the succeeding years we chuckled about the tale of his roomless brother, who lost his life in a Daytona 500 crash in 2001.

I will miss sharing the story with him ...

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