RICHBURG — All you have to do is close your eyes and imagine.
The sound came first, the roar of an old ’34 Flathead Ford screaming up Mountain Gap Road.
Then the sight, the car careening all over what these days is called S.C. 901 south of Richburg in eastern Chester County.
Behind the wheel, in those days before and right after World War II – on the way to some dirt track in Lancaster or Rock Hill or Charlotte – would be a guy whose given name was Elzie, but was called by those who knew him as “Bunk.”
The rest of the world, later when he was among the hardest charging of all the hard-chargers, would call him “Buck.” Buck Baker.
Baker was chosen as part of the five-member class of 2013 for NASCAR’s Hall of Fame.
He was born in 1919 and raised in a little home place on Old Mill Road where the foundation is all that remains.
And he started out as all those great old-timers did – fixing up old cars and racing the juice out of them on dirt tracks until the big-time racing with its pavement and money came along.
Before NASCAR was big-time, and even after he moved to Charlotte, Buck Baker was the pride of Richburg. In 1956 and 1957 Baker won consecutive NASCAR titles.
“He was our great hero,” said David McCain, who has lived in Richburg all his life, now retired. “And still humble. He was in one of our first Christmas parades, the grand marshal.
“He came back one time in a 1956 race car, the numbers were painted over and he drove that number 87 car right into town. You could see the numbers under the paint.”
All the Richburg guys, those tough farm boys and mill boys, loved Buck Baker and his success in the early days of racing.
Baker, without huge sponsorships, came out of the days of building motors and carburetors with buddies at shops made out of concrete blocks and tin roofs – then racing like a hot comet on fire on the weekends.
“I remember it was 1965,” said John Agee, another from Richburg since forever. “I got tickets to the North Wilkesboro race with some guys, and I sat on the pit wall and here comes Buck pulling his car on a trailer – just a regular trailer anybody would pull a car on.
“The other teams had trailers and roll-backs and Buck had this new Chevrolet he bought straight from the showroom. Bunk – Buck – talked to us for hours. Can you imagine that today with these drivers? No way.”
And that 1964 Chevrolet straight off the dealer lot?
“Ran like a rocket in it, too, old Buck did,” said Agee.
Jean Hicklin Nichols, Richburg’s unofficial historian who knows everything about the town, said Buck Baker’s ties to Richburg always made the people in the tiny community of a few hundred people proud.
“Bunk was born here and raised here, and he is part of Richburg forever,” said Nichols. “He went to the old Richburg school, where Lewisville Middle School is now.”
Ask anybody from those days and he’ll tell you that Baker, who died at 83 in 2002, supposedly ran moonshine like so many early NASCAR drivers. While that might be hard to prove, it is accepted that nobody in those days between the York County line and Great Falls ever had a dry throat.
“Buck had his wild side, but he had his good and tender side, too,” said Herbert Gillespie, whose father was Baker’s first cousin and who still lives on the property next to where Buck Baker was born.
“I heard a story that he got locked up in Charleston one time for giving away ice cream. But it was because he had a job to sell it and couldn’t stand to see kids not have any. That was Buck.”
Yet on the track, Buck Baker was Dale Earnhardt before Dale Earnhardt.
“He did not like to lose,” said Gillespie. “You have to remember, those were different times and different racing. He was on his own and he would race to win.
“He was tough. He was a guy who did not like to lose. And he did not lose often.”
Richburg even now is tiny, with a population of about 275 people. Guys like Agee, the volunteer fire chief, and McCain, retired from a credit union, can sit at the fire station and say that Buck Baker was a Richburg boy just like them.
“When somebody goes on and has great success, it gives us all pride in Richburg,” said Agee. “Buck Baker won races everywhere he went. He raced hard and he raced fast and he raced to win.
“Now he’s headed to the hall of fame for racing. And he started out right here, in Richburg.”
Andrew Dys firstname.lastname@example.org