At Friday’s NASCAR Hall of Fame induction, the biggest name will be Rusty Wallace.
He’s still living, he was a big-name driver in the modern era. He was a star of TV races with millions of adoring fans. He spoke well and was handsome and had TV hair and a TV smile.
Wallace deserves every honor he gets – he earned all of it.
But one of the other five inductees came before TV and riches. He was born in 1919 in an old farmhouse out in the country just outside Richburg, in Chester County. It was so long ago the house is long gone.
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His real name is Elzie, but there is little doubt that anybody in Richburg when the bottles were passed around dared to call him anything but “Bunk,” his childhood nickname, or “Buck.”
And that inductee, the hard-charging, metal-scraping, rocket by the name of Buck Baker, is gone, too. He died at age 83 in 2002.
But Buck Baker of Chester County, a local legend in the days when legends were passed by word of mouth, not online, remains in the minds of those old enough to remember. There was almost no television when Baker was winning titles in the 1950s. He was a homegrown hustler who refused to lose.
Baker heads into that rarified air of hall of fame status as the guy who made all of Richburg, population a few hundred, and all rural Chester County proud.
“Some of us down here have been waiting for this hall of fame for so long, because Buck Baker deserves it,” said John Agee, the longtime fire chief in Richburg who was a huge Buck Baker fan growing up. “We had a genuine racing hero from Richburg. We knew him.”
Baker was the first grand marshal of Richburg’s Christmas parade more than a half-century ago. He drove into the tiny hamlet in his race car with the “87” on the door painted over.
“He was parked in front of the post office, standing there talking to my husband, and all the men wanted to talk to him because they followed him in the racing,” said Jean Hicklin Nichols, whose uncle married Baker’s aunt and is Richburg’s genealogy expert.
“They all enjoyed him and he was one of the guys. He would stop at the stores and the filling stations. The men, my husband was right there, would go to places like Darlington to cheer for him.”
Richburg is home to even fewer people now than it was then – fewer than the numbers at Friday’s Hall of Fame induction in Charlotte wearing tuxedos and shiny shoes.
When Baker raced at a nearby track – in Darlington or Charlotte or North Wilkesboro or Rockingham – there would hardly be a man left in Richburg, because everybody was at the race.
Still, from that rural Richburg of mechanics under shade trees and tin roofs, chewing tobacco and guts, rose the legend of Buck Baker after he moved to Charlotte so he could race and race and race.
He won 46 races and during the middle and late 1950s was the very hardest charger of all these hard chargers who wore half-helmets and no seatbelt as they raced faster than anybody before ever had on the face of the earth.
They fixed their own engines and hauled their own cars.
Racing today is done by clones. The cars get more care and have technology than airplanes. The money at stake is measured in the tens of millions.
Drivers drive some, wave a lot, live in mansions and have no engine grease under their nails or scarred knuckles from fighting – and they have bored audiences stiff.
Buck Baker drove so fast for so long that even after he retired, he taught race driving.
To make a living before racing supported him after he left Richburg, Baker drove a Charlotte city bus. Imagine one of these NASCAR drivers of today, hair thick with styling gel, after working out at the gym, hustling a day job to be able to race on the weekends.
Baker got his exercise lifting engine blocks and occasionally – if it’s true what Nichols and others say, that country boys had to make a dollar somehow – Mason jars full of white lightning.
It is unclear if anyone from Richburg will be at Friday’s ceremony.
But that ceremony will honor Buck Baker, and in doing so, honor this tiny place where, at one time, the fastest guy on four wheels first careened down the old “Number 9 highway” with not even a lawman who could catch him.