Serious Characters in Hall Class of 2013

By Ryan McGee

ESPN The Magazine, NASCAR

February 8, 2013

On Wednesday evening, I was reading my colleague Ed Hinton's great piece on this year's NASCAR Hall of Fame class and realized that, though certainly not to the degree of Hinton, I have been honored to have had personal interactions with each one of this year's inductees.

We all have a Rusty Wallace story or two. Same goes for Leonard Wood, who remains active in the sport as part of still-competitive Wood Brothers Racing. He's even on Twitter (@Leonard_Wood)!

But what about the other three? The racers who did their legendary work long ago and are no longer with us? Please indulge me three quick stories. Perhaps they will give you a little insight into the men who are about to take their rightful places in the Hall of Honor.

Herb Thomas

I met Thomas, a two-time NASCAR champion and winner of three of the first five Southern 500s, during NASCAR's 50th anniversary celebration in 1998. Honestly, I thought he was already dead.

"No," the soft-spoken North Carolinian replied with a laugh during an interview I did with him for "RPM2Night." "Not yet. Though I did worry sometimes that people had forgotten about me."

The people he raced with and against certainly hadn't, having voted him to the list of NASCAR's 50 Greatest Drivers. A few months earlier, a fellow member of that list had described to me two of Thomas's most distinguishing traits.

"He was like ol' Jekyll and Hyde, know what I mean?" said Lee Petty, one of Thomas' biggest rivals during the 1950s and a member of the Hall of Fame's second class in 2011. "He was a family man. Kind of quiet. Did his thing. But then you'd get him behind that wheel and he turned into a wild man."

As for that other unique characteristic: "You always knew when it was him because of that nose. I can remember running along and racing and then you would look over and see that big ol' nose of his sticking out the window. 'Well, hell, there's Herb.' "

I recounted that tale for Thomas. He just smiled and touched his most pronounced feature. "I guess this was their warning that they were about to get passed."

Buck Baker

Baker was also a part of that legendary mixed bag of early racing rivals, winning back-to-back championships in 1956-57 in the midst of the great decade-long four-way title fight that was Baker versus Petty versus Thomas versus Tim Flock.

But no one was ever going to mistake Elzie Wyle Baker Sr. for the mild-mannered Thomas. Not even close. Like Thomas, he was a master at Darlington Raceway, winning the Southern 500 three times and making his final start there in 1976 at the age of 57. Unlike Thomas, who preferred to quietly celebrate race wins with the wife and family, Baker preferred to erect impromptu Delta Houses.

During that same 50th anniversary season of '98, Buck told me a story that I have worked tirelessly to have verified over the years. Those who dare to back it up refuse to have their name attached to it. The one time I asked his son, Buddy, about it, the 1980 Daytona 500 winner only smiled and said, "No comment".

After winning the 1960 Southern 500, at the time the biggest stock car race in the world, Buck vanished. Back home in Charlotte, his family worried that he had been kidnapped or killed by a robber. After all, the then-massive amount of his $19,900 paycheck had been splashed across newspapers throughout the country.

But a couple of days later, the phone rang at the Baker house. It was Buck. He was drunk. Like, Captain Jack Sparrow slurred-speech drunk.

"Somebody come down here and get me!" He hung up.

A few hours later, the phone rang again. "Dammit! Somebody come down here and get me!" Click. Again.

Clearly, no one had stolen the winnings. Buck was spending the cash on the biggest party the state of South Carolina had seen since the Reconstruction. It's just that no one knew exactly where in the Palmetto State it was taking place. Including, apparently, the host.

"I eventually made it home," Baker recalled in '98, four years before his death. He chuckled, with more of a groan than a laugh. "The money didn't."

Cotton Owens

Ever since the NASCAR Hall of Fame has been in business, every event, whether it's been a class election announcement or an induction ceremony, has been attended by a small group of gray-haired gentlemen that I call the Spartanburg Posse. Bud Moore, David Pearson and Cotton Owens all hail from the South Carolina town, always raced out of there and always carpooled to Charlotte for Hall of Fame events. Now they are all Hall of Famers.

In October 2009, they rode to Charlotte for the election of the inaugural five-person class. Moore and Owens were on the voting panel. Pearson, considered by many to be the greatest driver in stock car racing history, was there because he expected to be voted in.

He was not.

In one of the most heartbreaking scenes I have ever witnessed on this job, Pearson was consoled by Owens, the car owner with whom the Silver Fox won his first Cup title in 1966. As the celebration started for those voted in, Pearson bolted for the door. I followed him, in the rain, to his car outside the Charlotte Convention Center. He thanked me for walking with him, said he didn't want to talk about it and then jumped behind the wheel and blew out of the parking lot, squealing the tires as he headed home, 75 miles back to Spartanburg.

I walked back into the Convention Center, where Owens was standing inside the door.

"Were you with David?" he asked.

Yes, I told him. I began to describe how disappointed his old friend was, and then I launched into some rambling speech about how I knew the omission was just as difficult for Owens as it was for Pearson. Blah blah blah.

"Son," Owens said, cutting me short. "So David got in the car and left?"

"Yes, sir. Can you blame him?"

"No, I can't. But he was my ride home."