(Reuters) - Buddy Baker, the 1980 Daytona 500 champion who became a popular commentator after his racing career ended in 1992, died on Monday of lung cancer at the age of 74, NASCAR said.
Baker, known as the “Gentle Giant” for his affable demeanor and 6-foot-6-inch (2.01 meters) frame, was a 2015 NASCAR Hall of Fame nominee and named in 1998 one of its 50 greatest drivers.
NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France called Baker “an absolute treasure who will be missed dearly.”
“Many of today’s fans may know Buddy Baker as one of the greatest storytellers in the sport’s history, a unique skill that endeared him to millions,” France said in a statement.
“But those who witnessed his racing talent recognized Buddy as a fast and fierce competitor, setting speed records and winning on NASCAR’s biggest stages.”
Baker, the son of son NASCAR Hall of Famer Buck Baker, became the first driver to surpass the 200-mph mark on a closed course while testing at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama in 1970.
The 177.6 mph Baker averaged in winning the 1980 Daytona 500 is a record that still stands. He recorded 19 wins in NASCAR’s premier series, including a victory in the 1970 Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina where he lapped the field.
Baker left his co-hosting position on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Late Shift” last month after announcing he had an inoperable tumor in his lung.
“Do not shed a tear,” he said in signing off. “Give a smile when you say my name. I‘m not saying goodbye. Just talk to you later.”
Reporting by Steve Ginsburg in Washington; Editing by Bill Trott