Bud Baity chats with Jeff Gordon prior to a 1995 Cup race at North Wilkesboro. Although it was the only time Baity ever met the driver himself, the Yadkinville, N.C. businessman once bought a Silver Crown car from Gordon's stepfather, John Bickford. The hood of the machine hangs in Baity's tire shop to this day. (Bud Baity Collection)
By Rick Houston
At first glance, there’s nothing really out of the ordinary about Bud Baity’s office.
A sofa takes up one of the room’s brick walls – that’s how small the area is – while a desk lines most of another. With so much “stuff” piled here and there on top of the desk, it’s anybody’s guess on what color it might be. There’s bound to be a tabletop calendar under there somewhere, and sure enough there is. It’s from 1988.
With the exception of several old racing photographs and posters that hang on Baity’s wall, there are millions of workspaces just like this one. He opens a drawer on his desk and instantly, it becomes a portal to another time and place in the evolution of what we now know as NASCAR. This is more than just another office in just another business.
It’s a time capsule.
Bud Baity, now 81, opened his first tire shop in 1948. He’s been involved in the business ever since, not counting a two-year hitch in the Army during the Korean War. Every step of the way, Baity has been deeply involved in one form of racing or another, either as a participant or fan. There may be folks whose roots in racing run deeper than Baity’s, but not many.
His family attended its first Indianapolis 500 in 1935, and four years later, Baity’s father sank $40,000 into the construction of a mile-long dirt track in High Point, N.C. Baity remembers well carrying water from a spring to workers building the track who were paid 25 cents an hour.
“Dad built a race track and they run stock cars,” Baity recalled. “They had some good racing there. They built the track in 1939 and =40. They ran the first race there in the fall of 1940, and then they ran in =41, three or four different races. Then the war got =em and they called the racing off. They couldn’t make the payments and lost the whole thing.”
Today, a housing development sits on the land once occupied by High Point Motor Speedway.
His uncle, Buck Baity, made his one and only NASCAR start in the 1951 Southern 500 at Darlington. Buck started 77th in the 82-car field … 77th in an 82-car field. Do the math. That’s nearly twice the size of today’s starting grid. The elder Baity completed 248 of the event’s 400 laps, and was credited with a 61st-place finish in his No. 44 1950 Buick.
The truth be told, Bud Baity is more an open-wheel racing fan than he is of NASCAR. Name a track anywhere in the eastern half of the United States, and it’s a better-than-even-money bet that Baity has been there many, many times. He has owned a handful of entries and helped finance countless more. Hanging around the pits, it was nothing unusual for Baity to slip a young hotshoe a hundred bucks or so to buy a fresh tire.
Two drivers in particular with both open-wheel and NASCAR connections seem to be Baity’s favorites – A.J. Foyt and Tony Stewart.
“Everybody liked A.J. Foyt,” Baity said. “He could really wheel a dirt car, I want to tell you. He was good. He was everybody’s favorite. There was a lot of people I liked to see run good, but you try not to have favorites.”
As for Stewart, Baity’s respect for the driver is obvious. There are at least a couple of Stewart standups and a poster or two in the main showroom of Baity Tire in Yadkinville, N.C., with one of the driver’s pennants on the door of his office.
“I just met him at the race track,” Baity remembered. “He was fast. I handed him either $200 or $300 one time in the pits. He was down working on the car. He was continuously working on the race car. He knows every moving part, what it does and why it does it. He’s good. He was raised up in one of them things.”
A lifelong open-wheel fan, Bud Baity has two drivers he calls the best he's ever seen -- A.J. Foyt and Tony Stewart. This postcard was produced by Stewart's fan club, and it celebrates his Silver Crown championship in 1995. (Bud Baity Collection)
The hoods of two open-wheel cars hang from the ceiling of Baity’s showroom. One was off a machine Baity once fielded for driver Pepe Marchese and the other was steered by a competitor who would go on to put together a fairly impressive resume in NASCAR.
The driver was a kid by the name of Jeff Gordon.
“I knew the car well,” said John Bickford, Gordon’s stepfather. “It is a Silver Crown car. Jeff crashed BIG at the Du Quoin fairgrounds one-mile dirt track Labor Day weekend in 1990. The car was destroyed. I fixed the cage and fully restored the car. It was sold to Bud Baity-.”
Baity isn’t necessarily a collector, but as anyone who’s ever been involved in the sport can attest, items just seem to appear over the years. And when you’ve been at the game as long as Baity has, it accumulates exponentially.
In his office, Baity hands over a few old racing photographs, all of them very obviously taken before World War II. As NASCAR goes, these shots are pre-historic, because the sanctioning body didn’t exist until late 1947. Here’s a letter from an indignant fan who attended a race at the Baity family’s track in High Point.
There’s more. An old postcard featuring Stewart and his 1995 Sprint, Silver Crown and Midget cars, in which he became the first driver in history to win the USAC’s coveted Triple Crown. An entry blank that’s nearly 70 years old. A $20 receipt written out by hand on a scrap of paper. It’s all here.
In each and every item, there is proof of just how far NASCAR and its competitors have come.
As hard as it may be to comprehend, this was once the thinking of far too many people. (Bud Baity Collection)
If the Drive for Diversity is where NASCAR is today, a letter dated June 30, 1941 could for all intents and purposes be considered the program’s flashpoint.
Having spent the previous day at the Baity family’s track in High Point, about 20 miles southeast of Winston-Salem, the writer was livid. There was no sawdust to cover muddy spots leading into and out of the facility. There were no Coca-Colas on sale, and conditions on the track led to two cars being demolished.
Then, there was this.
After complaining that there was no cover over the grandstands, which led to being “blistered from A to Z” from sunburns, the writer suggested: “If you want bleachers then for the Negro’s (sic) alright. 4 (sic) came in yesterday and sit (sic) down one row ahead of us and people moved and you would have too. I was raised not far from you and I know people up there as well as down here don’t believe in being clossed (sic) with no Negro.”
Told of the letter written to Baity’s family, Marcus Jadotte, the managing director of public affairs for NASCAR, tried to put the matter into perspective.
“I’m proud to say just how far the country has come since then,” said Jadotte, who is African American. “When you look at a snapshot in time from 1941 and the state of race relations in our society broadly, the sport reflected that at the time. Certainly, in 2010, our community across the board – from the sanctioning body, teams, track operators and fans – are very reflective of the state of race relations in the United States today.”
Racism obviously wasn’t limited to those who attended events in stock-car racing’s earliest days, especially not in the Southeastern United States and especially not in the 1940s. Nevertheless, African-American driver Wendell Scott – the only minority competitor to have won a major NASCAR event – was the rarest of exceptions to an unwritten color barrier.
While other sports eventually desegregated, racing by and large did not. Why? Was it because stock-car racing originated in the Old South, where racial tensions have almost always been a part of the landscape? At the time of this letter, the Civil War was less than 80 years in the past. Was it simply a matter of economics? A lot of money can be spent very quickly while breaking into racing. It could very well be considered a sport for the rich and well heeled, regardless of the person’s ethnic background.
More likely, it’s a combination of all these factors … and then some.
“We believe that the most significant challenge in this day and age is exposing people at an early age to NASCAR,” Jadotte said. “The root of the problem is that there simply aren’t enough minority boys and girls involved in competitive youth racing. That’s a key area of concern for us – encouraging more young people, more children to get involved in racing.
“As we all know, there’s very low chance of long-term success in NASCAR if a kid begins racing in their teens. We know that it starts earlier. That requires a huge commitment from parents. … We don’t have the public-school systems involved in racing like we see around stick-and-ball sports. That doesn’t explain the lack of representation in youth racing. What does explain it is a lack of exposure to the sport.”
Established in 2004, NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program has helped minority drivers and crew members gain a foothold in the sport. More than 30 drivers from various ethnic backgrounds, along with female competitors, have been part of the initiative and have won nearly 40 races. Quite a few D4D crew members also currently work in NASCAR’s top-three national touring series garages.
This season, the “D4D” program went to an academy-style training system in which most competitors race from under the roof of The 909 Group and its competition division, Revolution Racing. John Story serves as president of the organization and oversees day-to-day operations of the team, with Max Sigel in the role of chief executive officer.
Andy Santerre, a four-time champion of the Camping World Series, directs Revolution Racing’s efforts in that division. Blair Addis heads the Whelen All-American Series program.
For Jadotte, success on the track means that the D4D initiative is headed in the right direction. That said, there’s no set benchmark at which he’ll consider the job finished. If ever there was one in the sport, the Drive for Diversity is a work in progress.
“There’s no question that NASCAR has made a long-term commitment to this effort,” Jadotte said. “I honestly don’t think that there will be a single point in time where we would say, ‘We’re successful, and we’ve done everything we set out to do.’ Success will be more crew members from the Drive for Diversity crew-member development program moving up to the national series.
“On the driver development side, the program’s goal has been to give talented drivers an opportunity to fully develop their talent. But this is a sport. ... In the right setting, the talented young drivers will win races in the developmental tours and have an opportunity to compete in the national series. At that point, it will be in the hands of the drivers to deliver on their talent and opportunity.”
Another treasure buried deep in Baity’s desk is an unused entry blank for the March 30, 1941 beach-and-road course race in Daytona.
Sanctioned by Florida Speedways Association and partners Bill France Sr. and Charlie Reese, details for the Frank Lockhart Memorial Race were laid out on the center two pages of the form. With the front a title/cover page and the back blank, on the inside, there was a breakdown for the $1,000 purse and $5 entry fee. Interestingly, $3 of each entry fee was to “be divided between non winners (sic),” with the remaining $2 – a full 40 percent – going into a hospital fund for drivers.
In 2010, teams paid a $3,630 “inspection fee” for the Daytona 500, with an additional $1,375 tacked on if “entry application coupons” were received after the deadline. Local bootlegger Smokey Purser won the 1941 race and took home the $400 winner’s share for his day’s effort. France had left himself a loophole prior to the event … just in case.
“NOTICE – Read Carefully,” the entry blank demanded. “If for any reason 50% of the total gate, less tax, on March 30 does not equal the above stated amounts, the total purse will be 40% of all gates receipts. Signators of this entry blank agree to this provision.”
Consider this for a moment. The overall purse for the 2010 Daytona 500 purse was a full 16,280 times bigger than that of the 1941 Frank Lockhart Memorial Race. Purser could’ve won another 3,771 races with his 1941 payout, and he still wouldn’t have equaled Jamie McMurray’s payday for capturing this year’s season opener.
Technical specifications for the Lockhard memorial took up just half the left-hand page of the centerspread, whereas the 2010 Sprint Cup rulebook is some 156 pages long. The other side of the 1941 entry blank featured notice of a “free feed and entertainment for all drivers” at Charlie’s Hi-Hat Club the day before the race. Finally, the form stated that drivers and mechanics were required to purchase tickets to the race, just like anyone else. Then, up to four men per car would have their money refunded after the race.
“In other words, we are anxious to stop the free ticket business for the good of the drivers and the promoters,” the form continued. “When drivers race on a percentage, we believe that everyone should pay admission except those that are putting on the show and those who are participating in the race.”
Purser, the race winner, was evidently quite the character. Some of Purser’s moonshine runs took him as far out of Daytona Beach as St. Louis, and he reportedly used at least a couple of different disguises – he was known to dress as a priest and at other times to drive a car with “Fresh Florida Fish” emblazoned across the sides. To complete the ruse, he threw a few fish in the back seat.
Driver Hugh Lunsford enjoys a refreshing soft drink following a long-ago race. Incredibly, he's dressed in his Sunday best, ready to race. (Charles Grenell Photo/Bud Baity Collection)
An old photograph in Baity’s collection almost literally leaps out of his desk drawer.
According to a note on the back, the shot features driver Hugh Lunsford relaxing with a soft drink and surrounded by a crowd following a long-ago race, presumably on the Daytona beach-and-road course. It was taken by Charles Grenell, who owned a photo print shop and supply store in Daytona Beach and Waynesville, N.C. in the early-to-mid 20th century. Grenell, a veteran of World War I, died in 1962.
The remarkable thing about Grenell’s photograph of Lunsford is that the competitor was attired in a natty dress shirt and tie. The ensemble is made complete by a set of suspenders and the light-colored overcoat Lunsford has casually thrown over his arm. The only item even remotely resembling a safety device is Lunsford’s hard-shell helmet with leather straps.
In the 1941 entry blank, rules stated that “(a)ll drivers must be strapped in and must wear safety helmets.” Strapped in with what, the form doesn’t specify. Ropes would evidently have sufficed … bungee cords … belts … whatever. There was no mention of attire, other than the safety-helmet provision.
Randy LaJoie, a two-time champion of what is now the Nationwide Series, is now one of the sport’s foremost safety experts. Long before he stopped driving, LaJoie was developing a well-deserved reputation for the innovative race-car seats he and a small group of employees were piecing together.
Today, drivers from each of NASCAR’s three national series on down to Legends and Bandeleros use The Joie of Seating products. Told of the Lunsford/Grenell photo, LaJoie’s first response is an astonished, “Really?!?”
“I’m glad he (Lunsford) dressed nicely to go to work,” LaJoie quipped. “It would be awesome if that was a Nomex suit, but I don’t even think fire departments back then had anything to repel heat, so the race-car drivers sure didn’t.
“Did people get burned up? Absolutely … until people like Bill Simpson came along and said, ‘I’ve got buddies of mine catching on fire. Let’s get a product out there where we could maybe not let them get burned up.’ Then, it was, ‘Let’s hold =em in the seat so they don’t fall out.”
LaJoie credits the evolution of a driver’s overall safety system – which includes the seat, head support, neck restraint, helmet and firesuit – with the fact that “you can hit stuff pretty darn hard and walk away from it.” Still, there’s work to be done.
“It’s amazing how much better (safety) is today, and how much better the kids are gonna have it from here on forward,” LaJoie said. “It’s still a moving target. You’re always trying to get safer, and you’re never going to be safe enough.”
No job was too big or small in the early days for Bill France Sr., who signed this $20 receipt for Baity's father, C. Newson Baity. Notice the date -- nearly eight full years before the first race of what we now know as the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit, and just a few months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. (Bud Baity Collection)
The France Family
Before NASCAR was formed, there was a very real need for someone to instill a sense of order to the sport and its rag-tag band of scalawags known alternately as daredevils, speed demons and gas mashers.
That person was Bill France Sr., who’d seen a fair share of lean times along the way. If it took taking care of the little stuff himself, then so be it. Signing a $20 receipt dated May 11, 1941 for C. Newson Baity, Bud Baity’s father, wasn’t beneath Bill France Sr.
Not in the least.
France was the very essence of a hands-on entrepreneur, according to NASCAR Hall of Fame historian Buz McKim.
“He and Annie (France, Bill Sr.’s wife), they did it all,” McKim says. “Even after he retired, he was still heavily involved in every aspect of (NASCAR business). There’s a picture in the archives (in Daytona) of him oiling a dirt track, working the wrecker and driving the pace car. That’s one thing about the France family – there was nothing too little or too minor for them not to handle.”
Stories abound concerning the difficulties France encountered in getting the organization off the ground. France first dropped onto the Daytona Beach scene when he opened a service station in the 1930s. Times were rough, but France somehow managed to make a go of it.
“He had tires on consignment in his gas station,” McKim said. “This is toward the end of the Depression … it was hand-to-mouth (living conditions). The tire salesman rode by the station and noticed that the mount where the tire sat was empty, so, obviously, Bill sold the tires. He pulled in to get his money.
“Bill didn’t have the money. He was a very astute businessman, but money was that tight. The guy came in to get the money, and Bill really wasn’t in the mood to argue with the guy. So he went and he hid in the ladies room.”
Payment was made the very next day.
The $20 receipt for Newson Baity? France evidently signed several along the way.
“Annie always handled the money,” McKim said. “She’d be downstairs and Bill would be upstairs in the office. He’d need $20 for something … and she made him sign a petty-cash slip. That was well, well into his career, in the late =60s and early =70s.”