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Curator's Corner / NASCAR 75th Anniversary

Buck Baker’s Silver Tray

For winning the 1956 Cup Series championship driving for Carl Kiekhaefer, Chrysler Corp. bestowed some fine silver on Buck Baker.

In NASCAR, bling is a thing.

Always has been, always will be.

Win a championship or sometimes even a race and there’s no telling what gifts might be given to the winner. Trophies, obviously, but that’s just the start. Jackets, watches, belt buckles, tools and rings are among the gifts winners receive. In fact, here at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, we’ve had inductees display as many as 20 rings in their Hall of Honor artifact cases.

And that’s just for starters.

One of the blingiest and most cherished treasures is the solid gold car Goodyear presents to the Cup Series champion each year, a truly unique and spectacular gift. To the victor goes the spoils, as the saying goes.

Buck Baker won the 1956 NASCAR Grand National Division championship driving one of Carl Kiekhaefer’s Chryslers. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center via Getty Images

This phenomenon of lavishing champions with valuable gifts is not new. Let’s flash back to the year 1955, a year in which an outsider truly disrupted the status quo in NASCAR.

Carl Kiekhaefer, a Wisconsin industrialist who made millions of dollars with his Mercury Outboard boat engines, hauled a Chrysler 300 to Daytona Beach in late February 1955 hoping to find a driver to enter the NASCAR Grand National (now Cup Series) race on the old Daytona Beach-Road Course race. Kiekhaefer, a quirky personality to say the least, found a willing shoe in Hall of Famer Tim Flock (Class of 2014), who just happened to be looking for a ride. The two connected and Flock won the Daytona race, after apparent winner Fireball Roberts (Class of 2014) was disqualified when his engine failed tech inspection. A similar fate had befallen Flock a year earlier when his Daytona victory was taken away because of an engine violation.

Team owner Carl Kiekhaefer (from left) arrived at Daytona in 1956 with a fleet of six Chryslers and Dodges including cars for Herb Thomas, Buck Baker and Speedy Thompson. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images

Flock’s 1955 Daytona victory was the start of two years of utter domination by Kiekhaefer and his minions. In 1955, Flock won 18 races for Kiekhaefer, while brother Fonty Flock won twice and Speedy Thompson and Norm Nelson each won a race, giving the team 22 victories in 40 starts on the season.

The team carried its powerful Chrysler 300 coupes in enclosed trailers and employed the best mechanics and engineers available, going so far as to analyze soil samples from each of the tracks they raced at. They also had a weatherman on hand to monitor atmospheric conditions and adjust the cars accordingly.

Kiekhaefer’s race cars and car haulers were decorated with Mercury Outboards logos because the team owner was one of the first to figure out that he could use his success on track to sell more outboard boat engines. “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday” didn’t just apply to new-car showrooms.

But Kiekhaefer was a stern and controlling man, demanding that his drivers abstain from intimate contact before races and adhere to strict curfews and other behavioral demands. Despite winning the 1955 championship, Tim Flock quit the team early in 1956 because he said working for Kiekhaefer was giving him ulcers.

Decades before multi-car teams were the norm in NASCAR, Carl Kiekhaefer fielded a large fleet of Chrysler Corp. products in 1956. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images

That’s where Buck Baker came in. One of the sport’s toughest competitors, Baker had finished second to Flock in the 1955 championship race. Legend has it that in January 1956, Kiekhaefer called up Baker and said, “If you’re as big of a son-of-a-bitch as everyone says you are, I’m curious. Would you like to drive for me?”

Baker signed on with Kiekhaefer and both driver and team had a remarkable 1956 season. Led by Baker’s 14 victories, the team won 30 of its 50 starts, utterly dominating the competition, at one point winning 16 consecutive races. In the process, Baker won his first of two consecutive Cup Series titles.

In 1956, Buck Baker (car No. 300) won 14 races and the NASCAR Grand National Division championship. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images

Which brings us to the bling part of the story.

Baker obviously was given the champion’s trophy by NASCAR.

Chrysler, which enjoyed a substantial sales spike of its powerful and luxurious 300 model due to its on-track racing success, sent Baker a beautiful silver plaque. The inscription on it read:

“To Buck Baker in recognition of your fine contribution
To the sport of Stock Car Racing and your NASCAR
1956 Grand National Championship
Chrysler Division of Chrysler Corp”

Chrysler Corp.’s gift to Buck Baker for winning the 1956 NASCAR championship was this exquisite silver platter. Photo courtesy of Tom Jensen

The postscripts to this story came at the end of the 1956 season, when Kiekhaefer essentially packed up his toys and went home. Discouraged by the negative crowd reactions from fans who didn’t like seeing one team dominate, Kiekhaefer decided the backlash might not be good for business. Add to it the ever-increasing technical scrutiny his team got from NASCAR and Kiekhaefer simply up and left, never to field a car again. This after entering 90 races and winning 52 in 1955-56.

Having won more than half the races his team competed in, along with two championships, Kiekhaefer was well and truly done with racing forever, gone nearly as quickly as he had arrived.

Though Kiekhaefer is long gone, his influence is still felt in today’s NASCAR, where large multiple car teams rely on engineers and are meticulously detail oriented.

And Baker’s silver tray from Chrysler remains on display in the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s Heritage Speedway.

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Tom Jensen

Tom Jensen

Tom is the Curatorial Affairs Manager at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. For more than 25 years, he has been part of the NASCAR media industry.

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