Buddy Baker’s Gray Ghost Has Colorful History
by Tom Jensen July 24, 2020
Two different drivers, two different car numbers but both won big races in a fast Oldsmobile.
One of the most iconic cars in NASCAR history holds a coveted speed record, thanks to the efforts of two members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2020.
And that race car began its competitive life as something else entirely.
The car in question is the Ranier Racing No. 28 Oldsmobile known as “The Gray Ghost,” which is on display in the NASCAR Hall of Fame Hall of Honor until January 2021.
Built by crew chief Waddell Wilson and driven by Buddy Baker, both 2020 inductees, the Gray Ghost won the 1980 Daytona 500 at an average speed of 177.602 mph. To this day, Baker’s triumph remains that fastest Daytona 500 ever run.
Baker, Wilson and the Gray Ghost enjoyed considerable success together, as the car also won the inaugural Busch Clash at Daytona International Speedway in 1979, the pole for the 1979 Daytona 500, and the 1980 Winston 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.
But what’s less well known is the No. 28 Gray Ghost began racing with then-Ranier driver Lennie Pond in 1978. At that time, the Gray Ghost wasn’t gray at all, it was white with blue and orange accents, and it carried the No. 54.
In August of 1978, Pond drove the No. 54 Ranier Racing Oldsmobile to victory in the Talladega 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. It was Pond’s only race victory in 234 premier series starts, as he became one of six drivers to score their only career win at Talladega.
Even though Pond won with the Oldsmobile in 1978, Wilson knew the car needed an extreme makeover for the following season, when Baker was hired to drive it and the number was changed from No. 54 to No. 28. “(Team owner) Harry Ranier had put me totally in charge of everything,” Wilson said. “I said, ‘Well, I’m going to fix that race car from all the things I’ve learned through racing.’”
Wilson took the car to a body man he used to work with at Holman-Moody Racing and told him the changes he wanted on the Gray Ghost. After a couple of attempts, the car was finally the way Wilson wanted it.
“It was very streamlined, but it was legal,” said Wilson. “I learned from John Holman, in the 10 years I worked for John he’d come to me and he’d say, ‘Waddell, if I catch you cheating, I’ll fire you.’ And I always knew he would. He taught me we could win races without cheating. “
As for the pilot of the Gray Ghost, Wilson had nothing but praise. “Buddy was a great guy to work with,” Wilson said. “He didn’t have a lot of patience; he wasn’t the best at finessing a race car, but as far as driving a race car, – you take him to Daytona or Talladega, where you could go flat-footed, you couldn’t ask for a better driver. He was as good as I ever worked with.”
Right up until the end of his life, Baker cherished the 1980 Daytona 500 victory and the Gray Ghost that Wilson had built.
Longtime Charlotte Observer motorsports writer Tom Higgins, the 2015 winner of the NASCAR Hall of Fame Squier-Hall Award for NASCAR Media Excellence and one of Baker’s closest friends, said that in his final days in his home on Lake Norman outside of Charlotte, Baker kept a photo of the Gray Ghost near his bedside so he could look at it while he rested. Baker died in his home on Aug. 10, 2015, following a nine-month battle with cancer.
The NASCAR Hall of Fame is open Wednesday through Monday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. To purchase tickets, go to nascarhall.com/tickets.