Craig Baker -- Humboldt's Speed Freak
The above picture of the 71 car was not from last night's Judy Fox Memorial Race at Redwood Acres Raceway in Eureka, California. By the time the 71, driven by Craig Baker, took to the track it would've been too dark to get a good picture. Baker is my favorite driver from the area. His work in the mini stock division is a thing a beauty and last night going in he was tied in points for first place with his brother, Scott. Tonight's main event for the mini stocks would determine the champion. My daughter and I were on hand, and I don't think either of our throats felt right by the time we were done screaming during that race. But I digress ...
I grew up around racing, but I never liked it. My father raced in various divisions, but stopped soon after I was born. He tried to get me into racing, even offering to set me up in a car, but I declined. It wasn't until I actually played Gran Turismo on the PlayStation that I suddenly appreciated what went into the sport. From there I started watching NASCAR and my father and I now had things to talk about. I never got to see a race live with him, though we had planned on it. That is one of my great regrets in life. When I would talk with him on the phone and we would discuss point leads, team changes and the legendary corkscrew at Laguna Seca I could tell by his voice that he was finally happy that we found something we could both discuss in a civil manner.
I took my daughter to her first race last year. She fell asleep and didn't seem to like it. This year she expressed a desire to go to Back to School night at Redwood Acres, where she happened to win the coloring contest and got a bunch of free stuff. More importantly, she said she loved the races (and wanted to stay for the whole thing) and even expressed a desire to race. Yesterday was her soccer game and more importantly (to her) a brand new iCarly.
When it comes to iCarly and my daughter, you don't get in her way. She loves that show with a passion, and will spend many of her waking hours describing plots and discussing in great detail why some characters are "bad." But yesterday, despite the promise of a new episode, she insisted on going to the races. And though we left early because she was tired (a soccer game and a day spent shopping and cleaning will do that), we had the time of our lives ... and not just because of Baker.
My daughter was on her feet a lot of the race, cheering and screaming at cars to get out of the way of "our guy." She witnessed the biggest wreck of the season at the track, at which point she said, "I want to race, but those accidents look scary." And even cooler, she's learning the sport. She correctly identified what most of the flags mean (leaving me flabbergasted) and at one point declared, "He saved it!" Indeed, the driver did save his car from wrecking, and she was astute enough to point that out.
Then came the mini stock main event. Fifteen laps. Craig Baker. Baker took an early lead, but as the race neared its conclusion, Baker's brother started making his presence known. Whomever made it over the start/finish line first would be the division champion regardless of where the other cars placed. Coming into turn four on that final lap, the brothers were side by side, the crowd on its feet. The price of a ten dollar ticket to the races always seemed like a bargain, but now it seemed like we ripped them off. This race was worth far more than that. This was about honor, respect and skills. One would win. The other would be first loser, as Dale Earnhardt used to say about second place.
Earlier that evening was the big wreck. Four cars in an orgy of bent metal and fluids. Tempers flared, but everyone was all right. It took a lot of cleaning up, and the man sitting beside my daughter and I was, as my daughter pointed out, crying. She wanted to know why. I explained the emotions that come from not only being a racer, but watching a race. What it is like knowing that everything you worked so hard for with little reward and a chance of death had now ended, and I explained why when you watch that happen to someone you can feel their pain, and how you can also feel their joy. I explained that I never cried when seeing someone wreck, but I've come close to tears when someone wins. When that person hoists that trophy over his (usually it's a male) with tears running down his face as he thanks those who helped him, you know how hard it is to get in that winner's circle. Every true fan knows this. Every true fan knows how much skill and luck have to come into place to actually win a race. If you are a non-fan who has read this far, here's a little experiment you can do. Take a stopwatch, start it and stop it as fast as you can. That interval of time is the average interval of time between first and second place in a NASCAR Sprint Cup race.
No other sport has a margin of victory that close.
Tears are warranted.
I explained this to my daughter, and she understood ... mostly. In time, if she continues to watch races (which she has expressed a desire to), she will get it. She may one day be that guy who was wiping his eyes. She may also be in that winner's circle.
The Baker brothers were side by side. You couldn't fit a person between them. They came off turn four at full throttle. Both had the same goal in mind. They wanted that championship. They wanted to be the first across the start/finish line. This wasn't about one giving in to the other. This was all about honor and dedication. Who was fast enough to get that win? Who was going over the line first? Who was going to claim the title until next season? Who would see the pay off from all that lost blood and money, and who was going to be proud of his sibling yet harbor more than a little grief?
Scott Baker is a good driver. Damn good driver. His lines are clean. He races just as clean. He comes off corners smoothly, and if he gets loose he keeps the beast under control. Scott looks like a professional through and through. He is silent like Mark Martin is silent.
Craig Baker is a racer. He doesn't want to be fucked with, and if you do, you will hear about it. He takes to the track like a monster, his car under control at all times, but just barely. He pushes it, as witnessed by the dents that thing wears like badges of honor. If you have angered him, he will bump you during the yellow. Where Scott seems under control, Craig seems on the verge of exploding. Mark Martin versus Dale Earnhardt, if you will. Maybe I'm reading it wrong. I've only seen a handful of races with them, but I've watched enough racing to know what I'm seeing.
The crowd on its feet, screaming, forgetting to breathe. The Bakers door to door. One mistake and it would be whoever could pull their ass out of the dirt fast enough as the other cars blew by. One was going home a champion.
The hollering. The yelling. I wonder if Craig heard those things as he crossed that start/finish line a hundredth of a second ahead of his brother? I wonder if he saw us on our feet, mouths open, hands clapping? (I've never clapped so hard in my life, and my daughter and I were both screaming our heads off.) He was a champion, and we witnessed one of the best races I've ever seen live or televised.
We didn't stick around to watch Craig collect his trophy. My daughter was beat, so we left just as the Thunder Roadsters took to the track for their main event. She loves those cars and the roadrunners, but she couldn't keep her eyes open anymore. I don't know what margin Craig won by. I don't know what, if any, words he had for the crowd. I do know this, though: My daughter and I had the time of our lives. We witnessed something very special, and we got to do something I never got to do with my father. It was one of those moments we'll both remember for the rest of our lives.
There are many reasons to shed tears at a race. Wrecks. Championships. Memories. I wish my father could've been there. But this? This was perfect, and I wouldn't have it happen any other way.