Larry Rathgeb

March 24 in NASCAR History: Buddy Baker breaks 200 mph barrier

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Earlier this year, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won the pole for the Daytona 500 with a qualifying speed of 194.582 mph.

That’s fast.

But that’s how fast today’s Cup Series cars go on superspeedways with tapered spacers restricting engines.

On this day 50 years ago, Buddy Baker got to go really fast.

On Tuesday, March 24, 1970, Baker strapped into a blue Dodge Daytona during a tire test at Talladega Superspeedway, the largest oval track in NASCAR. During the test, Baker became the first driver to break the 200 mph barrier on a closed circuit.

His fastest lap around the 2.66-mile oval was recorded at 200.447 mph.

“Gosh, it’s the most wonderful feeling I’ve had in a long, long time,” Baker said after the test. “This is something nobody can ever take from you, being the first guy to run 200 mph on a close course circuit. Gosh, I’m just tickled to death.”

Baker said when you’re going 200 mph, the track’s high-banked turns “feels just like it’s flat. Because it takes every bit of the banking to run this speed. ”

Of course, stock cars would only get faster over the ensuing decades.

By 1987, Bill Elliott would establish the qualifying speed records at Daytona (210.364 mph) and Talladega (212.809 mph).

In 1988, following a violent Bobby Allison wreck at Talladega in 1987, NASCAR instituted restrictor plates for races at Daytona and Talladega. They’d be used through the 2019 Daytona 500 before being replaced by tapered spacers.

Other tracks have seen the 200 mph qualifying barrier broken since then, but we’ll likely never see it again at Daytona and Talladega.

UPDATE: According to allpar.com, Larry Rathgeb, the Chrysler engineer who led the test session to reach the 200 mph barrier, died Sunday as a result of the coronavirus.

Also on this date:

1991: Kenny Wallace, the younger brother to Rusty and Mike Wallace, won his first career Xfinity Series race at Volusia County Speedway in Barberville, Florida. The series would make its fourth and final visit to the half-mile track the next year.

2002: Kurt Busch executed a bump-and-run on Jimmy Spencer with 56 laps to go to take the lead in the spring race at Bristol Motor Speedway. Busch led the rest of the way, surviving a restart with 15 laps to go, and scored his first Cup Series win. Busch would win three of the next four Cup races at Bristol.