The former driver was asked to work with the young racer.
Buddy Baker's heart was pounding as he watched Ryan Newman, his prize pupil, ricocheting off walls, with cars erupting in flames near the start of the Winston Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway.
Newman, who ignited a 27-car wreck when a cut tire sent his Penske Racing South Dodge into the wall, walked away Sunday without injury. That was a relief to Baker, a former Winston Cup star who has helped bring last year's top rookie to the brink of superstardom.
"If I had a third son, he'd be it," said Baker, the son of two-time NASCAR champion Buck Baker and whose own boys, Bryan and Brandon, briefly tried their hand at racing.
"They had talent, but it never was what they wanted to do more than anything else," Baker said. "With me, I never thought about doing anything else. Ryan Newman never did, either. From the time he was 5 years old until now, he's never wanted to be anything else."
Baker, who retired as a competitive driver in 1992, is an instructor at his father's driving school at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham.
He was contacted late in 1999 by team co-owners Roger Penske, Don Miller and Rusty Wallace to see if Baker, winner of 19 Cup races, would be willing to work with the then 22-year-old Newman.
Baker, whose teaching had consisted almost entirely of three-day courses at his father's school, hesitated, insisting on first meeting Newman and his family.
"There's a lot of people who could have 10 driving coaches and they'd never make it," Baker said. "But there's just some people made out of the right cloth. I'm very selective in people I work with.
"When I started talking to Ryan, I could feel the energy that he had, and the passion he had for the sport.
"Then, I met his dad, and right there I knew, OK, he's got a good background. His father's been with him in go-carts, midgets. He turned the wrenches for his son. It was an automatic fit for me."
The program laid out by the Penske team leaders included lots of testing and some experience in ARCA and Busch races before moving up to Winston Cup.
"When we started out, we were not pressured to hurry him along," Baker said. "We went to all the racetracks and tested. We would go out in a passenger car and I'd show him the points on the racetrack that work, the points that don't work, things to do, things not to do."
Baker, the first stock car driver to run a 200-mph lap and the 1980 Daytona 500 champion, told Newman to listen to what he had to say and then adapt it to his own style.
It's worked better than Baker could have hoped.
"If I told him that the seat needed to be on the roof, he'd listen. That's the kind of kid he is," Baker said. "He's never once questioned anything that I've told him, and therein lies our success.
"It's been a great relationship. When I tell him something, he takes it in, he refines and puts the Newman touch to it."
Newman, already one of the sport's top qualifiers, won his second Cup race two weeks ago in Texas.
"Buddy has helped me out a lot," he said. "Buddy told me he made mistakes when he was growing up driving or just as a person.
"He said, 'I don't want you to make those same mistakes. If you can avoid making those mistakes, you're going to make other ones, but I'll eliminate the variables for you.' He's helped me so much, in and out of the car."