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Vets, Legends Mentor Rookies On Multi-Car Teams

The Sporting News
Jun. 14, 2004 2:27 p.m.

With a so-so practice session on the track just completed, professor Buddy Baker makes a beeline for Brendan Gaughan's Penske Racing team hauler. The headphones come off; the eyes narrow. For Gaughan, lunch, interviewers and friends can wait. When the instructor is 6-6, listening is recommended.

"We've got some issues here we'll have to work out, but that's why he's here," says Gaughan, not perturbed by the prospect of a blunt interchange. Besides, Gaughan used to get yelled at by 6-10 John Thompson during his basketball days at Georgetown. Looking up and saying "Yes, sir" is in his skill set.

"I'm not there to be their best friend, and when I come into the trailer, it's not going to be a joke session," says Baker, one of the sport's funnier storytellers. "I don't go pointing fingers, but if I see something definitely wrong, I speak up. ... My job is to help turn a rock into a jewel. That Roger Penske trusts me with his gems is a good feeling."

Gaughan, who jumped from NASCAR's Craftsman Truck Series to Nextel Cup before this season, is the latest project for Baker; he has spent nearly a decade as Penske's coach, schooling Rusty Wallace, Ryan Newman and now Gaughan.

Don Miller, co-owner of Penske's NASCAR operation, started the coaching arrangement in the mid-1990s, inviting Baker to a test session as a way to try to end Wallace's superspeedway funk. Baker, whose last Cup race was in 1992, thought the coaching gig would help him stay current for his TV work.

"We were struggling something awful, and Buddy was so good on big tracks," Miller says, referring to Baker's two wins at Daytona and four at Talladega. "He showed Rusty lines and worked with him on drafting."

The idea of having a coach since has grown in popularity along with multicar teams and the aero push in NASCAR. With the Nextel Cup lineup getting younger and younger and learning-curve time miniscule, the role of a coach/mentor has become almost as vital as a good crew chief and spotter.

"You have to show the young guys the way. You have to let them know what to expect and how to respect this sport," says FOX analyst Darrell Waltrip, a three-time Cup champion who schooled younger brother Michael, a two-time Daytona 500 champ. Darrell now owns a NASCAR truck team and tutors David Reutimann, 24. "You can't drive the car for them, but you can tell them what they'll face if they come up against certain situations. You prepare them to react on their own."

Most teams with young drivers have a veteran driver or someone in a coaching role -- it's just that the role usually isn't publicized because the potential exists for bruised egos among those being mentored. Baker understands the delicate nature of the coach-driver dynamic and uses the same philosophy he did in the TV booth. "You don't hog the headset, but you use your eyes and make a quick suggestion to the driver, or the crew chief, or the spotter, as things unfold," he says.

Penske scooped up Newman, then 22, from the USAC ranks in 2000. Newman needed to make the adjustment to stock cars, and Baker got the call. The two have worked together for nine wins and 21 poles in 94 starts.

"To have him there was huge," says Newman, who still relies on Baker for superspeedway instruction. "He taught me how to handle these cars, how to set up on new tracks, how to trust my ability."

In the offseason, Penske acquired Jasper Racing and brought in Gaughan and his trucks crew chief, Shane Wilson. Baker has helped with the transition.

"Shane and I are rookies at this. We're still melding parts of two different teams," Gaughan says. "Buddy understands the whole process. He can look at what we're doing and tell me what to try or what Shane should try. It's those little nuances that are the difference between 15th place and first."

Baker says his newest pupil is "220 (volts) with a booster. But like Ryan, he'd won championships. He knows what he's doing behind the wheel. You get him used to new surroundings."

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