When I catch up with Kim Baker, he's relaxing at his Massachusetts home after a busy race weekend in California with his corporate client, Panasonic. Baker's home is truly his castle, one he took time off from racing to build. Since then, he has returned full force to the business of motorsports.
We sit down to talk about his incredible career in the art gallery, which showcases Baker's success story with photos of multiple visits to Victory Lane, feature articles from virtually every national racing magazine, and ads prominently displaying his winning Corvettes and stock cars. Baker has not changed much from his earlier photos. Indeed, he informs me that he's ready to jump into a race car at a moment's notice-and he often does so to instruct other drivers. He credits his youthful appearance to a strict workout-and-diet regimen and his unrelenting passion for speed.
Getting On Track
Kim Baker and his Bakeracing team are legendary names in the arena of production-based racing. In 1984, after numerous successes with other makes, Baker took a GT Class SCCA national championship in a showroom-stock Corvette. His legendary attention to detail is what made him a winner, and it made his cars winners, too. Baker made victory look easy, capturing numerous championships as a driver, a team owner, and a representative for tire and auto manufacturers.
During that time, Baker was a key player in helping Corvette sweep the SCCA-sanctioned endurance races. "The Corvette was a strong and reliable car," says Baker, whose team went on to win championships in the Escort Endurance Series. "The Porsches were just as fast as us, but they couldn't beat us on durability or, ultimately, to the finish line." The Corvettes, however, were found to be too good. The SCCA disallowed them from the series, leading Chevrolet to create its own competition-the Corvette Challenge-in 1988.
Baker remembers the 1985 season, one in which his team won the Lime Rock and Mid-Ohio 24-hour races, as a special one. Both races took place in September and carried the largest money prize ever offered in sports-car road racing. Goodyear paid the winning team a $50,000 bonus for each race. Asked about his favorite years in Corvette racing, Baker answers, "That would have to be '86 and '87, because that was the greatest battle between car manufacturers and tire manufacturers. In '86, on our way to the championship, we won four out of the six races, including the 24-hour races at Mosport and Mid-Ohio. In '87, on the way to that championship, we won five out of seven races, again including Mosport and Mid-Ohio. During those two seasons, Bakeracing won nine out of 13 races, beating out Porsche and winning the manufacturer's championship for Chevrolet. [We also won] the tire manufacturer's championship over three other tire manufacturers."
Behind The Scenes
Baker's commitment to excellence and his expertise with engines drove thousands of customers to the doors of his Wilbraham, Massachusetts, automotive shop. An article on Baker in the Nov. '85, issue of Road & Track stated, "Ask any of his Corvette competitors who builds the best engines in the Endurance series, and the answer is always the same: Kim Baker." It was customary at Bakeracing, which evolved from a foreign-car repair service into a state-of-the-art Corvette performance shop, to have a three-month waiting list.
Another testament to Kim Baker's expertise with engines is that he was one of the very few outside specialists called upon to aid in the development and testing of the ZR-1's LT5 powerplant. As far back as 1987, Baker was involved in the program, putting ZR-1 prototypes through high-speed testing at superspeedways such as Talladega, Riverside Raceway, and Mosport near Toronto, Ontario.
"We did approximately 350,000 street miles and 10,000 miles under race conditions during our work on the LT5," Baker says. "As a result of that testing, we gained incredible knowledge about the ZR-1 motor and vehicle." The crowning achievement for Baker was gaining a spot on the Morrison racing team that set new land-speed and endurance world records at Fort Stockton, Texas, in the ZR-1 he had helped to develop. Through his involvement with "The King of the Hill," Baker, too, became a legend. In 1991 he was named "One of the 10 Most Influential Men of Corvette" by Road & Track.
Having conquered virtually every level of sports-car racing, Baker took on a new challenge in 1994. He decided to build an Unlimited Class Corvette and attempt to break the 200 mph barrier on a closed course in Nevada. Baker tore down and completely rebuilt a ZR-1 for the BluBlocker 100 event. "We took it down to the last nut and bolt and used the shell. We made lots of safety changes, and we put in a new powerplant, of course," he says. "We took it out there with zero miles on it, practiced for 10 miles, and then went out for the race-and it ran flawlessly."
Out on the course, Baker had the run of his life. "It was an extremely bumpy, narrow two-lane road, and the bounce at 200 mph was something. We went up and down hills and through a canyon where the stone walls went straight up." On the 90-mile course from Hiko to Lund, he averaged 181 mph, crossing the finish line at 201 mph to take the win. Baker would go on to enter several other open-road events in Nevada, winning two more.
The Latest Chapter
In 1997, Baker married his wife, Patricia, who urged him to take on yet another racing challenge: NASCAR. "Kim is such an enormous talent in this sport, I couldn't see him retiring at such a young age," Patricia says. "I suggested that he race in the regional NASCAR Bush series, and, to no one's surprise, he proved himself a winner in stock-car racing." In just a handful of starts with a small team with no prior NASCAR experience, Baker had numerous top three finishes and a win at Watkins Glen International.
"That win was monumental," Patricia says. "Kim was racing against Cup and Busch racers and beat them all. One of our crewmembers was a gymnast, and when Kim won the race he did backflips down pit lane. That was captured by the ESPN cameras and was broadcast on ESPN and local news stations nationally. That was a terrific win for Kim and all his sponsors. The ultimate success of Kim in that one race illustrates perfectly the power of motorsports marketing."
Patricia's successful career in marketing and public relations, and Kim's understanding of all aspects of motorsports, allow the Bakers to offer a unique service: working with corporations that want to create a motorsports marketing presence. The Big Picture Agency LLC works closely with corporate representatives to ensure that every dollar they spend in motorsports comes back to them multiplied. Kim provides the additional services of team and driver evaluation for corporations who are already team sponsors, and Patricia lends her marketing expertise to design programs that create better branding and increase sales.
One of Big Picture's clients, Panasonic, works closely with the Bakers to ensure a positive return on investment from all things motorsports related. Susie Ogihara, a director in Panasonic's North American office, approached the Bakers last year to help the company make the jump into the world of NASCAR.
"We ran two hospitality events at the California [now AutoClub] Speedway during the Sprint Cup events this year," Ogihara says. "Not only did our partner, Warner Brothers, and our guests have a fabulous time, we were inundated with sales requests from other major corporations. At the outset we knew very little about the sport, but [with] NASCAR being so family centered and so exciting, it was a big hit with everyone."
Kim attended both events as the company's race consultant and motorsports expert, leading all the Panasonic and WB execs on tours through pit lane, the garages, and even to the Cup racers' RVs for personal introductions. Along the way, he explained the role of tire pressure, what "loose" and "tight" mean in racing parlance, the basics of car engineering, and numerous other aspects of the motorsports business.
It's obvious that Kim Baker's love of the sport is contagious, a trait that's sure to serve him well in this latest chapter of his long and storied career. Still, as my time with this legendary figure in Corvette motorsports comes to an end, the inevitable question arises: "Will you race again?"
"Yes," he answers without hesitation.