Former NASCAR driver Frank Warren of Naples had been
"warned" that his old friend, Tom Baker, was stopping by
with something special.
Still, the 75-year-old Warren couldn't believe his eyes
when Baker, on his way to Daytona Beach for last week's
Coke Zero 400, pulled in from Fremont, Mich.
"It was perfect," Warren said. "The paint, the
lettering, everything was perfect. The car looked
exactly like it did when I raced back in the late 70s."
The No. 79 black and gold Dodge Magnum may have been
only a replica created by Baker over several years of
toil, "But I'll tell you, when I looked at that car, it
sure brought back a lot of memories," Warren said. "A
lot of memories."
Though he last unbuckled from a race car in 1980,
Warren's passion for stock car competition lives on. He
drove in the days when one set of tires would have to
last the whole 500 miles, and if the one car he owned
was wrecked, he'd work however long into the night to
make the next race.
"We had to make it to the next race. It was our living.
We couldn't afford not to make it," said Warren, who
started 396 NASCAR races in all. "Let me tell you, there
were some tough times there."
Baker, a professional magician by trade, was hooked on
racing back then, too. So much so that Warren became his
favorite driver. When Baker found an old, abandoned
Magnum for sale a decade or so ago, he couldn't resist.
He paid the owner $120 for the jalopy, drove it home and
parked it in one of his pole buildings for eight years
before his dream of recreating Warren's No. 79 started
to take shape.
"It's still a work in progress," Baker said. "Frank was
a guy I liked a lot back then and still do. It's good to
have the car now to kind of help keep the memories of
the old-time, independent drivers alive."
"I'm very humbled that Tom has kept our relationship
going and that he has spent so much time and money to
make this car," Warren said. "Really, I don't know why
he took to me so much. He just did. I was his guy, I
Baker towed the vintage machine complete with Native Tan
sponsorship on the rear quarter panel -- from Michigan
on an open-aired trailer so that all the other race fans
on Interstate 75 could see it. Another Michigander, Dave
Bowers, had put in quite a bit of elbow grease on the
Of course, Warren wanted some pictures taken, and even
dragged out his old firesuit for some of the shots.
"That driver suit has a story, too," Warren reflected.
"When Marty Robbins had decided he wasn't going to drive
anymore, he saw I had a gold car and he had a yellow
driver suit. So he gave his suit to me."
Originally from Augusta, Ga., Warren had raced on small
dirt tracks until he got into NASCAR events in 1963. He
got his break in 1965 when a man named Harold Rhodes
asked Warren to drive for him on what then was known as
the Grand National circuit. Warren's first true stock
car was a 1963 Chevy Impala, which Warren ultimately
destroyed in a crash at Charlotte. He later drove
Rhodes' Chevelle, only to wreck it at Rockingham.
"I went to Daytona in 1963 and sat in the grandstands,"
Warren recalled. "When I saw those cars come barreling
out of Turn Four, I knew right then it was something I
had to do."
Warren, who built his own motors, had some memorable
finishes, too, such as eighth in the Southern 500 at
fabled Darlington in 1967. In 1979, he ended up 10th in
the Daytona 500 and cashed a check for $17,500.
But it was the people who fueled Warren's love for
racing. He loved hanging out with Maurice Petty and J.D.
McDuffie. He enjoyed being invited to the White House by
President Jimmy Carter, who served up a tasty dinner for
several of the old-time racing legends that day.
"It's hard to pick out one race that was special, but
I'll always remember that day at the White House with
President Carter," he said.
After racing, Warren, who had vacationed in Naples,
moved south from Charlotte. He enjoyed a 20-year career
as a mechanic in Disney's Magic Kingdom.
"If you've ridden a ride in that part of the park, I've
worked on it," he said with a laugh. "It was a great
place to work, very interesting."
Also rewarding is the work Warren has done the last
three years as an usher, and then a security officer at
the Philharmonic Center for the Performing Arts in
"It's a great job for someone like me," he said. "I hope
to keep working here for a long time."
Warren enjoyed reliving his passion -- thanks to Baker's
"My passion was to race hard," he said. "I wanted to be
competitive. Just to race to make a living like some
guys do today, I wouldn't have wanted to do that. I
wanted to be up there running with the big boys."