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An Ode to Wally “Crazy Wheels” Baker

Feb 27, 2024 11:25AM ● By Mitch Barber
DeAnn Baker stands with her dad, Wally Baker, in his room at The Waterleaf at Land Park. Photo by Mitch Barber

SACRAMENTO, CA (MPG) - Larry Shelton was six or seven years old when he started going to West Capital Raceway in West Sacramento. Why did he go? Shelton said, “They had all these guys who were really good.” Shelton is now 64.

He remembers often reading, “Baker Wins!” in The Sacramento Bee, and clipping it out of the paper to keep; the namesake West Capital Raceway legend is Wally “Crazy Wheels” Baker. As a young child, Shelton was able to get his picture taken with Mr. Baker, who now lives at The Waterleaf at Land Park, an assisted living facility — the same place where Shelton’s mother passed away. In a recent interview for this article, Shelton said, “A couple weeks ago, I stopped by and saw him.”

Wally Baker, left, sits with Larry Shelton who is holding a photograph of them standing together more than 50 years ago in front of one of Baker’s racecars. Photo courtesy of Larry Shelton

“Crazy Wheels” doesn’t race like he used to but his room is like a shrine, reminding him of his younger years with a bevy of old racing photographs and plaques on the wall. His days now consist of activities he enjoys, such as bingo, listening to music performances, and dancing.

He is 96 years old, born in Sacramento, and his daughter DeAnn Baker assisted with the interview in the Waterleaf’s lounge. She would occasionally write something down to communicate with Mr. Baker; his hearing abilities have declined with age.

Despite his advanced age, Mr. Baker answered questions enthusiastically, occasionally channeling his younger self, describing his work on engines. It was like a time machine: “You started out with a stock engine…Bigger pistons; special racing pistons…You polish the engines…You cut the bottom off…You cut the flywheel all off…I did my own work.”

Wally Baker stands by one of his earlier hardtops, before they evolved into super-modified racing cars. Photo courtesy of DeAnn Baker

Mr. Baker would visit junkyards for parts and work on his cars in the evenings.

As far as racing goes, Mr. Baker spent much of his time at West Capital Raceway — where Gary Gerould was the P.A. announcer and there were destruction derbies at halftime — but he made his name at other tracks, as well, like those in San Francisco, Calistoga and L.A.

In a telephone interview, Gerould said, “Wally was always a championship contender — A tremendous competitor.”

He gave an anecdote expressing Mr. Baker’s intensity: “I remember one time, there was some kind of official’s call Wally did not like.” Mr. Baker came up to the broadcasting booth. Gerould explained what happened next: “I was receiving the full wrath of his fury.” But Mr. Baker realized he was barking up the wrong tree. Gerould said that in the end, “Everything was fine. I was the wrong target.”

Some races were 100 laps, although most were 25. In 1972, Tognotti’s sponsored three 100-lap races at West Capital. Tognotti had a 1972 Oldsmobile Cutlass for the overall winner of the Tri-Holiday Sweepstakes. Mr. Baker won the first two, on Memorial Day and the 4th of July, and only needed to place 20th in the final race on Labor Day but he won the third race outright, winning the car.

In the ’70s Mr. Baker spent much time racing in Australia where he drove his trademark #100 car.

Wally Baker’s #100 racecar on display in Australia was patriotically decorated. Photo courtesy of DeAnn Baker

He won often but there were times he didn’t win. When asked about crashes, Mr. Baker said he was in “tons of ‘em,” also saying, “Oh, yeah. I’ve had bad crashes.”

His worst crash had him unconscious for two days and incoherent for two weeks. Despite the danger involved with car racing, Baker said, “I raced bikes. Motorcycle racing was more dangerous.”

His daughter, DeAnn, added, “He flipped a lot of times. He had a lot of injuries, a number of concussions. In fact, we kind of think his state of mind right now is partially due to the number of concussions he had, kind of like the football players. He says all the time, ‘It’s a miracle. Can you believe I’m still alive?’”

This writer found Mr. Baker easy to talk to and still relatively sharp at 96.

In West Sacramento, DeAnn said the race crowd would hang out at Yolo Club, Vince’s and Club Pheasant. Today, Mr. Baker has dinner with family and friends on Wednesdays. His favorite dish is Mexican: steak chicana.

When asked about his wife, who wasn’t into car racing, according to DeAnn, Mr. Baker said, “I like everything about my wife.” She is to be 95 years old in May, and still takes care of herself in the Hollywood Park home that they bought in 1953. That’s more than 70 years ago. In the game of longevity, “Baker wins!” indeed.

A family photo shows Wally Baker seated in the front row with sunglasses, and his wife, Connie Baker, to his right. Photo courtesy of DeAnn Baker