(TOLEDO, Ohio – January 29, 2015) – Tuesday morning, 65-year-old Bill Baird was sitting on a runway waiting to blast off to his next adventure.
“I’m sitting on an airplane getting ready to fly to California…getting ready to go racing,” said the 1999 ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards national champion.
You’ll be happy to know that Bill Baird Motorsports is still alive and well…albeit reincarnated. These days, there are mountains to climb and courses to conquer rather than going super-fast in circles. In fact, going racing nowadays means something quite different than it did a decade ago.
“I’m going to a big off-road race…it’s called King of the Hammers out in Johnson Valley, California. It’s the craziest, wildest thing you ever saw…brutal. It’s got a little bit of everything in it. One minute, you’re going a 150-mph across the desert…the next, you’re climbing a mountain over rocks.
“I finished third last year…eight hours and 23 minutes. I got beat by 18 minutes for first…five minutes for second. It’s the most brutal race in the world.”
True to form, Baird still drives the Saturn Machine car, and he still uses his old ARCA number 52…sort of.
“I just added another 52…so it’s the 5252. There were 157 cars that started the race last year. This is my fourth year doing it. Ran fifth in points in 2014. I think we did 13 or 14 events last year.”
The “we” part is also interesting. Keith Strunk, who was Baird’s ARCA crew chief during his Rookie of the Year and championship seasons, is still his crew chief today. That means competing fulltime on the ULTRA4 tour…or in layman’s terms…Unlimited 4 Wheel Drive Racing. Longtime ARCA crew members Brian Elbhar and Kenny Latham are also still with Baird for all the off-road excitement.
“Some of my original ARCA crew is still with me. We build ‘em ourselves…700 horsepower, 4-wheel-drive, custom made, no rules.”
One might think the rough and tumble world of mountain rock climbing separated by long, high-speed desert runs in between would be reserved for much younger pilots.
“It’s crazy…I won’t deny it. We crash a lot too. I had a bad one in 2013 up in Ohio…broke two vertebrae in my back, collar bones and two ribs. We were putting on a race for the fair. The shocks weren’t quite right…we jumped a ramp…went 15-20 feet in the air and landed square on the roof. It broke me pretty good.”
As a self-made man, Baird funds his own racing operation through his business, Saturn Machine, which constructs equipment for major steel mills in the United States and Canada.
“I’ve been at Saturn Machine for 50 years. We’ve got 70 employees.”
Baird is now so attached to his new brand of racing, he built his own track in Sturgis, Kentucky, home of Saturn Machine.
“We’re racing back home now. We built a track in Sturgis, the Sturgis Motor Complex…it’s a national points race now. We call it the “Blow Out”.
For now, it’s all about the King of the Hammers event in California.
“The course in Johnson Valley covers 186,000 acres. There are three pits set up…spread out. It’s more like a Baja race across the desert, but then you got the part about going over and up mountain rock…it’s brutal. No co-driver with me…I do all my own navigation.”
Baird’s racing schedule next week will go something like this….
“Monday, we’re doing this deal called the Backdoor Shootout. Tuesday we qualify. Wednesday we’ve got a side-by-side race…then Thursday and Friday is the King of the Hammers race…desert, rocks, mountains…just about whatever you can imagine.”
You might think it would end there...not so much.
“Saturday and Sunday, we’re going to set a record in the fastest two-and-a-half-mile run across a lake bed.”
Baird made 70 career ARCA starts from 1997 through 2010, earning the ARCA championship in 1999 driving for Ken Schrader Racing. He had six career wins overall. After retiring in 2002, Baird came back for what he thought was going to be a final hurrah on the Springfield mile-dirt in 2004. After not driving anything for more than two years, he climbed out a winner at Springfield. Baird’s other ARCA wins were at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Salem Speedway, Flat Rock Speedway, Shady Bowl Speedway, and another at Springfield. He also won six Menards Pole Awards at Salem twice, Anderson, Toledo, Flat Rock and Daytona in his rookie ‘98 season. Baird was also the Hoosier Superspeedway Challenge champion and Bill France Four Crown champion during his championship year. He was ARCA’s SCOTT Rookie of the Year in 1998. He led 989 laps overall in 24 races. In addition to owning Saturn Machine, he owns 22 U.S. and foreign patents, and is an Air Force veteran and airplane pilot.