ROUGEMONT - It’s taken Brian Baker a while to make it into the winner’s circle. Now that he’s been there, he intends to stay.
Baker has worked around cars ever since he graduated from Southern High School in 2003. He’s enjoyed success in his No. 18 Impala, finishing in the top five in each of five Late Model Select races this year at the Orange County Speedway.
But his victory June 2 was his first ever in Late Models.
"It was like having a weight lifted off my shoulders," Baker said. "You work so hard, day in and day out, it’s hard to explain how good it feels to win. It’s unbelievable, really."
Baker has had to work harder than most people to succeed, though his backstory is not uncommon in short-track auto racing. For years, he worked in his dad’s business in Durham — Baker’s Plumbing — just to get enough money together to get a car onto the three-eighths mile track in Rougemont.
Even now, he’s his own best sponsor, doing a lot of his own work in the Roxboro Auto Body shop he opened this year.
"I’ve just got a passion for racing," Baker said. "I think I can be successful."
Baker, age 27, got off to a good start in Rougemont by running in Limited Sportsman races for two-and-a-half seasons at OCS. In 2009, he entered 10 Late Model Select races and six times in the top 10, including a second place.
But he was deeply affected by the passing of his grandmother, Carolyn Baker, about 18 months ago. He ended his 2010 season after just one race, where he finished sixth.
"She was a big part of my life and was always one of my biggest supporters," Baker said.
In 2011, he got back onto the Orange County track for five LMS races, finishing in the top 10 four times.
This year, he’s never finished outside the top 10.
On June 2, he got to start along the front row after three-time LMS winner Tripp Massengill got bumped back from the pole due to a rule designed to even out starting positions.
Baker was biding his time in a 35-lap sprint along with Massengill and Brian Cole when those two bumped heading into the last lap. As Massengill and Cole exchanged paint, Baker saw his opportunity, slipped by them on the lower third of the track for the lead and held on for the last 600 meters for the win.
"I was trying to be patient the whole way," Baker said. "I ended up being in the right place at the right time."
Baker didn’t escape the last lap unscathed. He got "roughed up a little bit" as he got past Massengill, and he couldn’t manage better than seventh in the night’s second 35-lap event of a twin bill.
Still, his night’s earnings made life easier for him in the next weeks, freeing him from some of the day-to-day worries about funding.
"Life is a lot easier when you don’t have to worry so much about working hard to get the money for tires or rental fees for time on the track," Baker said.
The 90 points he earned from his two top-10 finishes June 2 bumped Baker up to fourth in the season’s standings. That’s the best he’s ever stood this far into the season.
And he got some more good news recently when he won an appeal to track officials to let him use a 650 four-barrel carburetor with his Chevy Crate Motor, instead of the required 500 two-barrel used for the more common Built Motor in most Late Model Selects.
"They said it was obvious that I needed a 650 back in there," Baker said. "I’ve been running at Orange County for a long time. I was very competitive with that 650 before.
"Now, I think I’m going to get a couple more wins. There’s plenty of time left."
The speedway’s first races of the summer months will take place Saturday in Rougemont, featuring a 75-lap Late Model Select event, preceded by Limiteds, Pure and Street Stocks, Mini-trucks, Legends and Banditos. The front gates open at 5 p.m., followed by qualifying at 5:40 p.m. and then the first green flag at 7 p.m.