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Heart Like a Wheel

(page 4 of 4)

1950 Mercury owned by Scott Nelson.You’d never expect to find Bob Baker’s car collection in the Wood River Valley. In 1958 his wife Sonja was a competitive skater and Baker followed her to Sun Valley. Baker thrives on challenges and while Sonja practiced, he strapped on a pair of 215 centimeter wooden skis with long thong bindings, and made his first high-speed turns on Dollar.

In the following years, Baker mixed 90-hour work weeks in his Des Moines, Iowa, grocery stores with vacations in Sun Valley. The Bakers eventually purchased a house and began to put down roots.

Baker started collecting cars when he was 48. Today, he has an immaculate 1954 Jag 120, a yellow Ferrari, and a Porsche Spyder 550, similar to the one in which the 24-year-old rebel actor James Dean died, south of Bakersfield, California.

When the Kroger chain made an offer for the family grocery business, the Bakers moved full-time to the Wood River Valley in the ’90s. Baker quickly realized he needed a new challenge to fill the vacuum left by years of brutal work weeks. That challenge appeared in the form of racing old sports cars. Baker started with classic Ferraris, Maseratis and Jags. “It takes an excellent, almost amazing, driver to handle those old cars,” he remembers. “I was doing OK but wasn’t having that much fun.”

Baker stepped out of sports cars into the Atlantic Series, and then tried Formula Juniors. For the last five years he has raced Formula Ones.

Baker confesses, “I’m an obsessive guy and tend to overdose.” Adding truth to his claim, four immaculate Formula Ones fill his cavernous garage, silently awaiting the start of the 2008 Vintage racing season.

Formula One cars rarely appear on the auction block and when they do, the bidding typically pushes them out of sight. Baker has owned seven Formula Ones, ranging from 1976 to 1983, and while most needed work, he never purchased a basket case. Today, the garage houses a 1983 Williams that won the world championship. Powered by a Cosworth DFV V-8, the Williams develops 495 bhp at 11,000 rpm. To its right is a 76 McClaren, also powered by a Cosworth V-8. Baker owns the 1979 Ferrari T-4 that Gilles Villeneuve drove, a ’73 McClaren that was driven by Peter Revson, a Brabham BT-26, driven by Jackie Ickx, and a Brabham BT-33. Clearly, these old Formula One cars were built to go incredibly fast on closed race courses. Like the Air Force’s Black Bird that constantly leaks jet fuel, clean oil wets drip pans beneath the Cosworths. And though Baker fantasizes about driving them once down Highway 75 through Ketchum, he is also well aware the local police force would not be amused.

The walls of Baker’s garage are covered with posters chronicling the history of the cars, portraits of his family and photos of Baker running at speed. Racing Vintage Formula One is clearly a family affair. His wife, Sonja, accompanies him to Road America at Elkhart Lake, Watkins Glen, Road Atlanta, Infineon in Sonoma, Laguna Seca, and Monaco. Dan, the youngest of Baker’s four sons, once raced with his father and showed such extraordinary talent that for a time Baker covered his expenses. But with tires costing $6,000 per set, and the years passing, the proud papa reluctantly insisted Dan needed to find a job that would support his racing habit.

Both Peter Revson and Gilles Villeneuve died in race cars, and Baker’s learning curve hasn’t come without cost. Modern safety features are missing in the old Formula One cars and Baker suffered a bad concussion and a back injury in a 2007 Mosport crash. He now acknowledges,“Drivers were more expendable in the ’70s and ’80s.” While he hasn’t raced since his accident, he hopes to return in 2008.

The reasons men and women covet classic cars are as varied as first loves. Men regard cars as an extension of their masculinity. Women remember their father’s car or their own exotic, fast, or even shabby Chevy. First cars represent a freedom, a chance to explore the world . . . even if that world is the Wood River Valley. Cars define a year as surely as a piece of music or a photograph. They are heirlooms, handed down from father to child, or collector to collector, who preserve them for a few years or four decades, then pass them on to the next caretaker. Little wonder that when the Castle Rock Fire burned above Ketchum last summer, the Sun Valley Auto Club loaded Bob Baker’s Formula One cars onto a trailer and transported them to the museum, where they were stored, without charge, until the danger passed.

The legend of old Maseratis hidden under dusty tarps may find its expression in Bellevue’s back streets, or on Baseline Road where a 1951 Buick Special sat for years next to a 12-cylinder Allison V-1710 P-38 Lightning engine.

My father once flew P-38s and later owned a ’51 Buick Woody station wagon. In the late ’70s, I asked the owner of the Allison 12-cylinder and Buick Special if he’d care to sell either. His response was polite but firm. “No, I think I’ll hold onto them for a few more years,” he said. “Who knows, they might even be worth something one day.”

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