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Teen gets close look at real racing world

August 15, 1999|By BRUCE HAMILTON

Most racing fans don't get closer than the sidelines to high-performance stock cars.

Larry Wayne Baker II spent three weeks this summer working on them.

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The 16-year-old Clear Spring resident worked as a mechanic for his favorite NASCAR driver, Bill Elliott. He became the first intern at Elliott's garage in Statesville, N.C., and the youngest person ever to work there.

It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for Larry, who has been racing since he was 5 years old. Larry said he's been an Elliott fan "since I could talk."

Nancy Baker got her son the internship when she wrote a letter to the former Winston Cup series champion. She didn't expect a response. "I thought, how many millions of people write to this guy and want stuff?" she said.

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But Elliott's wife, Cindy, read the letter and gave it to Eddie D'Hondt, general manager of the Statesville shop. He sent a reply June 16 offering summer work to the teen. D'Hondt noted that many drivers started as mechanics.

"Go for it, Larry," the letter said. "The racing world is yours to go get. Never ever give up and always believe in yourself."

Larry was responsible for his own transportation and lodging, so Nancy Baker got in touch with a friend in Mooresville, N.C., and got Larry a place to stay. She accompanied her son with other family members and made the three-week visit a vacation.

From July 19 to Aug. 6, Larry learned his way around the shop. He was a paid employee who got to wear the official uniform. At first, he mostly performed initiation chores of emptying trash, cleaning bathrooms and working in the kitchen.

But he soon got a chance to put other skills to work. The Bakers owned a service station for 16 years and operated a garage for two years, so Larry knew his way around an engine. Before he left, he had removed one car's suspension and worked on a car that Elliott has raced.

"He was doing oil changes on our cars when he was 7 or 8 years old," said his mother. "They were surprised at the shop how much he knew."

Shop foreman Alan "Buddy" Cram was impressed. "I could give him a job and he'd get it done," he said in a telephone interview. "For his age and the experience he has, he picks up things very well."

The shop is approximately 80,000 square feet and holds 12 cars at a time, according to Cram. About 25 people work there. The Elliott team has 15 cars in different stages of production. Some are bare chassis.

"We do everything there is to do on that race car here," said Cram. "We build from the ground up."

On the first weekend of his internship, Larry returned home to race at the Hagerstown Speedway. The mechanics at the Statesville shop told him not to come back if he didn't win.

Like other drivers, Larry started in quarter midgets, small race cars built for children. He never looked back. "My dad took me to the track one week and I just got hooked," he said.

On that July weekend, he raced a four-cylinder car for the fifth time and won his first race. He returned again Aug. 6 and placed second. He didn't mind going back and forth between Maryland and North Carolina. "I like to drive," he said.

The rising senior knows exactly what he wants to be: a race car driver. "That's all he's ever wanted to do," Nancy Baker said. "Now he's got his foot in the door, so he's got a chance."

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