There's plenty of pressure in racing today. The pressure to perform is spread equally throughout the starting grid. The pressure of making the race is daunting and those blessed with free rides through provisionals may not feel it as much as others. As defending champion of the ARCA Bondo/Mar-Hyde Series, Bill Baird has that available option. From that point, however, there is no certainty. The pressure is clearly on.

Title defense brings the perk of the provisional, but it also brings the pressure of protecting the honor. In winning his first series championship, Baird realized a racing goal that had been with him from his first foray into the sport 10 years ago. "We pretty much knew after Charlotte that we had won it," says Baird about the '99 title. "Still, I didn't realize what I had done for a long time. To go to the awards banquet and to be handed what seemed like every award was pretty hard to grasp, really. You've got to understand I've never even won a race until last year. To win five races, let alone a championship, was something more than I dreamed about. Being there at the banquet proved I could do it. It really wasn't until then that I realized it wasn't a dream. I had really done it."

Baird made a few trips to the stage the year before. In his first full season of ARCA Bondo/Mar-Hyde racing in 1998, he snared rookie of the year honors and finished fourth in points. His consistency, even without the cherished victory, earned him a pair of pole positions and six top-five finishes with four of those being runner-up postings. One of the pole positions came at the season-opening race at Daytona International Speedway, no easy task for a series rookie. Those accomplishments prior to the start of the '99 season were a great cause for celebration in the Cincinnati ballroom that hosted the banquet. They also planted the seeds for the growth of a championship effort.

The racing saga of Bill Baird does not include a lifelong objective to get behind the wheel. There is no family connection greasing the rails to racing success. Bill Baird took a path that brought him from behind a desk to behind a steering wheel by way of acrobatic flying.

There was a point when Bill Baird simply didn't have time to fool with racing. His position with Saturn Manufacturing, a company he founded and developed until selling it in recent years, took the lion's share of his time. His involvement contributed to 22 patents he currently holds for processes and equipment in the coking of steel. For relaxation, when time allowed, Baird took to the skies. An Air Force veteran, he enjoyed the thrills of stunt flying and sought his challenges there.

His curiosity brought him to a racetrack and took him to the pit area. He hit the ground running when he decided to get into the sport. As he began to liquidate his business interests, it allowed him the opportunity to devote more time and attention to the sport.

Baird started racing at nearby dirt racing ovals. His interests gradually shifted to the pavement and nearby Salem Speedway in Indiana. The draw of touring took hold as Baird cast his lot with the American Speed Association's AC Delco backed tours. Along the way, he realized some successes with a third at Lancaster Speedway in New York and the "Most Improved Driver" honor.

His first career start with the ARCA series came at Daytona in 1997. At the end of the race, he had turned some heads on pit road by checking in with a fourth place finish in his first superspeedway outing. His '98 pole run put the exclamation point on his draw to the superspeedways. His first ARCA win came at the bigger ovals when he saw Victory Lane in Atlanta before going on to four more appearances in ARCA Bondo/Mar-Hyde winner's circles.

The pole at Daytona, the consistent finishes, and a love of competition have all given Baird an in-road to be noticed in the sport. The championship has stepped up the notice, but there's another element of pressure, one brought about by the nature of the racing beast today.

In his past efforts, Baird has managed to foot the bill for his racing through his own funding and some help from other companies. The 2000 racing season brings Baird to the track with some sponsorship support, but it may not be enough.

"I've been doing this on my own and the time has come to have a little help," Baird says. He was walking through the Circle Track Racing Expo in search of commitments a few days after the 2000 ARCA Bondo/Mar-Hyde season opener when he made the comments. "We have a lot to offer, especially as the defending champions of the series. We have one of the best crew chiefs in the country and a dedicated team. Racing takes a lot of time and effort to be the best. We're really not trying to make money off the sponsorship, but just get enough to keep it going."

They say you have to pay to play and Baird's pockets are running a little low. "Business has been down at Saturn. The money is a little tight and that's why we're here looking for some help for the rest the year. I wanted to defend the ARCA title and maybe run some Winston Cup races this year. The Cup deal is real expensive and that's not looking good at all. Again, we're not asking for much, just enough to cover expenses. Who knows? I might have to put the race team aside. I hate to do that because you have seven full-time employees and you have a commitment to them and their well being."

A walk up and down the starting grid at the Daytona race revealed few cars without sponsorship support, yet the defending champion is looking. It perplexes Baird to think about that.

"Some guy doesn't make the show, but feeds somebody some bull and gets them to put up money for an effort that maybe doesn't deserve it," he laments. "That hurts a lot of time in racing when somebody gets something but can't deliver and chases away potential help for someone who could deliver. I see that and I say 'I have more to offer. How can they do that?'

"It's disappointing. After nearly dominating the series last year, you would have thought it would mean something."

Baird's title defense was a study in contradiction as the ARCA cars hit Daytona. Typically, he qualified well, missing the pole by a few tenths of a second. However, two days before the Pro2Call 200, his qualified car blew a right front tire and slammed the fourth turn wall, riding the concrete all the way to turn one. Baird was bruised and sore, but clearly disappointed. A back-up car and engine were necessary because of the damage. It also relegated them to the rear of the field, no place to be to start a title defense. The car wasn't handling and the end result was a 12th place. In the overall scheme, Baird didn't consider the finish to be a threat to a title repeat.

"One race doesn't really hamper that," he says. "Qualifying fourth got us 10 bonus points which will help. A lot of the main contenders had problems also. You're gonna have bad races. It was the first time in a year and a half that I'd been down a lap. We finished the race and we didn't tear up another car. We're just going to go on to Salem and test and be ready."

Baird's metamorphosis from casual observer to championship driver was never without setbacks. "I've tried to quit two or three times, but my wife [Jan] always stopped me. I got to give the credit to her for what she's done to support this."

Jan is the car owner now on the official records. In years past, the car was listed as owned by Winston Cup standout Ken Schrader. Baird ran for Schrader to keep him in the owner's championship point standings in 1997 and throughout 1998. Schrader remains a good friend, but Baird has the number (52) to himself now. It's that number he'll be using to try to gain recognition.

The Sturgis, Kentucky, resident remains optimistic about his racing, despite the pressures of defending the title and finding the needed resources to carry on. The scheduling of race events in his home state brings a little more exuberance to Baird's tone.

"I've been on the track three times," says Baird of the Kentucky Speedway, due to open in 2000. "I was the first person on the track. It is a showcase of a racetrack. It will be great to see how many people it will bring to Kentucky and from within Kentucky to see the racing. There's a special pride to see something like that in Kentucky and to go there as a champion is wonderful."

Baird has carved his place among legends like Iggy Katona, Jack Bowsher, and Ramo Stott because he's an ARCA champion. There's no longer pressure to be the best, but the pressure comes in continuing to be the best.