Negotiating the paper-clip-shaped Martinsville Speedway seems like it should be fairly simple, but it can be quite confounding for race drivers. But the best of them usually figure it out fairly quickly. Jimmie Johnson, widely acknowledged as the most talented driver of his generation, is a master at Martinsville. In 16 career starts, he has six wins and a pole, and since dropping out of his first start there, he’s never finished out of the top 10 in a single race. Three-time Cup champion Darrell Waltrip leads all drivers in career poles at Martinsville with eight, and four-time champ Jeff Gordon leads all active drivers with seven Martinsville poles. But when it comes to calculating the number of poles relative to career starts, Glen Wood rises to the top of the list.
Wood, from nearby Stuart, Va., had four Martinsville poles in just 14 career starts. Gordon has seven in 34 starts, while Waltrip’s eight poles came in 52 tries. Wood also had a pole at Martinsville in a Convertible race and never started worse than fourth in a ragtop at Martinsville. He also won several Modified races there.
Wood’s brother and chief mechanic Leonard Wood remembers a day in practice back in the late 50′s, when Glen Wood showed just how good he was at Martins”ville. Marvin Panch came down the front straightaway at full speed, and Glen pulled out of the pits and passed him on the back straightaway,” Wood said, laughing as he recalled how surprised the rail birds were that day. Leonard Wood said there were several reasons the No. 21 was so fast at its home track back in the day. “Number one, Glen knew how to get around that race track,” he said. “And we came up with a good combination on a 1958 Ford.” Wood explained that he and the crew worked hard modifying the car to get it as low to the ground as possible, creating a distinct handling advantage. “It was just awesome,” he said. His brother’s short track techniques were just as impressive, he said. “Glen had a really good style,” he said, explaining that his brother liked his cars to be on the loose side. On his qualifying laps at Martinsville. He would back off the accelerator early into his entry in the turns, then use a minimum amount of braking as he entered the corner, keeping up his speed and letting the car roll free through the center of the corner, which allowed him to rocket off the corner and down the next straightaway. If that sounds familiar, it’s because 50 years later it’s still the fast way around Martinsville.
Leonard Wood logged some miles at Martinsville himself, but not in an actual race. “I wasn’t trying to set any records,” he said. “I was just trying to feel the car, and check the acceleration, adjust the carburetor and just see how the car ran. “It was a lot of fun, but when it came time to race, I felt safer on the other side of the pit wall.” But there were times at places like Daytona, when the cars used to run pit road at full throttle, that he felt otherwise. “I used to tell [former competition director] Dick Beatty that they needed to have a pit road speed, but he said they couldn’t do it,” Wood said. “But now they do.”
Leonard Wood said that as much as he and his team enjoyed racing at Martinsville Speedway, just 28 miles from home, they never could pull off a Cup victory there in his brother’s driving days, even though Glen Wood led 615 laps there and almost always had a fast car. He finished second to Rex White in 1959, and in 1960 was third behind race-winner Richard Petty and runner-up Jimmy Massey, who drove the Woods’ No. 21 that day while Glen ran a No. 24 Ford.
Leonard Wood missed that 1960 race, as he was in the U.S. Army, turning wrenches at a base in Germany, but it was still a great source of pride to him, especially the start which saw his brother on the pole and Massey completing an all-Wood Brothers front row. “They sent me an eight-millimeter film of the start of that race,” he said. “I was really swelled up showing it to my buddies.”
The Woods did eventually conquer Martinsville, in 1973 with David Pearson at the wheel running a superspeedway car on the tight half-mile oval. Pearson took the pole and beat Cale Yarborough out of the pits on the final pit stop to win the race. Pearson, like Glen Wood, knew how to get around Martinsville. But as Leonard Wood points out, that’s not the whole story. “Pearson was good everywhere you put him,” he said.