Just as faithfully as the swallows fly into San Juan Capistrano every year in late March, Glen Wood and his Stuart, Va., clan will drive to Daytona Beach every February for Speedweeks. This year marks the Woods 64th straight trip to Speedweeks. To fully appreciate just how long a string that is, it helps to know about the first trip, back in 1947.
Wood, the 84-year-old founder of the famed Wood Brothers race team, had become a fan of fellow Virginian Curtis Turner, who was tearing up the tracks up and down the East Coast. So Wood, his future brother-in-law, and future father-in-law decided to strike out for Daytona Beach to see Turner compete on the old beach-road course. “At that time, we’d probably never been further away from home than Greensboro (North Carolina),” he said. “It took the better part of two days to get here.”
In the days before interstate highways, Wood and his fellow travelers, riding in a 1940 Ford, followed narrow roads and crossed swamps on wooden bridge-like structures. But there also were some long straight stretches, something they rarely saw back home in Stuart. So the driver, Bernece’s brother Lane Moricle, decided to give the Ford’s flathead V8 engine a workout. “Lane opened it up,” Wood recalled. “He got up to about 90 or 95 miles per hour, but the engine started getting hot, so he had to give that up.”
When the group arrived at Daytona Beach, they found a racer’s dream land, with drivers and cars of all kinds. They were hooked. Their 1951 trip was even more memorable. Wood and his business partner Chris Williams both proposed to their girlfriends, got married and let their annual racing vacation double as a honeymoon trip. Glen and Bernece celebrated their 59th anniversary on Sunday, at Daytona of course.
In 1953, Wood made his first Speedweeks appearance as a driver, entering a 1939 Ford Standard, equipped with two carburetors, in the Modified Sportsman race. “It wasn’t the best because the ’40 Fords were better,” he said. The grille on the ’40 was more covered, giving it an aerodynamic advantage over the ‘39s, which had more open areas up front. “I qualified fairly well, in the top 10 or 15, and finished seventh,” he said. “I thought I’d done really well, but when I got home people said, ‘Maybe you can do better next year.’ “But they didn’t realize that they started 130 cars, or that the only practice we had was the qualifying runs on the beach.” In those days, qualifying consisted of a timed one-mile run on the beach. The road portion of the course was only used during races.
For the 1956 races, Wood brought a 1940 Ford and set a new Sportsman qualifying record of 119 miles per hour. He went on to finish first in Sportsman and second overall to Modified driver Tim Flock. The next year, he entered a 1951 Ford with a 312-cubic-inch overhead valve engine and raised his qualifying record to 127 miles per hour. “It was still gaining speed at the end of the mile,” Wood said, adding that his brother and chief mechanic, Leonard Wood, couldn’t believe the car was that fast. “It’s just like qualifying on the big track today. The second lap is faster.” Again, he was best in Sportsman class and in the top three overall.
For 1958, the final year of racing on the beach, Wood had to compete without the help of his brother, as Leonard was away serving in the Army. He prepared a 1954 Ford, using sheet metal to close the grille openings and fashioning an air dam for the front. To gain even more aerodynamically for qualifying, he used the front wheels from his 1958 Edsel. Those 14-inch tubeless wheels lowered the front of the car almost down to the sand, and he had the traditional 16-inchers on the rear. When it came time to qualify, he felt like he needed more rear gearing than was available at the time. He happened upon a tire company specialist who helped him solve that problem. The man found two 16-inch tires that were three inches larger in circumference, which when bolted on the rear had the same effect as changing the gear. Even though he was running a Sportsman car, he ran over 139 miles per hour, setting a new record and beating all the Modifieds in the process. “That was one of my proudest moments in those days, beating the Modifieds and sitting on the pole for the last race on the sand,” Wood said. He won the Sportsman race again and was in the top three overall.
But the beach wins weren’t as easy as they might seem. Once his windshield wiper motor caught fire during a race, but a spectator rushed out of the palmettos with a fire extinguisher, doused the flames and sent him on his way. Another time he spun while trying to clear the sandy slush from his windshield, but recovered and continued on. “I was fortunate that nobody hit me,” he said.
In 1959, the new Daytona International Speedway opened, and Wood entered the inaugural Daytona 500 in a Convertible. That race was a Sweepstakes event, with hardtops and convertibles running together. Once again, Leonard was turning wrenches for Uncle Sam instead of brother Glen, and that likely kept Wood from winning the first ever race on the new speedway. During practice, fellow driver Tim Flock urged Wood to richen the mixture in his carburetor to keep from burning a piston while running long stretches with the engine running at full speed on the giant track. So Wood changed the jets, twice. During the race, Wood’s Ford was flying, but he laid back early on. “It was sort of hairy out there, kind of like it gets today,” he said. “They were dancing around in big packs.” But when the flagman signaled five laps to go, Wood picked up the pace. “I got back with it and got back in the lead in a lap or so,” he said.
“I was leading, and coming off Turn 2, I ran out of gas.” The rich mixture of the carburetor had caused the engine to burn more fuel. The first Daytona checkered flag instead went to Shorty Rollins. “If I hadn’t listened to Tim, it might have been different,” he said. “But at least I didn’t burn a piston.”
In the 500, the convertibles were at a great disadvantage to the more aerodynamic hardtops, and Wood wasn’t a factor before dropping out with engine problems. “There was so much difference that it wasn’t even close,” he said. “They never ran another Sweepstakes race on the big track.”
Wood never entered another Daytona 500 as a driver, but he made his mark as a car owner, winning the Great American Race in 1963 with Tiny Lund, in 1968 with Cale Yarborough, in 1972 with A.J. Foyt and in 1976 with David Pearson, who beat Richard Petty in a finish that many consider the best ever in NASCAR history.
His 1963 win is one of the auto racing’s most famous as well. That year, Marvin Panch was set to drive the Woods’ No. 21, but he was burned when the Maserati sports car he was driving at Daytona overturned and caught fire. Wood and several others, including Lund, sped to the crash site, rolled the car upright and rescued Panch. Lund took over the No. 21 and won the race, in large part because of the Woods’ pit strategy. They never changed tires and carefully calculated the mileage, which allowed them to make one fewer pit stops than their competitors.
Today, Wood plays less of a hands-on role with his team, as his sons Len and Eddie now lead the way. But even at age 84, the competitive fires still burn, and he was more than relieved when his driver Bill Elliott safely secured a starting spot in this year’s 500. “The worst feeling you can have is missing a race,” he said. “It was a great feeling to see him lock in a starting spot. I’m really proud of the effort that went into that.”
Although much has changed in Wood’s 64 years at Speedweeks, some things haven’t. For one, he still makes the drive down from Stuart every year, even though the improved roads have made the trip less of an adventure than it was in 1947. And his 2010 Taurus SHO is considerably more comfortable than his brother-in-law’s ’40 Ford.
But occasionally he still spices up the trip a bit. “Bernece will ask me, ‘Do you realize how fast you’re going?’” he said. But for a man, who holds the Sportsman speed records from the beach racing days, driving 70 something on the interstate is no real chore. “I’m just keeping up with the crowd,” he said.