One race that stands above the rest from Wood’s early days as a full-time mechanic was the 1976 Daytona 500, a race that is rated by many as having the most exciting finish ever in NASCAR.
In that race, the Woods’ driver David Pearson drove a 1976 Mercury Montego.
Eddie Wood, then 24, said he and his brother decided they’d like to paint the inside of their car something other than the dull flat black that it had been in the past. Their inspiration came in part from seeing their friends and rivals at Petty Enterprises paint the insides of their cars blue.
Wood said the first color chosen for the Mercury’s interior was silver.
“We painted it in the middle of the floor,” Wood said.
But when it was done, it just didn’t look right.
“We got together, Len, myself and Leonard and got lacquer thinner and some rags and wiped all that paint off,” he said. “Then we painted it in red lacquer.”
Wood said that experience illustrated how his uncle Leonard, who is still regarded as one of the brightest minds in the NASCAR garage, was patient with his nephews and willing to try their ideas on a race car.
But, as Wood pointed out, Leonard’s primary focus was on that No. 21 and making it fast. And at the race tracks, when Len and Eddie would wander around the garage and check out other cars, Leonard never ventured far from the No. 21’s garage stall.
A former Woods driver, A.J. Foyt led the most laps that day, but his Hoss Ellington Chevrolet blew an engine. Buddy Baker, who would eventually drive the No. 21, led 28 laps in Bud Moore’s Ford, but also blew an engine.
But all the while, from the drop of the green flag, the two drivers at the head of the class were Pearson and Richard Petty, just as they were at countless other races and countless other tracks back in the day.
The Pettys and Woods were fierce rivals, but also friends. It was true then, and it’s true today. “We’ve always been friends with the Pettys,” Wood said. “When we were running a limited schedule and happened to fall out of a race, we’d go stand with Dale Inman in Petty’s pits. It’s still that way today.”
As the laps wound down back in February of 1976, Pearson led from Lap 177 to 187. Then Petty led from 188-199.
As usual for those times, Eddie Wood was the only team member in radio contact with Pearson. “Leonard was the crew chief and changed tires, and he didn’t want to be bothered with the radio,” Wood said.
As the cars roared off Turn Two down the backstretch, the crowd began to stand up. A roar was building.
Pearson came on the radio with a simple update: “I got him.”
Pearson went high to the lead, but Petty came back on the low side. The two future Hall of Famers ran side by side, but a slight bump set in motion a series of events that have become an unforgettable part of Daytona and NASCAR lore.
Wood still couldn’t see what was happening and only got a brief report from Pearson over the radio: “He hit me.”
Then Wood heard Pearson on the radio, asking: “Where’s Richard?”
It was a moment that clearly illustrated just how calm Pearson was in that situation compared to everyone else around him.
“I couldn’t even find the button to push to answer him,” Wood said.
Wood said that over the years, he’s watched replays of that finish, and come to appreciate even more just how calm the Silver Fox was in those critical moments.
“When he asked me ‘Where’s Richard’ he was spinning,” Wood said. “He had clutched the car and was keeping it running, which was using both feet. He had to use one hand to push the talk button, which was on his shoulder harness, and he still had to steer the car.
The car later served as a show car for series sponsor Winston, then ended up parked out back of the Woods’ shop in Stuart, made obsolete by NASCAR’s downsizing of the Cup cars.
“We sold it for $200 just to get it out of the way,” Wood said.
The car found its way to a junkyard in Florida, where it was rescued and restored. At last report it was on display in the Museum of American Speed in Lincoln, Neb.