Category Archives: Classic Memories

Back Seat Driving Was A Glen Wood Specialty

When it comes to back seat driving, Glen Wood was among the best.

But Wood’s back seat driving didn’t involve nagging the one behind the wheel. He did his back seat driving from the back seat.

If you’ve been to the Wood Brothers Racing Museum in Stuart, Va., or saw races back in the day at Martinsville Speedway or Bowman Gray Stadium or Starkey Speedway you know where this story is headed. If not, here’s the story of one of the first examples of the Wood Brothers ingenuity when it came to preparing winning race cars.

Back in the old Modified days, where rules were much more liberal than today, teams got more rear grip and thus more acceleration off the corners, by moving the engine rearward in the car. Glen Wood and his brother Leonard kept moving the engine back in their 1937 Ford until the driver was sitting in the back seat of the car.

“We wound up putting the engine further back than we aimed to, to get everything to fit right,” Leonard Wood said. “It put the driver in the back seat. We put a long steering shaft on it and took a Ford Falcon steering wheel that was deep dished to get it back a little more.”

Today’s Modified cars also have engines located rearward on the frame, but the bodies are shifted back so the driver doesn’t appear to be sitting in the back seat as Wood did.

The Woods’ Modified was powered by a 361-cubic-inch engine taken from Glen’s 1958 Edsel. It was bored out to 370-cubic-inches with three Stromberg carburetors using methanol, instead of gasoline.

“Those Stromberg carburetors are the best you could get for burning methanol,” Leonard Wood said.

With Glen Wood driving, the back seat car was all but unbeatable on the short tracks around Virginia and North Carolina. It won eight in a row at Starkey Speedway near Roanoke, countless features and a championship at Bowman Gray and a big Modified race at Martinsville Speedway, where the Sprint Cup Series will be racing this weekend.

Glen Wood said the back seater was quite the innovative car in its day.

“When I first got in it after Leonard fixed it up, I thought, ‘If I can drive that, I can fly an airplane,’” Glen Wood said. “But after I got used to the distance between where I was sitting as compared to where you usually sit, it was fine. And I had to get used to getting close to other cars. You’d think you were closer to them than what you were, but you had to be close to them to do any good.”

The car had so much rear weight that it wasn’t uncommon to see the left front wheel off the ground at speed.

“If you put a little wedge in it, it would pick up the left front wheel a foot high,” Glen Wood said. “I have carried it halfway down the straightaway.”

But when Leonard Wood recalls the back seat car at Martinsville, it’s not a race that first comes to mind. It’s a practice session in which he did a little back-seat driving, so to speak.

Glen Wood decided the car needed a heavier right front spindle like they’d been running on the rough dirt tracks. Leonard had other ideas.

“I didn’t see why he needed that heavier spindle on a smooth asphalt track, so I got in the car and Glen took me for a ride around the track,” Leonard Wood said. “Well that thing with those big slicks and all, was getting such a good grip in the corners that it felt like it was going to throw me out the right side window.”

“I’m trying to get him to stop, but he can’t hear me. I’ve had enough right off. Finally he pulled in, and I said, ‘Glen, I think you do need a stronger spindle.”

“I mean the force it was putting on that right front spindle felt like it was tremendous. I had to hold on tight or it would have thrown me right out the window.”

Glen Wood said he doesn’t remember many of the details of his 1960 Modified win at Martinsville. But it was a victory at Martinsville, where he always ran strong but had one thing or another keep him out of Victory Lane in Convertible and Grand National races.

“I led a lot of them and was on the pole for about half of them, but somehow they all eluded me,” he said. “But that was one of my favorite tracks, along with Bowman Gray Stadium.”

A replica of the back seat racer, complete with the actual Stromberg carburetors on the original car, along with other cars and memorabilia from the Wood Brothers’ 60 years of NASCAR racing are on display at the Wood Brothers Racing Museum on Performance Drive in Stuart, just 30 miles west from Martinsville, Va.

Museum hours are 8:30 a.m. to noon and 1-5 p.m. this week and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, and most days, Glen and Bernece Wood will be there to greet visitors. Admission is free.

Racing Wasn’t the Only Calling for One of the Original Wood Brothers

To see Ray Lee Wood quietly and But that he was. As a tire changer for the famed Wood Brothers crew, Ray Lee Wood helped send many of the sport’s top drivers to victory in some of the sport’s premier events.

But it was during a race trip that brought his family team world-wide acclaim that Wood realized it was time to change life courses.

At the same time he and his brothers were shocking the auto racing world with their pit work that helped propel Jim Clark to victory in the 1965 Indianapolis 500, Ray Lee Wood was realizing that his racing days were coming to an end.

“When we were up there in Indiana, I felt the calling of the Lord,” Wood said. “He had something else for me to do.”

It was the same calling his brother Delano, the family jack man, would feel at the end of the 1983 season.

Not wanting to leave his brothers in mid-season, in an era when good tire changers were hard to find, Ray Lee decided to stay on through the end of that year.
His racing career ended in grand style, with his old friend Curtis Turner driving the Woods’ Ford to victory in the inaugural American 500 at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham.

It was one of the great moments in NASCAR history as Turner was considered by many to be past his prime, too old to win a grueling 500-mile race.

From then on, instead of spending his Sundays at the race track, Ray Lee Wood spent them at the Pentecostal Holiness church just down from his home in Buffalo Ridge, just north of the Stuart, where the family’s race team was based.

Now age 82 and retired from the grading business, he tends the family farm and lives in the same house his parents moved into when he was about 14 years old.

The well-tended yard and tin-roofed, white-frame home, with the mountain stream out front winding among giant hardwood shade trees, look like a scene from an earlier, simpler time.

“There’s just something about this old home place,” Wood said of his love for his little part of the world, adding that he tries hard to make his kin feel just at home there as he does.

It’s in his front yard that the Wood clan gathers each year, under an old beech tree, for their family reunion.

“Even though it’s been mine for some time, I tell the family that I want them to always feel like it’s home for them too,” he said.

Wood, who never married, lives there alone, but says he’s never lonely.

“The Lord’s always there, and you can always talk to him,” he said.  He’s also got his TV and radio, so he can keep up with the NASCAR races, especially when the No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Fusion is competing.

“I still follow it,” he said.

And when visitors press him for stories from his racing days, he’s always glad to oblige.

Many of his racing tales involve Turner, his fellow Virginian.

“Curtis was something else,” Wood said. “If he liked you, you really had a friend.”

Although Turner was a legendary partier, Wood never participated in those excursions. However, he often hitched a ride in Turner’s plane.

Since he wasn’t a full-time racer, it was important for Wood to get home as quickly as possible after a Sunday race and get back on his bulldozer. Since Turner often was flying back to Virginia, Wood would ride along.

“One time when we were coming home from Pennsylvania, Curtis got a little sleepy,” Wood recalled, smiling and chuckling as he told the story. “He said, ‘Don’t let me go to sleep.’

“I told him, ‘Don’t worry, I’m not going to let you go to sleep.’”

Wood’s just as interesting when talking about his bees or his garden.

Just as his brothers Glen and Leonard – and the team mechanics today – are meticulous and thorough in the preparation of their race cars, Ray Lee leaves nothing to chance when tending his bee hives. Since he began keeping bees 50 years ago, each year he ensures that his boxes in good order, and he faithfully treats his bees for a myriad of problems that are plaguing bees everywhere these days.

Recently he harvested honey from his 100 hives, taking only the sourwood, the most popular flavor, leaving plenty of poplar and other less popular flavors for his bees to live on over the winter.

Not surprisingly, Wood’s honey crop, 100 or so cases, is mostly spoken for already. Its popularity extends far beyond the quiet community where he resides.

Some has been shipped as far away as Japan.

Just as his brothers continued to find success on the race track after he left pit road, Ray Lee Wood has had bountiful harvests at home.

When the Wood family gathers, there is much to be thankful for.

Leonard Wood’s Little Car is a Shade-Tree Engineering Marvel

Of all the exhibits in the Wood Brothers Museum in Stuart, Va., it is one of the littlest ones that tell one of the biggest stories.

It’s a little home-made car that Leonard Wood built when he was just 13 years old. It’s a marvel of shade-tree engineering and a sure sign that even as a young teenager, Leonard Wood had a rare gift when it came to things mechanical.

Wood used the same ingenuity on his little car that he did over the years working on the No. 21 Ford and Mercury racecars that won 96 races on the series now known as Sprint Cup.

Even before he built his first motorized vehicle, Wood had a method of transportation all his own. It was a crude, Fred Flintstone-like cart that he called a “trucker wheel wagon.” The wheels were made from narrow slices from a freshly-cut log. The driver sat atop the rear axle and steered by using his feet to push the front axle left and right.

Eddie Wood, Leonard’s nephew, recalls that as a child, when he was roaming the hill behind his grandmother’s house, they would sometimes stumble upon old oil cans, left there by young Leonard after he lubed his car for a run down the hill.

“Those cans are probably still there.  I would reach down to pick one up, she would say no, no, leave it there, Little Leonard left that.” Eddie Wood recalled.

But as young Leonard started into his teen years, he yearned for a better car. Fascinated by the motor bikes and other mechanized means of travel that he saw on the roads around his home, he set about designing and building his own – at age 13.

“I wanted something with a motor and four wheels,” he said. “So I came up with this idea of how to make it. These days you would have all kinds of engineers and professionals to give you advice on how to do it, but I just made it all myself. I didn’t have anybody to coach me on how to build it.”

He started with some sprockets and chain salvaged from an old Army surplus amphibious vehicle commonly known as a “duck.”

His brother-in-law gave him a four-cycle Johnson gasoline engine that once powered a washing machine. The bearings came from a 1939 Ford transmission, the pulley from a water pump on a 1940 Ford engine.

The spindles were made from parts from an old mechanical brake system.

The steering wheel was as simple as could be – a piece of rod, bent in a circle and braced with scraps of metal. The steering shaft he mounted to a rusty, pitted piece of angle iron.  He used valve springs from a Lincoln Zephyr for the springs on the front axle and fashioned the gas tank from a sheet of brass. A piece of fan belt rubbing against a pulley when the pedal was depressed served as a friction brake.

“I didn’t have any money,” Wood explained. “The only thing I bought was the wheels.”

When he got his car finished, it would run 15 miles per hour, but a change of pulleys would boost the top speed to 25 mph.

“It was a very fun piece back in those days,” he said. “It wasn’t designed off a go-kart because there was no such thing as a go-kart back then.”

Wood said that once he got his car finished, he immediately put it to use.

‘I rode it constantly, until I started racing,” he said. “I rode it up and down the dirt road a mile or two from the house and around the parking area there at the house.”

Once, he bolted on the 25 mph pulley and made a road trip, on the main highway near his home. His destination was the garage where his father worked.

“It was about four and a half miles away,” he said.

Among the people he encountered on the road that day was the principal of the local high school, who was quite impressed.

“He got up and made a big speech about me and that little car,” he said. “He talked about how unusual it was for someone to make something like that.”

Wood said he continues to be amazed by the old washing machine engine.

“It runs as smooth as can be,” he said. “It’ll idle down so quiet you can’t hear it running.”

Wood said the engineering that went into that engine nearly a century ago was far ahead of its time. Even the butterfly in the carburetor was designed so there was little restriction of the air flowing into the engine,

“I thought it was kind of neat how nice it was,” he said. “And it was made nearly 100 years ago.”

After Leonard Wood moved on to working on race cars, his little car was stored for years in the ceiling of the shop. About 15 years ago, his brother Delano convinced him to restore it.

“I put it back running again, and then put it in the museum,” he said.

But before he retired the little car again, Leonard Wood and his nephew Jon Wood both took a few laps in it.

“It runs slick as a button,” Leonard Wood said. “It was a lot of fun.”

And whether it’s for fun or for trying to make Sprint Cup cars run faster, Leonard Wood has spent a lifetime thinking of innovative ways to maximize performance. “I’ve always been interested in making mechanical things and making them perform better,” he said.

Wood Brothers Appearance with 1965 Indy-Winning Lotus at Goodwood Festival of Speed

In the 60 years that the Wood Brothers of Stuart, Va., have been racing automobiles, there have been many memorable moments. But few define the innovation and professionalism of the team as well as the 41.9 seconds they worked on pit road during the 1965 Indianapolis 500. That was the total time the late great Jim Clark and his Ford-powered Lotus spent on pit road during his victory in auto racing’s biggest race. Although many at the track that day initially were slow to realize what the Woods had pulled off, it soon became obvious. In the weeks afterward, the Woods drew world-wide acclaim for their stunningly quick pit work. “We got the most publicity in the least amount of time that we ever got in our lives,” Leonard Wood said. “We hit a home run for sure.”

That acclaim endures, and next week it will again be on the minds of racers everywhere as Clark’s winning car will participate in the prestigious Goodwood Festival of Speed on July 2-4. The Festival of Speed, held on the grounds of the Goodwood House in West Sussex, England, features historic racing vehicles in a hill climb on a 1.16-mile course. More than 100,000 people are expected to attend the event each day.

The Ford-powered Lotus the Woods serviced back in 1965 has spent most of its life in The Henry Ford (museum), but now it has been put back in racing condition by Clive Chapman, son the of the car’s original owner Colin Chapman. It will be driven by an old friend of the Woods, Sir Jackie Stewart, a fitting choice given that both he and Clark are Scots. Among the honored guests will be two of the original Wood Brothers, Leonard and Delano.

Delano hasn’t attended a NASCAR race since the last time he worked as jackman for the team’s famed No. 21, and that was back in 1983. Before the Lord steered him to church work instead of racing on Sundays, he set a record of 77 NASCAR superspeedway wins as a jackman, a mark that has yet to be bettered. Leonard Wood continues to be a familiar sight around race tracks as he works on the No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Fusion. Many in the sport, young and old, still consider him the smartest man in the garage.

The story of the Wood Brothers’ participation in the Indianapolis 500 actually started at a NASCAR race in Darlington, S.C., when Ford Motor Company racing official John Cowley approached Glen Wood, asking him if he’d help out with the Lotus-Ford effort in the 500. Wood was taken aback by a request from Ford Motor Company to have the team from the remote Virginia foothills, with no open-wheel racing experience, be a part of the Indianapolis 500. Glen Wood said his initial response: “Are you kidding?”

The Ford folks weren’t kidding, and being as loyal to the Blue Oval as they were, Glen and Leonard were off to Indy. The first challenge was building a relationship with a group of racers they’d never met. “We rolled up to that shop and didn’t know if those people were going to accept us or not, being a foreign crew and all,” Leonard Wood said. “But they really welcomed us and seemed happy we were there and wanted to help us any way they could.” The Woods then set to work on the fueling system they’d use on race day. Engineers from Ford and the race team had developed a fuel tank that had a giant venturi inside. The principle was simple, and time-proven. It’s the same device that allows fuel and air to flow quickly through a carburetor and makes airplanes fly. The Woods knew it would work.

Others were caught unaware, including one of the first inspectors to check out the team’s pit equipment. “The inspector said, ‘I’ll bet you a thousand dollars you can’t flow 20 gallons a minute through that thing,” Leonard Wood said. He declined the sure money, in the interest of keeping his secrets safe until race day. “All we were interested in was getting that thing through inspection and getting on with the program,” Wood said. To speed things up even more, Wood spent hours filing and fitting the connections of the fueling system, so hookups would be smooth and fast and there would be nothing impeding the rapid flow of fuel. He even climbed inside the fuel tank to do more grinding and polishing.

Glen and Leonard Wood also decided to bring in the rest of their NASCAR-proven pit crew – brothers Ray Lee and Delano, Kenny Martin, Ralph Edwards and Jim Reed. When it came time to practice pit stops, the Woods had Clark make a mock stop. But to keep their ingenuity under wraps, they waited a few seconds after Clark came to a stop before turning on the fuel. The results showed just how wrong that inspector had been just days before. “We turned that thing on, and it put in 58 gallons in 15 seconds,” Leonard Wood said. “It just sucked the fuel out of there. We knew then we were going to be under 20 seconds on the pit stops.”

Delano Wood recalled that one of the Lotus crewmembers who was clocking the stop immediately realized just how much of an advantage the Woods and the fueling system could give them. “As soon as he clicked that stopwatch, he started whistling away,” Delano said. “He knew that if things went well in the race it would be big.”

Glen Wood added that Clark had to do his part for the pit stops to work as planned. The two heavy fuel hoses needed to be in just the right position for maximum fuel flow and timely hookups, and that meant that Clark had to stop precisely where he was shown. “Leonard told Jim that he had to be close to the right spot every time or the hose wouldn’t reach,” Glen Wood said. “Jim said, ‘You tell me where to stop and I’ll stop.’ “He went out that lap in practice, and when he came in I thought he was going to drive plumb through the pit, but he squatted it down on the exact spot, and he did it every time. “He was a great driver.”

The Woods also prepared for tire changes during the race, sanding and filing on the wheels and hubs and practicing tire swaps. But that tire work turned out to be unnecessary. Clark ran the entire 500 on the same set of tires, giving the Woods the distinction of winning both the Daytona 500 (in 1963 with Tiny Lund driving) and the Indianapolis 500 without ever changing tires and of giving Ford Motor Company its first victories in the two premier events.

Still the pressure was on the Wood crew to perform on the biggest stage they’d ever seen – 350,000 to 400,000 people watching in person and millions more following the action on radio and TV. “I got a little bit nervous,” Delano Wood said. “But when that No. 82 turned off the track onto pit road, I went into 21 car mode. It took the nervousness out of me.” On the first stop, the Woods had Clark going again in a stunning 17 seconds. At that time a pit stop was expected to take a full minute or more.

While the rest of the team concentrated on fueling, with Glen and others cradling the hoses so they wouldn’t sag and slow the flow, brother Ray Lee used a depth gauge to measure the tire wear. The second stop, at 24.9 seconds, was a little slower, largely because there was less fuel in the storage tank and therefore less gravity pressure.

The stops stunned both competitors and commentators alike. The expert commentators speculated to their audiences that the Indy-inexperienced Woods had failed to fill the tank or were running a mixture of gasoline and alcohol. But as race teams everywhere came to know, the Woods rarely made mistakes when it came to racing matters. “They had to eat those words,” Glen Wood recalled. There even were some doubts within the team. Glen Wood remembers team owner Colin Chapman turning to the the brothers and asking in his British accent: “I say, did you fill it up?’’ When Leonard and Glen Wood assured him that the fuel was in the tank, his brief reply was: “Jolly good.”

One person there that day who never doubted the Woods was NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., who had fallen out of favor with the Indy officials and wound up watching the race from the grandstands, as Ray Lee Wood recalled. “When we made that first pit stop and broke all the records, the crowd roared,” Ray Lee Wood said. “They said France stood up and yelled ‘Them’s my boys.’” Once the Woods completed their second and final stop, Chapman, the team owner, showed everyone there just how grateful he was. “He jumped over the wall and congratulated us right there on pit road, hugging our necks and everything,” Leonard Wood said.

For Leonard Wood, that triumph at Indianapolis was as sweet as they ever came in his long and storied career. “It was right on top of the list,” he said. “It was very special to go up there. It was the first rear-engine car to win the race, and the first car to average 150 miles per hour in winning the race, and it was really special for Ford Motor Company. It was their engine.”

Wood still fondly recalls the music that power plant made. “They sounded so beautiful,” he said. “They had two bugles out the back and equal-length headers.” Leonard Wood also has fond memories of working with Clark and Chapman’s race team. “We had no problem at all with them,” he said. “They seemed to be happy we were there. Otherwise it wouldn’t have worked.”

For regular updates of the Woods’ participation in the Goodwood Festival of Speed, visit Wood Brothers Racing on Facebook.

The Wood Brothers’ Father Was an Innovator Too

John Walter Wood isn’t a name one would naturally associate with major-league motorsports. In his day, he refused to drive faster than 35 miles per hour. He worked in the coal fields during the days of the Great Depression, but his natural-born mechanical skills soon led to a career working on automobiles. His contribution to racing was through his sons, whom he taught the value of hard work and mechanical innovation.

As this Father’s Day approaches, the Wood Brothers race team those sons formed 60 years ago now has won 97 races in the series now known as Sprint Cup, and their pit-road skills propelled Jimmy Clark to victory in the 1965 Indianapolis 500. The Wood Brothers race team, in the beginning, literally was a shade-tree-mechanic outfit. Their early work was done under a Beech tree on Walter Wood’s homeplace in Buffalo Ridge, Va. The Beech tree, which still stands, and the spring nearby have become part of the Wood family lore.

Crystal Wood, sister to the racing Wood Brothers, said the tree stands 72 feet high, 12 feet in circumference and has a limb span of 92 feet. The spring, she recalled, offered both tasty drinking water and an excellent way to cool melons and dairy products. Glen Wood recalls how the spring water the Woods carried with them to the track in the glass jars in the early days became popular with crew members of other teams. “Pop Ergle, who was Bud Moore’s jackman, really looked forward to that water,” he said.

Each summer, the extended Wood family still gathers for a picnic under the tree where Walter Wood and his sons, Glen, Leonard, Delano, Ray Lee and Clay once worked on the race cars that Glen drove on the short tracks around his Virginia home. For Leonard Wood, working on cars with his father was something he’d done for most of his life. “I’d been helping him since I was seven years old,” he said, adding that even as a youngster he could torque head bolts so close to specifications that the bolts never moved when his father checked behind him.

Walter Wood enjoyed working alongside his sons, but he wasn’t too amused when the boys dragged in the makings of a 1938 Ford race car. They’d paid $50 for it, which was why Glen Wood’s first cars carried the number 50. “My dad saw that car on the back of the truck and said, ‘Don’t unload that thing here,’” Leonard Wood recalled with a chuckle. But soon, father was helping sons transform it into a race car.

The Woods’ first racing engine was built by a mechanic working for Curtis Turner, the racing legend who inspired the Woods early in their careers. But when it came time to change the rings and bearings and grind the valves, it was Walter Wood handling the wrenches along with Leonard. A chain was swung over a big limb on the Beech tree, and a hoist attached to raise and lower the engine from its compartment. “My father rebuilt it two times, and I did it after that,” Leonard recalled.

Glen and Leonard Wood, both of whom were known for putting new ideas to work on pit road and under the hoods of their race cars, said their father was the kind of mechanic who often solved mechanical dilemmas by making his own tools. “He had patents on some of them,” Glen said. Walter Wood made a tool to remove stuck battery-cable ends, another to remove and reinstall brake springs and a screwdriver that had a device that held the screw in place until it was started. Leonard Wood, who still has the one-of-a-kind screwdriver, said the most amazing part of that invention was how it was made. “He made it with no tools,” he said. “All he had was a fireplace for heat, a file, an anvil and a saw.”

Although he helped out in the beginning, Walter Wood remained leery of his sons and their racing. “He didn’t relish the idea of what we were doing, but he didn’t work against us,” Glen recalled. Leonard Wood said his father was mostly concerned for his sons’ safety, especially when Glen was the team’s driver. “He didn’t want Glen to get hurt,” he said. Walter Wood rarely attended races, Leonard recalled. If he did go, it was to a local track like the one in Starkey, Va., and he usually went with his co-workers from the Ford dealership in Bassett. Leonard Wood said father especially enjoyed being there with his friends when his son won.

Sadly, Walter Wood died 44 years ago, before his sons achieved some of their greatest NASCAR successes. Glen Wood said that while his father never attended big-time races with his sons, he followed the sport with great interest from his home in Buffalo Ridge. “He was very proud of what we were doing, even if he didn’t let us know it,” he said.

Crystal Wood, the oldest living child of Walter and Ada Wood, wrote an essay recently in which she told how proud she was that her father’s family remains close and still gathers each year around the old Beech tree and continues to carry on the legacy of her hard-working, innovative father. Indeed, today the second, third and fourth generations of Walter Wood’s family, men and women, work together on the family race team that fields the No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Fusion on NASCAR’s Sprint Cup circuit. “In this day and age, so many families are alienated from each other,” Mrs. Wood wrote. “This is certainly not true of this unusual family who still hold to the values taught them from their youth.”

The Wood Brothers' Father Was an Innovator Too

John Walter Wood isn’t a name one would naturally associate with major-league motorsports. In his day, he refused to drive faster than 35 miles per hour. He worked in the coal fields during the days of the Great Depression, but his natural-born mechanical skills soon led to a career working on automobiles. His contribution to racing was through his sons, whom he taught the value of hard work and mechanical innovation.

As this Father’s Day approaches, the Wood Brothers race team those sons formed 60 years ago now has won 97 races in the series now known as Sprint Cup, and their pit-road skills propelled Jimmy Clark to victory in the 1965 Indianapolis 500. The Wood Brothers race team, in the beginning, literally was a shade-tree-mechanic outfit. Their early work was done under a Beech tree on Walter Wood’s homeplace in Buffalo Ridge, Va. The Beech tree, which still stands, and the spring nearby have become part of the Wood family lore.

Crystal Wood, sister to the racing Wood Brothers, said the tree stands 72 feet high, 12 feet in circumference and has a limb span of 92 feet. The spring, she recalled, offered both tasty drinking water and an excellent way to cool melons and dairy products. Glen Wood recalls how the spring water the Woods carried with them to the track in the glass jars in the early days became popular with crew members of other teams. “Pop Ergle, who was Bud Moore’s jackman, really looked forward to that water,” he said.

Each summer, the extended Wood family still gathers for a picnic under the tree where Walter Wood and his sons, Glen, Leonard, Delano, Ray Lee and Clay once worked on the race cars that Glen drove on the short tracks around his Virginia home. For Leonard Wood, working on cars with his father was something he’d done for most of his life. “I’d been helping him since I was seven years old,” he said, adding that even as a youngster he could torque head bolts so close to specifications that the bolts never moved when his father checked behind him.

Walter Wood enjoyed working alongside his sons, but he wasn’t too amused when the boys dragged in the makings of a 1938 Ford race car. They’d paid $50 for it, which was why Glen Wood’s first cars carried the number 50. “My dad saw that car on the back of the truck and said, ‘Don’t unload that thing here,’” Leonard Wood recalled with a chuckle. But soon, father was helping sons transform it into a race car.

The Woods’ first racing engine was built by a mechanic working for Curtis Turner, the racing legend who inspired the Woods early in their careers. But when it came time to change the rings and bearings and grind the valves, it was Walter Wood handling the wrenches along with Leonard. A chain was swung over a big limb on the Beech tree, and a hoist attached to raise and lower the engine from its compartment. “My father rebuilt it two times, and I did it after that,” Leonard recalled.

Glen and Leonard Wood, both of whom were known for putting new ideas to work on pit road and under the hoods of their race cars, said their father was the kind of mechanic who often solved mechanical dilemmas by making his own tools. “He had patents on some of them,” Glen said. Walter Wood made a tool to remove stuck battery-cable ends, another to remove and reinstall brake springs and a screwdriver that had a device that held the screw in place until it was started. Leonard Wood, who still has the one-of-a-kind screwdriver, said the most amazing part of that invention was how it was made. “He made it with no tools,” he said. “All he had was a fireplace for heat, a file, an anvil and a saw.”

Although he helped out in the beginning, Walter Wood remained leery of his sons and their racing. “He didn’t relish the idea of what we were doing, but he didn’t work against us,” Glen recalled. Leonard Wood said his father was mostly concerned for his sons’ safety, especially when Glen was the team’s driver. “He didn’t want Glen to get hurt,” he said. Walter Wood rarely attended races, Leonard recalled. If he did go, it was to a local track like the one in Starkey, Va., and he usually went with his co-workers from the Ford dealership in Bassett. Leonard Wood said father especially enjoyed being there with his friends when his son won.

Sadly, Walter Wood died 44 years ago, before his sons achieved some of their greatest NASCAR successes. Glen Wood said that while his father never attended big-time races with his sons, he followed the sport with great interest from his home in Buffalo Ridge. “He was very proud of what we were doing, even if he didn’t let us know it,” he said.

Crystal Wood, the oldest living child of Walter and Ada Wood, wrote an essay recently in which she told how proud she was that her father’s family remains close and still gathers each year around the old Beech tree and continues to carry on the legacy of her hard-working, innovative father. Indeed, today the second, third and fourth generations of Walter Wood’s family, men and women, work together on the family race team that fields the No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Fusion on NASCAR’s Sprint Cup circuit. “In this day and age, so many families are alienated from each other,” Mrs. Wood wrote. “This is certainly not true of this unusual family who still hold to the values taught them from their youth.”

Wood Brothers, Ford Lead the Way at Michigan

When NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series races at Michigan International Speedway, almost in the backyards of the American auto makers, any race team worth its salt tries to steer the bragging rights to their own manufacturer. And over the years, it’s been the folks at Ford Motor Company who have been in position to do the most bragging.

Ford has a league-leading 31 wins at Michigan, plus another 12 by Mercury. The Wood Brothers and Jack Roush have won 11 Cup races apiece for Ford at Michigan, and their win totals at Michigan surpass any other owner. Bill Elliott, who will drive the No. 21 FordParts.com Fusion this weekend, leads all active drivers with seven Michigan wins, and they all came in Fords.

The Woods pounced on Michigan from the very first Cup race there, on June 15, 1969. Cale Yarborough was driving the Wood Brothers’ Mercury at that time, and he beat Lee Roy Yarbrough in a thrilling last-lap shootout between the two Mercury drivers. Yarbrough actually got into the wall and finished fourth, while David Pearson, in a Ford, wound up the runner-up. Veteran motorsports journalist Benny Phillips described that race as one of the most exciting ever. “If they gave an Oscar for stock car racing’s most thrilling event, then the Motor State 500 would take the lead by leaps and bounds,” he wrote at the time.

But for Leonard Wood, who prepared the winning Mercury that day, there were plenty of other Michigan races that would deserve Oscar nominations. “We won some others that were better than that first one,” he said. The Woods won the next year too, with Yarborough prevailing over Pete Hamilton in the closing laps. “I remember Cale saying he heard Pete’s motor rev up when his car broke loose,” Wood said.

Then David Pearson took over the No. 21 and won seven of nine starts from 1972 to 1976. He added another Michigan win in 1978 and never finished worse that fifth at Michigan in the No. 21.

And then there was Dale Jarrett’s first career Cup win in the 1991 Champion Spark Plug 400, when he beat Davey Allison in another Ford by a mere 10 inches. “We hadn’t run that good all day and then we put on a set of tires and it ran really good,” Wood said. “So we left them on there. Davey Allison was running extremely well, but he made a pit stop and was behind us.

“Davey was passing everybody real quick, and he got up to Dale and was going to try to pass him, but he overdrove the corner and slid out.” Wood said he felt good about the side-by-side battle when he saw Jarrett holding his position on the lower side of the race track. “Dale pulled down on the inside on the backstretch which was telling you that the handling on the car and the driver both were doing good,” Wood said. “They came off the corner side-by-side and Dale beat him by a foot.”

Wood said he and his crew discovered early on at Michigan that the two-mile track required a careful approach into the turns. “We found out the first time we went up there that you can drive off too far into the corner and kill the speed coming off,” he said. “You can drive it in there wide open, but you need to back off and let it take a set and then get set to come off. That was the key to getting down the straightaways fast.”

Wood also had some big ones that got away at Michigan, including one when Kyle Petty was the driver. Petty was OK with the set-up during practice, but not completely happy, so Wood kept working with the left-rear spring. “I hit the right combination on that thing, and he came from the back to second place, and was going to win the thing and dropped a valve,” Wood said. But overall, Leonard Wood has few Michigan stories that don’t have a happy ending. “Michigan has been good to us,” he said.

Sunday’s Heluva Good Sour Cream Dip 400 is set to get the green flag at 1 p.m. with TV coverage on TNT.

Bonnett Weaved His Way to a 1980 Win at Pocono

 

Throughout their 60-year run in NASCAR, the Wood Brothers racing team has been known for its innovations back at the shop and on pit road. Sometimes, it’s been their drivers who pioneered new tactics.

In the 1980 Coca-Cola 500 at Pocono Raceway, Neil Bonnett, driving the No. 21 Mercury Cougar, prevailed over Buddy Baker in a battle that saw 19 lead changes in the final 56 laps, with Bonnett and Baker accounting for 17 of them. The two exchanged the lead nine times in the last 22 laps before Bonnett took the lead for good with four laps to go and beat Baker by .06 seconds to get the victory.

Eddie Wood remembers that when Bonnett was out front, he would move around on the race track in an attempt to disturb the air and get away from Baker. “It was the first time I remember seeing anyone trying to vary their line to break the draft,” Wood said. “When Neil came off Turn Three he’d drive straight to the inside wall and then back to the outside wall before getting into Turn One. Doing this raised a lot of eyebrows, but he was able to pull away from Baker in the closing laps by doing that.”

Bonnett’s sixth career win was memorable for other reasons too. Richard Petty crashed hard into the Tunnel Turn wall after blowing a tire. The impact broke his neck, although initial reports said it was only sprained. Petty didn’t miss any races after that but needed relief from Joe Millikan in several events. And the Pocono race saw Baker and Cale Yarborough engage in a fender-rubbing battle to the line for the runner-up spot, with Baker shaking his fist at Yarborough, prompting Bonnett to weigh in on the spat in Victory Lane. “Neil said Baker was the only driver he knew who could shake his fists out both windows of the car and still drive it,” Wood said.

The Pocono victory wound up being the next-to-last NASCAR victory for a Mercury product. (Bonnett also won the next week at Talladega in the Woods’ Mercury.) After the 1980 season, NASCAR changed its rules, dropping the wheelbase for Cup cars from 115 to the 110 inches that it still uses today. The change was made because the auto manufacturers had begun building smaller cars, and NASCAR’s strategy was to keep its race cars as close to production vehicles as possible. The Woods converted one of their Mercury Cougars into a 1981 Ford Thunderbird, but found the process more trouble than it was worth and built the next one from scratch.

The dramatic change in race cars was much like the recent switch from the conventional car to the Car of Tomorrow, as race teams were concerned about giving up a proven, reliable vehicle for an all-new, basically unknown one. Although there were early concerns about the handling characteristics of the smaller car, the switch worked out just fine for Bonnett and the Wood Brothers. They won at Darlington, Dover and Atlanta during the 1981 season. “And we were fast at a lot of other places too,” Wood said.

The Wood Brothers, driver Bill Elliott and the No. 21 FordParts.com Fusion will return to Sprint Cup action on June 11-13 at Michigan International Speedway.

Elliott's First Coke 600 Start Was a Tough One

 Throughout his career, Bill Elliott, driver of the Wood Brothers’ No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford, has seen the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway evolve into a much different challenge for drivers and crews than it once was. His first start in the race, then known as the World 600, was in 1976.

At that point, the then-20-year-old newcomer had made just three starts in a well-worn Ford Torino that his father had purchased for about $5,000. Going into the 600 that year, Elliott’s longest stretch in a superspeedway race had been 32 laps at Rockingham, as two engine failures and a broken driveshaft had taken him out early in his first three appearances on NASCAR’s elite circuit. But things went much better at Charlotte. “We were running pretty good and the motor blew up,” Elliott said. Like many a car back in the day, Elliott’s Ford, driven earlier in its racing life by Richie Panch, made it past the 500-mile mark, but broke in the final 100. Still, he had run well enough to finish 23rd, ahead of three drivers who were running at the finish.

The big winner that day, like many other days in that era, was David Pearson in the Wood Brothers’ No. 21 Mercury. He led 230 laps, but had to weave his way through a late-race crash to take the win over Richard Petty, the only other driver on the lead lap. Pearson, however, had to share the headlines with Janet Guthrie, the Indy car driver who was lured south at the last minute by the speedway’s promoter, H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler and became the 11th female to race in NASCAR’s top division.

One of the main recollections Elliott had from that day about his future team was that he was impressed by their hauler. “It was a cab-over Ford with a ramp on the back for the race car,” he said, adding that it would be several years before he came to know Glen and Leonard Wood and the rest of the Stuart, Va.-based team.

Elliott, like his blue No. 9 Torino and like many of his fellow drivers, was pretty used up after his first 600. The next day, when he arrived at the former elementary school north of Dawsonville, Ga. that served as the team’s race shop, his father’s small Ford dealership and a salvage yard, he was so sore he never even got out of his pick-up truck. He simply pulled into the yard, rolled down the window and made some small talk, then eased on down the road. “It was pretty tough,” Elliott recalled. “I wasn’t used to running those races.” Elliott pointed out that when he first started racing in the series now known as Sprint Cup, the overall lap speeds were slower than today, which made for more time inside a hot race car. In 1976, Pearson turned a lap at 159.132 miles per hour in the Wood Brothers Mercury to win the pole at Charlotte. Last year’s pole speed was 188.475 mph.

Elliott said that today’s races, with their higher speeds, place a different demand on the driver and car. “It’s physically harder today because you’re running the corners so much harder,” Elliott said, adding that the changes inside the car to improve driver comfort have helped tremendously. But he’s also better prepared, even at age 54, thanks to a rigorous workout program and to his years of experience. “I’m more seasoned today,” he said. “It’s not that difficult.” His cars are well prepared too. The Wood Brothers Ford has had just one mechanical failure at Charlotte, including the 600 and the 500-miler later in the year, since 1991.

Elliott said he looks at an additional 100 miles at Charlotte as more of an advantage than a challenge. “I enjoy the endurance type of racing better than the shorter races,” he said. “I think the extra 100 miles is a benefit with my style of driving.” He’s also encouraged that he’ll be running the same Fusion he drove in his last two starts, at Texas Motor Speedway last month and last Saturday at Charlotte in the Sprint Showdown. He said his David Hyder-led crew can take what the team learned at Texas and in the Showdown and continue to improve the car. “I don’t know what to expect in qualifying, but I think we’ll be good in the race,” he said.

Elliott’s First Coke 600 Start Was a Tough One

 Throughout his career, Bill Elliott, driver of the Wood Brothers’ No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford, has seen the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway evolve into a much different challenge for drivers and crews than it once was. His first start in the race, then known as the World 600, was in 1976.

At that point, the then-20-year-old newcomer had made just three starts in a well-worn Ford Torino that his father had purchased for about $5,000. Going into the 600 that year, Elliott’s longest stretch in a superspeedway race had been 32 laps at Rockingham, as two engine failures and a broken driveshaft had taken him out early in his first three appearances on NASCAR’s elite circuit. But things went much better at Charlotte. “We were running pretty good and the motor blew up,” Elliott said. Like many a car back in the day, Elliott’s Ford, driven earlier in its racing life by Richie Panch, made it past the 500-mile mark, but broke in the final 100. Still, he had run well enough to finish 23rd, ahead of three drivers who were running at the finish.

The big winner that day, like many other days in that era, was David Pearson in the Wood Brothers’ No. 21 Mercury. He led 230 laps, but had to weave his way through a late-race crash to take the win over Richard Petty, the only other driver on the lead lap. Pearson, however, had to share the headlines with Janet Guthrie, the Indy car driver who was lured south at the last minute by the speedway’s promoter, H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler and became the 11th female to race in NASCAR’s top division.

One of the main recollections Elliott had from that day about his future team was that he was impressed by their hauler. “It was a cab-over Ford with a ramp on the back for the race car,” he said, adding that it would be several years before he came to know Glen and Leonard Wood and the rest of the Stuart, Va.-based team.

Elliott, like his blue No. 9 Torino and like many of his fellow drivers, was pretty used up after his first 600. The next day, when he arrived at the former elementary school north of Dawsonville, Ga. that served as the team’s race shop, his father’s small Ford dealership and a salvage yard, he was so sore he never even got out of his pick-up truck. He simply pulled into the yard, rolled down the window and made some small talk, then eased on down the road. “It was pretty tough,” Elliott recalled. “I wasn’t used to running those races.” Elliott pointed out that when he first started racing in the series now known as Sprint Cup, the overall lap speeds were slower than today, which made for more time inside a hot race car. In 1976, Pearson turned a lap at 159.132 miles per hour in the Wood Brothers Mercury to win the pole at Charlotte. Last year’s pole speed was 188.475 mph.

Elliott said that today’s races, with their higher speeds, place a different demand on the driver and car. “It’s physically harder today because you’re running the corners so much harder,” Elliott said, adding that the changes inside the car to improve driver comfort have helped tremendously. But he’s also better prepared, even at age 54, thanks to a rigorous workout program and to his years of experience. “I’m more seasoned today,” he said. “It’s not that difficult.” His cars are well prepared too. The Wood Brothers Ford has had just one mechanical failure at Charlotte, including the 600 and the 500-miler later in the year, since 1991.

Elliott said he looks at an additional 100 miles at Charlotte as more of an advantage than a challenge. “I enjoy the endurance type of racing better than the shorter races,” he said. “I think the extra 100 miles is a benefit with my style of driving.” He’s also encouraged that he’ll be running the same Fusion he drove in his last two starts, at Texas Motor Speedway last month and last Saturday at Charlotte in the Sprint Showdown. He said his David Hyder-led crew can take what the team learned at Texas and in the Showdown and continue to improve the car. “I don’t know what to expect in qualifying, but I think we’ll be good in the race,” he said.