Leonard Wood remembers the ribbing he and his brothers got back in the fall of 1960 when they picked an essentially out-of-work driver in the twilight of his major league career to wheel their bright red No. 21 Ford in the prestigious National 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. At first glance it did look like a gamble to hire a driver who had run just six of the 41 races leading up to that second race at the then-new speedway in Charlotte. But the Woods saw something in Speedy Thompson that others missed. “People were picking at us about going with an over-the-hill driver,” Wood said. “But even the best of drivers can get in a slump. People think they’ve lost their technique. I’ve seen it happen time and time again. The cars sometimes aren’t like they need them to be. Once you get the car right for them, it can turn around in a big hurry.”
That’s exactly the scenario that played out for the Woods and Thompson. In his first-ever start for the Wood Brothers, the driver that the NASCAR world seemed to have forgotten, delivered them their first-ever superspeedway victory. Suddenly, the Woods and Thompson had become hot NASCAR properties, and Paul Sawyer, the promoter at the Richmond Fairgrounds track, knew a good thing when he saw one. With Richmond’s 200-lap race coming up next on the schedule, Sawyer figured he could sell a lot more tickets with Thompson and the Woods’ No. 21 Ford in the starting field. So he called his fellow Virginian and friend Glen Wood and offered him $2,500 to bring Thompson and the winning car to his track and added another grand if he’d bring a second Ford for Joe Weatherly.
“Paul was pretty good about getting something while it was hot,” Glen Wood recalled. And hot they were. Thompson qualified third at Richmond, took the lead from pole-sitter Ned Jarrett after just 19 laps and led 173 of the 200 laps on the half-mile dirt oval to get his 20th and final victory on the circuit now known as Sprint Cup. Leonard Wood remembers well that fall afternoon in Richmond. “It surprised us how well Speedy ran on dirt,” he said. “He would back off early getting into the corner and let the car make a set,” he said. “A lot of drivers would run too hard into the corner and it would slow them down in the middle, but Speedy had a style of driving at Richmond that was really smooth.” And of course he had equipment that allowed him to look good on the track. As NASCAR participants and fans came to better understand in later years, a car that been touched by Leonard Wood’s wrenches was a huge advantage.
The 1960 Ford that Thompson drove to his 19th and 20th career wins was once a burned-out heap in a junkyard. The Woods chose it because the fire had rid it of the heavy soundproofing materials and glue and other unnecessary weight. And Leonard Wood had done a little of his own magic on the 352-cubic-inch engine that was built on Ford’s assembly line right alongside those destined for passenger cars and trucks. “There wasn’t a lot you could do to them under the rules,” Wood explained. “But we could port the heads a little, and do a valve job. They had to have a certain compression ratio, and the cubic inches had to be right.”
Wood recalled one instance during a NASCAR Convertible Series swing through the Northeast in which his then-independent team had engine problems and simply went across the border and got a new one straight off the assembly line at the facility now known as the Oakville Assembly Complex. “All we did to it was hone the block, put it in the car, and then we went to Buffalo and finished second to Joe Weatherly,” Wood said, adding that Weatherly was in a factory-backed Ford at that time.
The Woods closed the 1960 season with Thompson driving their car to a fourth-place finish at Atlanta. He raced just seven more times in his Cup career, choosing instead to concentrate on Late Model races. He died just after crashing in an April 2, 1972 accident at Metrolina Fairgrounds in Charlotte, possibly after suffering a heart attack. He would have been 46 the next day.