Leonard Wood: A Hall of Fame-worthy innovator
Tuesday, Feb. 05, 2013
With the approach of the 2013 NASCAR Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, we're taking a closer look at the five men to be honored on Friday, Feb. 8. The inductee we're featuring today is Leonard Wood.
Born: Sept. 22, 1934, at family farm near Stuart, Va.
Resides: Stuart, Va., and South Park area of Charlotte.
Family: Wife Betty (deceased), daughter Beth, two grandchildren. His brother, Glen, was an inductee into the NASCAR Hall in 2012.
Began racing in 1950, building and maintaining modified cars driven by his older brother, Glen.
The Wood Brothers team, including other siblings brothers Delano, Clay, Ray Lee and sister Crystal began winning almost right away in the 1950s at short tracks in Southwest Virginia and north-central North Carolina. The Woods were especially successful at Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, a quarter-mile oval encircling a football field then used by Wake Forest. It was Leonard that hit on the idea to "move the driver to the back seat" to give their cars an edge. "The further back you could put the motor, the better balance it gave the car," he explained. It looked weird, but it worked.
The Woods claimed their first major victory in 1956, winning their class in the famed Beach & Road Race at Daytona Beach, Fla. Glen finished second overall to the victor, Tim Flock.
The Woods again claimed their class "at the beach" in 1957, and placed second overall to winner Cotton Owens.
From 1957-59 Leonard served in the Army, at bases in Germany and at Fort Knox.
With Leonard preparing the cars the Woods only dabbled through most of the '50s and early '60s in NASCARs Grand National Division, which has evolved into the present-day Cup Series.
Glen and Leonard went to a Cup Victory Lane for the first time on April 18, 1960, when Glen edged Rex White in a 50-miler at Bowman Gray. The Woods teamed for two more big-time triumphs at the little track later in the season.
A Ford prepared by Leonard scored at a superspeedway on the major circuit for the first time on Oct. 16, 1960, as Speedy Thompson drove to victory in the National 400 at the new Charlotte Motor Speedway, which had opened in June with the first World 600. Thompson made it two in a row for the Woods by winning a 100-miler the following Sunday at Atlantic Rural Fairgrounds in Richmond.
The Woods scored a touching victory that Leonard ranks as "maybe our most memorable" on Feb. 24, 1963, when Tiny Lund drove their No. 21 Ford to the checkered flag in the Daytona 500. The regular driver, Marvin Panch, was badly injured when a Maserati he was testing flipped and burst into flames on the Daytona track's road course. Trapped in the car, Panch was rescued by Lund and other bystanders. Leonard and Glen tapped Lund, who had no ride for the 500, to fill in for Panch.
On a Hollywood-like, storybook development, Lund won the race, edging Fred Lorenzen by three car lengths. Credit for the stirring victory went to crew chief Leonard, who had devised a strategy of making one less stop for fuel than rivals and not changing tires at all. To the Woods delight, Lund won the annual Carnegie Medal For Heroism that year.
Frequent victories followed all across the country. Famed road racer Dan Gurney won in '64 for the Woods at Riverside, Calif., the first of four times the pairing would take that race. A recovered Panch won three times in '64.
The Woods, thanks to Leonard's innovations, had revolutionized pit stops. Leonard had reworked jacks so that they were lighter and could lift the car with fewer pumps of the handle. He also had replaced the four-pronged lug wrenches with air wrenches. Stops went from almost a minute to just 25 seconds. As a result, the Woods crew was invited to pit Jimmy Clark's car in the Indianapolis 500. He won the race, and the Woods had new fame.
Also in 1965 the Leonard-led crew, with Cale Yarborough driving, won six times, the teams most victories in a season to that point. Included were a sweep of the 500 and 400 at Daytona and 500-mile victories at Atlanta and Darlington.
From 1965 to 1972, the Woods also fielded winners for A.J. Foyt, Curtis Turner, Parnelli Jones and Donnie Allison.
In one of the most momentous developments in NASCAR history, David Pearson joined Glen and Leonard to drive the No. 21 Fords in '72. They proved to be one of the greatest teams ever. Running a limited schedule of mostly superspeedway events, the Wood Brothers-Pearson combo triumphed 44 times. They won 11 of 19 starts in 74 and 10 of 22 in 77.
In 1976, the Wood Brothers and Pearson won the Daytona 500 in a spectacular finish. Coming to the checkered flag there was contact between Pearson and arch-rival Richard Petty. Both drivers spun into the grass not far from the finish line. Pearson was able to get his car going and took the checkered flag at about 5 mph. "I relive that finish regularly," says Leonard. I doubt we'll ever see anything like it again."
From 1973 to '78 Pearson and the Woods team won 11 straight Cup series poles at Charlotte Motor Speedway. There was speculation that Pearson had discovered a way to avoid bumps in the first and fourth turns, and Leonard had figured a way to set up the cars that enabled Pearson to run his laps without lifting off the throttle.
A misunderstanding during a pit stop during the CRC Rebel 500 at Darlington on April 8, 1979, led to the Woods and Pearson parting ways. The lug nuts werent yet tightened on the left side tires as Pearson roared away from his pit stall. The tires flew off, eliminating the maroon-and-white Ford from contention. Two days later, Glen Wood announced the split.
Neil Bonnett, Buddy Baker and Kyle Petty followed, successively, in the Woods cars, and all won races. Kyle scored what remains the biggest victory of his career, taking the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte in 1987.
After Glen Wood gradually transitioned into retirement, operation of the team was taken over by his three children, Eddie, Len and Kim Hall. Leonard remained the crew chief.
Dale Jarrett, driving for the Woods, scored his first career victory at Michigan International Speedway in 1991, edging Davey Allison by 10 inches in one of the closest finishes in NASCAR history.
Morgan Shepherd won a 500-miler for the Wood Brothers at Atlanta in 1993, then came a seven-year streak without a win.
The stretch without a points victory was tempered somewhat, when Michael Waltrip dashed to an upset triumph in the all-star race at Charlotte in 1996, the Woods first in the event.
Leonard lost his wife, Betty, in May of 1997 to an accident on I-85 near Salisbury, N.C., while heading northward to Stuart from the all-star race at Charlotte. A vehicle headed south careened across the median, smashing into the Woods van. Leonard and two grandchildren were seriously hurt.
The Woods won at Bristol in 2001 with fellow Virginian Elliott Sadler driver.
Another victory drought followed, this one 11 years long. But rookie Trevor Bayne edged Carl Edwards by 0.118 seconds to win the Daytona 500 on Feb. 20, 2011. It was the Wood organization's fifth Daytona 500 victory and the triumph unleashed the greatest outpouring of emotion anyone had ever seen among Leonard and his teammates.
The Wood Brothers organization lists 98 Cup series victories.
In 2012 Glen Wood was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Now Leonard is going to join him. They are the first brothers so honored.
Retired Observer motorsports writer and ThatsRacin.com contributor Tom Higgins on Leonard Wood:
I first saw him:At Bowman Gray Stadium in 1958, where the Woods often competed in weekly modified division races with Glen driving the cars engineered and set up by Leonard, the crew chief.
First impression: A pleasant, friendly man with an easy-going demeanor. He had all he values of a "Virginia Gentleman."
What people might not know about him: Leonard widely is considered the best-liked man in NASCAR. He has been the crew chief for 18 Cup drivers who won points races. In chronological order they are Speedy Thompson, Glen Wood, Tiny Lund, Marvin Panch, Dan Gurney, A.J. Foyt, Curtis Turner, Parnelli Jones, Cale Yarborough, Donnie Allison, David Pearson, Neil Bonnett, Buddy Baker, Kyle Petty, Dale Jarrett, Morgan Shepherd, Elliott Sadler and Trevor Bayne. He is an avid astronomer, peering at the heavens through a telescope measuring 60 inches in length and 6 inches in diameter. He especially likes to check out comets and eclipses.
My favorite memory of him: Watching (on TV) as Leonard and teammates bounded about in unabashed delight when Trevor Bayne won the Daytona 500 in 2011. "I couldnt watch the last laps," he recalls. "I sat on the pit wall, looked at the ground and tried to figure what was going on by interpreting the cheering. I figured that Carl (Edwards) with his big edge in experience, would pass Trevor between the third and fourth turns. But when I heard our guys yelling, 'Stay low! Stay low!' I knew Trevor was leading. I looked up to see him cross the line and from there I was jumping, flailing my arms and hollering because it was so fulfilling and unexpected. I just let go! Something I'd never done before."
Most memorable quotes: The first was during the last lap of the 1976 Daytona 500 as David Pearson and Richard Petty collided on the homestretch. Leonard yelled to Pearson on the radio: "Theres a crash off Turn Four!" To which Pearson coolly replied, "Yeah, I know. I'm in it."
The second was during a pit stop in 1979 at Darlington, as Pearson pulled away with the left-side lug nuts still loose. Leonard shouted, "Whoa, whoa, whoa! Pearson thought he heard "Go, go, go!" and kept going. The left-side wheels rolled off, eliminating the Woods team from contention. Two days later one of the most potent pairings in NASCAR history split.