Mechanic, innovator Leonard Wood made cars fast, pit stops faster

2013 NASCAR Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, Friday 7:30 p.m., SPEED

Tuesday, Feb. 05, 2013

Leonard Wood built a go-kart well before they ever became popular.

At age 13 during the mid-’40s, Wood put a washing machine engine in a wooden frame, used pulleys and chains and created a steerable wagon that reached a top speed of 25 mph.

That motorized cart now hangs at the Wood Brothers Museum in Stuart, Va.

“I look at some of the things that I did to it with no money and no help,” said Wood, 78. “Nowadays you can go into a shop and build something and turn around and look at one another for help or whatever, but to do that thing, I took it out of the junk pile. … It’s pretty exciting to just think about.

“I just thought it’d be the coolest thing to put a motor on that thing and let it pull me along.”

Tinkering at the shop with ways to get him around faster is what made Wood legendary in racing circles. But his innovations on the pit stop are a big reason Wood will be inducted Friday into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte for his contributions to the sport.

Joining Wood in the Class of 2013 will be Buck Baker, Cotton Owens, Herb Thomas and Rusty Wallace.

During the late 1950s and early 1960s, pit stops would, at best, take a minute. Crews would use store-bought jacks and lug wrenches on tires on stops that by today’s standards are archaic.

Wood, wanting to speed the stops for a competitive advantage, worked with an equipment company to improve air wrenches, created a fuel can that could pour gas faster, and made the pistons in the jack larger.

“We had our jack coming up in three pumps at Michigan and all the others were doing 10 and 12, so the jack people saw it,” Wood said. “It didn’t take them long to figure out what was going on.”

Still, no one seemed to be as good as Wood. Pit stops went from a minute-plus to roughly 25 seconds – still an eternity in today’s racing world but revolutionary at the time. His team is credited with the first 25-second, four-tire pit stop in NASCAR history.

He is considered by many the father of today’s 12-second stops because of his innovations.

Wood’s work even transcended stock-car racing. Jim Clark tabbed Wood’s team to be his pit crew for the 1965 Indianapolis 500 and won, in part by using a gas can that would add 58 gallons in 15 seconds.

For years, Wood was the crew chief and main engine builder on a team alongside his brother, Glen. After the Wood brothers brought on Hall of Famer David Pearson during 1972, the team won 43 times in seven years.

“They don’t make them like Leonard Wood anymore,” Hall of Fame driver turned NASCAR analyst Darrell Waltrip said. “He and Glen were the first people I got to know really well in the sport when I came in back in the ’70s. They were the first guys I went to for help on my cars and they never hesitated to help me despite the fact David Pearson was their driver at the time.”

In 716 races as a crew chief, Wood and his team won 117 poles and 94 races with the No. 21 Ford and Mercury cars. And while he is proud to be recognized for his pit stop achievements, those wins mean a lot to him and his legacy, as well.

“I’m kind of proud of the races we won, the great races we won,” Wood said. “The pit stops enabled us to win a lot of them. But I think a lot of the five Daytona 500 wins. That’s pretty high on my list.”

When Glen Wood was inducted into the Hall of Fame last year, many felt the brothers should have gone in together.

“Last year, I thought Leonard and Glen Wood should have been voted into the Hall together because the majority of their accomplishments were achieved as a team,” said Larry McReynolds, a NASCAR analyst for Fox and Speed. Before Glen retired during the late 1980s, “the Wood Brothers team won 94 Cup races and 117 pole positions, and what they accomplished with David Pearson was nothing short of remarkable.”

But Leonard said he wouldn’t have had it any other way. Glen is the older brother, and Leonard said he “clearly wanted him to go in first.”

Plus, had the brothers gone in together, they could have been celebrated as a tandem rather than individually. This way, each Wood gets his own day.

“The way they honor you, each person deserves that,” Leonard Wood said. “They’ve been celebrating this thing since June and it’s been exciting in Indianapolis. I took my family out there and they honored me and put my face on the hood of the car and it’s streaming down the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with my face on the hood painted candy apple red. So that’s about as good as it gets.”

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