THE WOOD BROTHERS LEAVE NOTHING TO CHANCE...
The men who work in the pits at auto races share a problem with the men who work in the pit of professional football. Like offensive guards and defensive tackles, the pit crews are--in their own minds--underpaid, underpraised, and underexposed. With one notable exception: The Wood Brothers of Stuart, Virginia.
Under the general guidance of Glen Wood, who splits his time between auto racing and running a Lincoln-Mercury agency, the Wood Brothers team lists only two full-time employees, Glen's brother Leonard Wood, and Glen's son Eddie Wood. But for each race, the team is beefed up with friends and relatives, including two more brothers, Delano and Clay.
Despite its makeshift nature, and despite competition from 20- to 30-man teams employed by the K&K Insurance Dodge and the Petty/STP Dodge teams, the Wood Brothers team manages to more than hold its own. Perhaps because its pit crew can change two tires, diagnose the health or illness of an engine and give a drive two aspirins, a fresh pack a cigarettes, a cold drink, and 20 gallons of gas, all in 19.8 seconds. That statistic is as vital in establishing the Wood Brothers' identity as Jerry Kramer's block, springing Bart Starr for the winning touchdown against Dallas in the 1967 NFL championship game, was in establishing his.
The Wood's swiftness has been demonstrated mainly in stock-car racing, but in 1965, Ford called upon them to service the Lotus-Ford of Jimmy Clark in the Indianapolis 500. The first time Clark made a pit stop in that 500, he received 50 gallons of fuel in 19.5 seconds, while his British crew sat back and shook their heads, too stunned to even take notes. Clark's victory that day added an international flavor to the Woods' reputation, but they have not since gone back to Indy.
They prefer to concentrate on stock cars. Which is like saying that Henry Aaron prefers to concentrate on baseball.
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If you want to conjure up Stuart, Virginia, tune in to an installment of "The Waltons" on television. Just move the close-knit families, the abundant forests and the country store a few miles west along the Blue Ridge Mountains, update a few of the cars, maintain the simple life--and you've got a reasonably accurate picture of Stuart.
Few things change quickly in Patrick County. Few outside influences are allowed to intrude. People still go to church regularly, the men often gather at the little store with the gasoline pumps outside, the women often make quilts and afghans and prepare for church socials. It is peaceful country, most of the time. Dick Thompson, public relations director at nearby Martinsville Speedway, like to relate how H. Clay Earles, the speedway president, was co-owner of a restaurant before taking over the speedway, and how Earles had to deal with men who periodically came down from the mountain to terrorize his eatery, threatening to rob and shoot him if he dared to interfere.
In a little ravine, at the southwest corner of Stuart, sits a modest cinder-block shop, looking not too unlike a thousand body shops in a thousand small towns across the country. It is definitely not fancy. Just a wreck or two sitting outside and a pair of private gasoline pumps, with a padlocked seal on the storage tanks.
Inside the shop, decorated in neo-classic work bench, two cars sit. One is a relic, an antique before its time. It has thousands of hard miles on it--if it were a regular passenger car, its odometer would probably have topped one million road miles--and it will never be driven again. As a moving vehicle, the car is finished, even though it is only a 1971 Mercury Montego. But as a monument, it will survive.
The car is painted two-tone, white body and a maroon top; it has tall golden numerals--"21"--on the doors and the word "Purolator" spread across the rear fenders. Next to it are two engine blocks that have the polished shine of recent tooling inside them, a light film of dirt and grease outside. On the wall near the car hangs a sign: 1973 RECORD: 11 WINS IN 18 STARTS.
That record was achieved on the toughest, most prestigious, most competitive stock-car circuit in the world, the NASCAR Grand National circuit, a series of some 30 races run on tracks ranging in length from half a mile to 2.66 miles. In 1973, the Wood Brothers' Mercury, riven by David Pearson, dominated the NASCAR circuit like no car ever had before. Ten of the 11 victories came on superspeedways, mammoth super-track complexes a mile or more long, where the turns are banked so steeply it is impossible to walk up them, where it was possible--before a change in NASCAR regulations--to achieve speeds in excess of 200 miles an hour.
The 11th victory for the Woods and Pearson came at Martinsville, a half-mile track 30 miles from Stuart. The Wood Brothers do not like to spend so much time adjusting their car for a track where the return, like the course, is relative short. The Wood Brothers are nothing if not practical. (In 1974, the Wood Brothers and Pearson passed up Martinsville, putting efficiency, as usual, far ahead of sentimentality.)
The second car inside the body shop in Stuart is newer, a 1973 Mercury Montego fastback. It has a broader frontal area than the 1971 model, and it has, so far, a less distinguished record. Of the first six races the Woods and Pearson entered in 1974, they won only two, a terrific record for anyone else, a mild disappointment for them. The second victory came in the Winston 500 at Talladega, Alabama, on a 2.66-mile superspeedway course the Woods love. It was the third straight victory for Person in the Winston 500, the fourth for the Wood Brothers. The victory was worth $23,845, the kind of purse that inspires total dedication from the Woods.
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Total dedication, total preparation, is the Woods' trademark. They have little patience with any racing team that comes to a track unprepared. "If a crew is running around a half-hour before qualifying looking for parts," says Glen Wood, who runs the business end of the team, "they didn't come to the track to win."
Leonard Wood, nine years younger than Glen and the youngest of the five Wood Brothers (one dropped out of auto racing because of his religious convictions--against Sunday work), runs the mechanical end of the business. Glen sees to it that the team doesn't waste its time in small races, and Leonard sees to it that the effort put into big races is not wasted. "We completely replace many of the moving parts in our engine after every race," Leonard Wood says. "It costs us over $500, for instance, each time we change the rods and springs, and maybe we don't really have to change them, maybe we can get a few more races out of them, but we don't take chances. Some drivers or five or six races before they change rods. You make money, though, by spending it. We'd rather spend the $500 after each race putting new parts in the engine. Maybe we're not going to win all the time, but we know we're going to be up there where the good money is at the end of each race."
Glen Wood handles all the good money, the prize money, the appearance money, and the reputed $8,000-a-race sponsor money from Purolator. He disagrees with the stock-car independents who, lacking wealthy sponsors, insist that the only reason they don't win is because they don't have enough money to spend. "The problem with most of the teams who run back in the pack," Glen says, "is not a lack of cubic money. It's mainly a lack of proper organization and preparation."
The Wood Brothers have long made a habit of doing the proper thing. More than a decade ago, they went down to the Daytona 500 with a car and no driver. Regular driver Marvin Panch had been burned earlier in the week in a sprint car race. At Daytona, they picked up a driver, Tiny Lund, who had limited superspeedway skills. Nobody gave Lund a chance.
Nobody except the Woods. They gave him a car so perfectly tuned to the course, and a pit crew so perfectly tuned to its task, that Lund won the race over Freddy Lorenzen. Every time Lund and Lorenzen went to the pits, Lorenzen was in the lead. And every time they came out of the pits, Lund was in the lead.
That, precisely, is the touch of the Wood Brothers. They try to leave nothing to chance. They try to make drivers winners.