While Trevor Bayne conquered NASCAR’s most prestigious race—outpacing the sport’s elite drivers at perilous speeds for three and a half hours during last year’s Daytona 500—even the young champion was stretched to navigate the throng of fans waiting to shake his hand in Stuart, Va., hometown of the legendary Wood Brothers Racing team.
Seven hours after an autograph session began last May at the Wood Brothers Racing Museum, Bayne continued to pose for photos and hug fans, many of whom had lined up with lawn chairs and coolers around lunchtime the prior day for the 5 p.m. celebration.
“We were supposed to be here until 8:30,” says Bayne, 21, who stayed until well after midnight for the marathon meet-and-greet, along with crew chief Donnie Wingo, 52, and three of the original Wood Brothers: Glen, 86, Ray Lee, 84, and Leonard, 77. “But there are so many people. If Leonard, Glen and Ray Lee can keep going, so can I.”
The turnout of 4,000 racing fans in a town of 1,408 people reflected quite a year for Wood Brothers, the venerable family-owned team that had struggled in recent years but was revived last February when Bayne, in only his second Sprint Cup start and just one day after turning 20, drove its famed No. 21 car to Victory Lane at Daytona International Speedway. The accomplishment gave Wood Brothers its 98th all-time win and fifth Daytona 500 victory.
“Trevor was the story at Daytona,” says former Wood Brothers driver Kyle Petty. “But NASCAR people were thrilled for the Wood Brothers. They’re fantastic people. No one deserved this more than them.”
Accolades for the team continued as former Wood Brothers champion David Pearson was inducted into the 2011 NASCAR Hall of Fame, and team founder Glen Wood was inducted into the 2012 class.
“The Wood Brothers represent all that is good in NASCAR—the family aspect,” says Winston Kelley, executive director of the Hall of Fame. “They represent handing down tradition from generation to generation.”
The team’s beginnings were not nearly as promising. When 25-year-old lumber worker Glen Wood entered his first stock car race in 1950 at Morris Speedway near Martinsville, Va., he wrecked his car, which caught fire while being towed home to Stuart.
Nonetheless, Wood was hooked and quickly hired his brother Leonard, then age 15, as his chief car builder and mechanic. On race days, he recruited whomever he could to work on the pit crew—usually one of his other brothers, Delano, Ray Lee or Clay.
Glen competed semi-regularly in NASCAR’s top series for 11 years, running historic races such as the first Daytona 500 in 1959, in which he finished 34th. He won four Grand National (today’s Sprint Cup) events, five Convertible races and countless Modified contests before hanging up his driver’s helmet in 1964 to become a full-time team owner.
“Whether you’re an owner or a driver, winning is the same,” Glen says.
And the Wood Brothers did win.
In 1963, the team won its first Daytona 500 with driver Tiny Lund and continued to win races during the 1960s and early ’70s with Marvin Panch, Curtis Turner, Cale Yarborough and A.J. Foyt at the wheel. But what truly put Wood Brothers on the racing map wasn’t who won or how many times. It was how they won—by shaving precious seconds off their race times in the pits.
“It used to take 45 seconds to change two tires,” says Leonard, describing the early NASCAR days when drivers had time to climb out of the car and smoke a cigarette during refueling.
“It was plain that you were losing too much time there,” Glen adds. “I never figured out why people didn’t look closer at that.”
Glen and Leonard incorporated Leonard’s mechanical innovations, such as hydraulic jacks that hoisted a car in two to three pumps instead of bumper jacks that took 10 to 12. Then, they choreographed how their crew—including brothers Ray Lee (the tire-changer until 1965 when Clay took over) and Delano (the jackman until retiring in 1983)—worked the pit. The team not only cut pit stop times in half, they invented the modern-day pit stop.
Highs and lows
The combination of flawless pit stops and Pearson, who joined the roster of drivers in 1972, launched the team’s heyday. During his Wood Brothers run, Pearson amassed 43 wins, including his last-lap besting of Richard Petty at the 1976 Daytona 500, one of the most thrilling finishes in NASCAR history.
“Pearson was so good,” Leonard recalls, “he would always get the most out of the car, no matter what.”
Although competitive during the late 1970s and ’80s, with drivers including Neil Bonnett, Buddy Baker and Kyle Petty, the team lost its dominance by the 1990s. Other teams adopted the Wood Brothers’ pit stop strategy, and powerhouse multicar teams such as Hendrick Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing were on the rise.
An eight-year gap between wins in 1993 and 2001 sparked speculation that the storied team might fold, but the Woods never quit, says co-owner Eddie Wood, 59, Glen’s son, who along with his brother, Len, 55, and sister, Kim Wood Hall, 50, assumed day-to-day operations during the late 1980s and moved the team’s hub to Harrisburg, N.C.
“We just kept trying,” Eddie says.
The low point came in 2008 when Wood Brothers failed to qualify for the Daytona 500 for the first time in four decades. Soon after, Eddie got a call from Edsel Ford, great-grandson of Henry Ford and board member of Ford Motor Co., the team’s longtime sponsor.
“He asked me why I hadn’t called lately,” Eddie says. “The truth was, we were struggling. We weren’t competitive. But he got with us and said, ‘The No. 21 is broken, and we’re going to fix it!’”
With Ford’s help, a new generation of Wood Brothers leadership formulated a plan that included running a limited racing schedule and forging a relationship with Roush-Fenway Racing, which sells the team cars, shares resources and loans personnel, such as fledgling driver Trevor Bayne.
For the Wood Brothers, last year’s celebration in Daytona’s Victory Lane was a combination of vindication, elation and revived expectations. It also was the ultimate family moment.
“It brought three generations together,” says Eddie, whose son John, 30, is an aspiring driver, along with Len’s son, Keven, 27.
“It’s like we’re filling in the circle.”