by Bobby Markos
They say the first “scheduled” race between two automobiles took place on August 30th, 1867 over a distance of eight miles in Northern England. In the nearly 154 years since then, the sport of auto racing has seen its fair share of legends; there are dozens of halls of fame with walls lined in their photos and accomplishments. Some of these legends made their name by excelling in their craft, winning races, and filling the pages of the history books. Others made their mark by innovating the sport, and helping shape it into the form we enjoy today.
Somewhere along that timeline, in 1934 to be exact, a man was born in Stuart, Virginia whose contributions to racing would be immeasurable. While he never had much use for a steering wheel and racing helmet, his ability to see the sport as a whole and recognize areas for alteration would modernize the world of motorsports in the 1960s. On this week’s episode of “The Download”, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and co-host Mike Davis invite the man himself, Leonard Wood, to come on the show to talk about those innovations and the mind behind them.
The conversation starts with the humble beginnings of the Wood Brothers Racing Team, formed by Leonard and his older brothers. Leonard runs through how the brothers acquired an engine from Curtis Turner’s racing team and their father Walter taught him how to work on it by taking it apart and putting it back together. He would become the chief mechanic behind older brother Glen’s racing efforts at the age of 15.
A lot of Wood Brothers folklore is covered, including how the team landed on their now-legendary number “21”. They also talk in detail about some of the greats that have raced for the team, especially David Pearson. Leonard gives listeners some insight into their success with Pearson and his ability to drive a car like no other, as well as how their relationship ended and the regret he still feels from it.
The Wood Brother’s team is perhaps best known for their pit road innovations, and Dale Jr. was sure to get the scoop on how they came about. In 1960, the average pit time for tires and fuel during a NASCAR race was 45-seconds. Leonard credits Ford engineers for pointing out that “there was a lot to be gained in the pits”. Through changes made to floor jacks and the incorporation of power tools the team managed to get the stops down to 25-seconds. This accomplishment would send them to Indianapolis in 1965 to aid Ford Lotus driver Jim Clark, and their modifications of fuel tanks and gas cans would help ensure his victory in the 500. The race would put the Wood Brothers on the map, and the rest is history.
Today, Leonard remains a legendary figure in NASCAR, with his legacy being preserved in the NASCAR Hall of Fame alongside his older brother Glen. This episode of The Download - available right here on this site or at your favorite podcasting platform - is a great look at the man behind the legend and how he got here.
Additional reading about our guest:
Born on September 22nd, 1934, Leonard was one of seven children in the Wood family of Stuart, Virginia. Showing an interest in mechanical engineering at an early age, he would build his first go-kart at the age of 13 using a washing machine engine. The brothers would become big fans of Curtis Turner, and found inspiration from him to go racing. In 1950, they purchased an old modified Ford and their racing team began.
The team would get their first victory at Bowman Gray Stadium in 1951, and would make a name for themselves on the modified/sportsman circuit through the decade. As he became more comfortable around the sport, Leonard began to make changes in the team’s process from how they set-up the cars, to how they worked on them during races.
In 1960, Glen would sweep all three NASCAR Grand National events at Bowman Gray, marking the team’s first three victories in the series. During this time, Leonard began using power tools to cut down on time lost on pit road. He also revolutionized the floor jacks the team was using by making them more lightweight and installing a larger piston so that it took less time to raise the car when changing tires.
As the team found more success in NASCAR from their abbreviated pit stops, engineers at Ford took notice and invited them to pit for Jim Clark at the 1965 running of the Indianapolis 500. Alterations Leonard made to the car’s fuel tank and gas cans would allow them to pour 58-gallons of gas in 15 seconds, an advantage that would help Clark win the race. The feat produced the most publicity the Wood Brothers had ever had and helped put them on the national radar of auto racing.
After Glen retired from driving duties in 1964, the Wood Brothers team would field many of NASCAR’s greats like David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Neil Bonnett, and Buddy Baker. They also had a lot of success with open-wheel racers like AJ Foyt and Dan Gurney. Leonard celebrated 96 victories as the team’s crew chief before turning over the reins.
In 2013, Leonard joined his older brother Glen in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Today, Leonard is still active at the Wood Brothers racing shop, working on different projects and still innovating.