Not "The Masters," But the Wood Brothers Truly Have a Tradition like None Other
Sixty-four years ago next week, on May 17, 1953, Lee Petty won a 200-lap NASCAR Grand National race on the half-mile dirt Martinsville Speedway, leading only the last lap and besting Herb Thomas, who had dominated most of the race.
Hardly newsworthy was the 30th place finisher, a local who only had to drive about 30 miles to get to the track from his home in Stuart. His name was Glen Wood.
When Ryan Blaney takes the green flag at Kansas this weekend, he will start the 1,484th race for the Wood Brothers racing team since that inauspicious start at Martinsville. His #21 Ford will continue the Woods’ march toward 395,000 laps of Grand National/Monster/Cup racing, and if he can put the car out front, he’ll continue the move toward the team having led 25,000 laps.
He will be seeking the team’s 99th victory in the series.
(If you want a little more history - including the story of Glen Wood’s first race anywhere, check out this team history from the team’s website)
One thing that struck me from the team history is that 20 of the 50 drivers chosen as NASCAR’s greatest of all time have driven for the Woods. Granted, some, like Joe Weatherly, Fred Lorenzen and Bob Welborn, drove only one or two GN events for the Woods, and some apparently drove in something other than a GN race, but it’s still an awesome statement.
It all started off slowly, because Glen was mostly driving modified races in southwestern Virginia and just picking up a GN start here and there. The first victories didn’t come until 1960, when Glen scored in three of the nine events he ran, and Speedy Thompson picked up a late-season ride with the Woods and won two of three races. Weatherly, Welborn and Curtis Turner picking up the odd ride as well - Little Joe put a Wood Brothers car in the top 5 at North Wilkesboro.
In 1962, Marvin Panch became the Woods’ first primary driver other than Glen, and the following year, when Tiny Lund pulled Panch from his burning sports car at Daytona and then took his place in the NASCAR ride, race fans got one of the best feel-good stories of all time when the South Carolina fish-camp operator won the Daytona 500 in the #21.
The next year brought the Woods’ association with Dan Gurney. Driving a Wood Brothers Ford numbered #121, Gurney won the Grand National race at Riverside, Calif., four times in five years.
In 1968, Cale Yarborough won six times in 20 races for the Woods, but the golden era for the boys from Stuart was still four years away.
In 1972, David Pearson became the #21’s driver, and between that time and 1978 (Pearson’s last full year with the team), he won 43 races out of 139 with an incredible 96 top 5s, 100 top 10s and 50 pole positions. Richard Petty won 40 races during that period but drove 70 more than Pearson, because the Woods didn’t run the full circuit.
The drivers who followed Pearson - Neil Bonnett, Buddy Baker, Kyle Petty, Dale Jarrett, Morgan Shepherd - continued to win, but the frequency of victory began to drop. With Petty as the driver, the Woods began to run the full Winston Cup schedule, but when drivers Michael Waltrip, Elliott Sadler, Ricky Rudd and Ken Schrader came through, the victories didn’t. Over an 11-year period, Sadler’s 2001 win at Bristol was the sole triumph for the Woods in 378 events. After splitting the 2007 season between Schrader and Bill Elliott, the team returned to competing part-time.
Trevor Bayne’s Cinderella win in the 2011 Daytona 500 was a bright spot, but there were few others, until Blaney’s arrival in 2015. Today a Wood Brothers win seems quite possible, and the venerable team is recapturing at least a little of the old magic.
All this probably doesn’t mean much to people who weren’t even born in 1954 or ‘63 or ‘76 (when Pearson had 10 wins, 8 poles and 16 top 5s in just 22 starts), but to those whose love for major league stock car racing dates back to when most folks had never laid eyes on a Toyota, seeing the #21 at the front brings a kind of satisfaction not often experienced in NASCAR fandom these days.
In all likelihood, this fall’s Richmond race will be the Wood’s 1,500th GN/Monster/Cup start. I hope Ryan wins one before then, because that would mean he’d be going to win #100 at the same time. To hell with the playoffs; that win would be worth seeing.
Pearson in victory lane after the incredible finish of the 1976 Daytona 500.
Glen and Leonard Wood in Daytona victory lane with Buddy Baker after the 1983 Firecracker 400.
(Most of the statistics in this story come from Racing-Reference.info, for which I’m eternally grateful, and the rest come from the usual array of web-surfing stops.)