Commentary

How Wood Brothers turned it around

Originally Published: February 20, 2011
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Those old enough to remember the Wood Brothers' magnificent past felt sure they would never be back.

Surely, it seemed the family had been trampled down and passed by in NASCAR. The only amazing thing about them was that they kept on going as a struggling one-car team in a league overwhelmed by multi-car teams with corporate structures and the funds to dominate.

What people, even the Woods themselves, forgot was the depth of the bond between this family, sprung from a farm near little Stuart, Va., and the first family of Detroit, the Fords.

Never before had the Daytona 500 produced the embodiment of what NASCAR and America and renewal and loyalty are supposed to be about until Sunday, when patriarch Glen Wood and Edsel Ford II walked together into Victory Lane.

Ford Motor Co. was the only American automaker to emerge from recent years' economic difficulties on its own, without a government bailout. Back on its feet, Ford got the Woods back on theirs.

And now a child of a driver, Trevor Bayne, 20 years and one day old, has led them in his first Daytona 500 and his second Sprint Cup race. Bayne's refrain throughout the evening and into the night was, "I just feel unworthy …"

He tried to comprehend all the people who had earned Ford's 599 victories before him. His drive to the 600th was plenty worthy, as masterful as any by A.J. Foyt or Dan Gurney or Cale Yarborough or David Pearson in Wood Brothers' cars.

But Bayne insisted that if he'd soared as a prodigy it was because "they gave me a rocket ship" to ride.

How could the Woods give him that, after nearly a decade without a Cup win of any kind?

The bond. It goes back 60 years. The Woods have never raced anything but Fords and Mercurys.

Edsel Ford II grew up while his father, Henry Ford II, was the most passionate and committed racer on Earth, more even than Enzo Ferrari, whom Ford beat resoundingly at Le Mans in 1967, with Foyt and Gurney leading 23½ of the 24 hours.

When rear-engine Lotus Fords were brought to the Indianapolis 500 to dethrone the traditional roadsters in 1965, Henry sent the Wood Brothers to pit the Flying Scot, Jim Clark. They won.

Of course they did. The choreographed pit stops you see today, through all of motor racing, were first conceived and implemented by the Woods. They were soon copied in NASCAR, but Indy in 1965 had never seen such ballet in the pits.

[+] EnlargeNo. 21 crew celebrates
AP Photo/Glenn SmithThe Wood Brothers once fielded the best pit crews in racing. They did it again Sunday in the Daytona 500.

They were so brilliant as a crew that after their lead NASCAR driver, Marvin Panch, was injured in a sports car fire at Daytona in 1963 they put an unknown dirt-tracker, Tiny Lund, in the car and sent him to victory in the Daytona 500.

Yarborough won the 500 for them in '68, Foyt in '72 and Pearson in '76, in what many call the greatest Daytona 500 ever. Pearson and archrival Richard Petty exchanged the lead through the final lap and wrecked each other coming off the final turn. Pearson brought the wrecked Mercury across the finish line in the infield grass, at maybe 30 mph.

That was the last time the Woods were in Victory Lane at the Daytona 500 before Sunday.

Pearson and the Woods had the highest batting average ever for a NASCAR season in '73, when they entered 18 races and won 11.

The decline of the Wood Brothers began at Darlington in the spring of '79, in a mix-up on a pit stop. Humiliated and blaming each other after their car belly-flopped onto pit road like a beached whale, Pearson and the Woods split up the following week.

The Woods won eight races with Neil Bonnett through the next two-and-a-half seasons, but never again would they win more than one race a season.

In the 23 seasons before Sunday, the Woods had won but three races, with Dale Jarrett in '91, Morgan Shepherd in '93 and Elliott Sadler in '01.

As the Woods suffered, Edsel didn't forget them. He just hadn't heard from them. He had settled in as a member of Ford's board of directors, and the Woods were too proud, too self-sufficient to bother their old family friend with their troubles.

Then they bottomed out.

"Probably the lowest thing that happened to us, the lowest point was missing [failing to qualify for] this race in '08," Eddie Wood, elder of the second-generation Wood Brothers, said Sunday. "Our family had been coming down here since the '50s. They never missed one until we missed it."

Dawn wouldn't come until late that May. Wood remembered it precisely.

"I was in Pocono testing, May 28 of '08. We had missed the [Coca-Cola] 600," he said. "Edsel Ford was looking for a phone number for a four-star general that we were friends with. He called me.

"He said, 'Why haven't you called me? What's been going on?'

"I said, 'Mr. Ford, I'm just ashamed to. We run so poorly. We're missing races.'

"He said, 'We've got to fix that. I'm going to have someone call you in the morning.'

"The next morning, which was a Wednesday, I think, Mr. Jim Farley [now group vice president, global marketing, sales and service] from Ford Motor Co. called us. He said, 'We've got to fix your program. Why don't you come up here?'"

[+] EnlargeDavid Pearson
ISC Images & Archives/Getty ImagesDavid Pearson won a slew of races for the Wood Brothers, including the 1976 Daytona 500, but all good things come to an end in NASCAR, and Pearson left the team in 1979.

Eddie and younger brother Len, both sons of Glen Wood, left "within two hours," Eddie recalled. "We had no clothes, just work clothes, what we had on, headed to the airport and left just like we were.

"We got to Michigan. Bought clothes to go visit Mr. Farley, stayed up there two days to get to him. We met with him, told him our problems. It was just like talking to someone you've known for years. He said, 'OK, we're going to fix this.'

"And here we sit.

"There's a lot of stuff in between, but I won't go into all that. That's how we started to come back."

Ford got the Woods together with its most powerful NASCAR team, Roush Fenway Racing, to share in technology and hardware. The Woods were hurting for sponsorship money, so Ford funded them through its Motorcraft parts line.

And Roush recommended that the Woods take on a then-teenage driver named Trevor Bayne.

With their old rival also on the ropes with Richard Petty Motorsports, Ford brought Petty into the fold with his two-driver team so that all in all "I look at it as a seven-car team," Petty said recently.

And so Sunday, "I walked into Victory Lane with Richard Petty and Edsel Ford and my dad," Eddie said.

There's no friend like an old friend, except for maybe an old rival who has known the feeling of being trampled down and passed by in NASCAR.

The Wood Brothers are back. Maybe Petty isn't far behind.

You want NASCAR's storied past back? You got it in the 53rd Daytona 500, along with a 20-year-old sudden star hurtling headlong into NASCAR's future.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.