Commentary

Once-dominant Wood Brothers yearning for success of yesteryear

They were one of the dominant teams of the era. Now Wood Brothers Racing is lucky just to make the 43-car field. What happened?

Updated: April 2, 2008, 11:21 AM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

David PearsonAP Photo/JHJRDavid Pearson gobbles a hot dog at Talladega, one of 11 races he won for the Wood Brothers in '73.

MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Eddie Wood was beside himself when he arrived at Martinsville Speedway in 2004. The bright red hot dogs -- sorry, world-famous hot dogs -- typically filled with mustard, onions, chili, slaw and wrapped in wax paper had been placed in Styrofoam boxes without any of the toppings.

Wood was so upset that he and several other representatives from the Sprint Cup garage marched into the NASCAR hauler and demanded that the $2 dogs be returned to normal or they "were done."

So a call was put into NASCAR headquarters in Daytona Beach, Fla., where longtime chairman Bill France Jr. still was calling many of the shots. Within a couple of hours the hot dogs were back in wax wrappers "and salty like they're supposed to be."

"I wish you could fix your team as quick as they fixed the hot dogs," said Wood, who co-owns the famed Wood Brothers team with brother Len out of Harrisburg, N.C. "It's not that simple."

Wood Brothers Racing

A look at the 19 drivers on NASCAR's 50 greatest drivers list who drove for the famed Wood Brothers:

Impressive Stable
Driver Career Wins
David Pearson 105
Cale Yarborough 83
Ned Jarrett 50
Junior Johnson 50
Bill Elliott 44
Fireball Roberts 33
Dale Jarrett 32
Fred Lorenzen 26
Joe Weatherly 25
Ricky Rudd 23
Buddy Baker 19
Neil Bonnett 18
Marvin Panch 17
Curtis Turner 17
Bob Welborn 9
A.J. Foyt 7
Tiny Lund 5
Glen Wood 4
Ralph Earnhardt 0

There was a time when the Wood Brothers were to stock car racing what the hot dogs are to Martinsville -- world famous.

From 1970 until 1979 this legendary team collected 54 of its career 97 victories with greats such as Cale Yarborough, A.J. Foyt and David Pearson behind the wheel.

In 1973, Pearson won an amazing 11 of 18 races out of the team's original shop in remote Stuart, Va., a 30-minute hike up Highway 58 from Martinsville. If he had entered the other 10 events, he likely would have won the title going away.

Pearson followed that season with win totals of seven, three and 10, giving him 31 victories out of 80 events. There wasn't a time he went to the track that he didn't expect to win.

Now the Wood Brothers go to the track simply hoping to make the 43-car field, which they've done only once in five races to fall out of the top 35 guaranteed a starting spot heading into this weekend's race at Martinsville.

They haven't had a victory since Elliott Sadler at Bristol in 2001. They haven't had a top-10 since Ken Schrader was seventh at Richmond in 2006.

They've spent the past 27 years equaling the 10 wins Pearson had in 1976. They've reached double figures in laps led only twice since 1983, and led only 19 laps in the past two-plus seasons.

But never have they gone through tougher times than this season. The only race they made was the second week at California, where Bill Elliott got in on his past champion's provisional after qualifying was rained out.

They are 44th in owners' points, 192 points out of the top 35.

Nobody can pinpoint one reason for the downfall. Some say the organization fell behind when it refused to expand to multiple cars as most of the top teams did in the 1980s. Some say it stayed in Virginia, far away from the talent base in Charlotte, N.C., too long before making the move in 2004.

Some say it didn't keep up with the technology as the sport moved more toward engineering.

Likely it was a combination of all those things and much more.

"It hurts to see," said Buddy Baker, who won his last points event for the Wood Brothers at the 1983 July race in Daytona. "Everybody in the sport, we all remember how good they were at one time.

"It's painful to watch what has happened. It would be like watching David Pearson come back and miss every race."

Sadler, who grew up in Emporia, Va., can't believe how far the organization has fallen even since he left following the 2002 season.

"It's awful to watch what the Wood Brothers are going through," he said. "Man, my heart goes out for them. You're not going to meet a better family of people that have supported this sport from the very beginning than them."

The Wood Brothers have been around longer than any team outside of Petty Enterprises. Started in 1950 by brothers Glen and Leonard Wood in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwest Virginia, the organization made the No. 21 as feared as the No. 43 of Richard Petty and the No. 3 of Dale Earnhardt.

Now it strikes fear only into those competing for the final few spots in the field, and that happens primarily on weekends when Elliott is there with his champion's provisional instead of Jon Wood or Marcos Ambrose.

It's so sad that Leonard Wood can only laugh.

"You might as well laugh as cry," said the only original Wood still with the team. "If you lay down you might as well quit. You just have to grin and bear it, I reckon. Racin' don't have no pity sake on you."

Walk through history
On a grassy knoll on 21 Performance Drive in Stuart sits the Wood Brothers' first permanent shop. It's a museum now, filled with enough trophies and plaques to fill much of NASCAR's Hall of Fame being constructed in downtown Charlotte, N.C.

"They could have their own Hall of Fame if they wanted to," Baker said with a laugh.

On display this week is the 1971 Purolator Mercury made famous by Pearson. The car was loaned to Darlington Raceway for its museum 34 years ago, but recently it was returned to Stuart to be tuned for Pearson to drive around the newly paved Darlington track next month.

Sadler is awestruck every time he enters this sacred place among stock car lovers.

"How many trophies and wins those guys have is unbelievable," he said. "The names they've had on the side of their race cars, it's absolutely unbelievable. You don't really understand it until you have it all in one place."

There you're reminded that this is the organization that invented the pit stop that is a part of every form of racing. You're reminded that this group crossed the open-wheel line long before Juan Pablo Montoya came to Chip Ganassi Racing with stars such as Foyt and Dan Gurney.

You're reminded that 19 of NASCAR's "50 Greatest Drivers" drove under the Wood Brothers' logo.

You're reminded of just how good Pearson was, collecting an amazing 46 wins and 51 poles in 143 events for the team from 1972-79.

And when you visit the shop, you don't get a tour from just anybody in the community of just over 2,000 people.

"You get shown by one of the Wood family," said Sadler, referring to Glen Wood's daughter, Kim Wood-Hall, and other family members. "I thought that was amazing. If you're anywhere near Martinsville, you need to take the extra time to go there.

"There's a lot of racing history that will explain a lot of things about our sport."

The rest of what is happening in the sport can be found three hours away in Harrisburg. The Wood Brothers moved their shop to Mooresville, N.C., in 2004 and then to their current location two years later in hopes of turning things around.

Like Petty Enterprises this season, the Wood Brothers wanted to be closer to the talent pool in what is considered the hub of stock car racing. This also put them closer to Ford's all-important seven-post shaker at nearby Roush Fenway Racing -- as well as Roush's technical support -- and gave them easy access to a wind tunnel.

And while they believe the organization is stronger, it hasn't shown in the results.

"Just moving, that's not necessarily going to fix your ills," Eddie said as he leaned forward in his office chair. "It's a long process. But if you're gonna get to where you would like to be, you've just about got to be here."

Back at the shop
Keven Wood emerged from a corner of the chassis shop wearing a yellow T-shirt that read "Inner Beauty is Overrated" and a lucky charm clover around his neck.

"Whatever it takes," he said.

The 23-year-old son of Len Wood helps in the chassis dyno department part of the week and spends the rest of his time trying to keep employees pumped up.

"If you didn't have a good weekend, you try to take their mind off of things," he said.

Forgotten when the No. 21 hauler pulls out of the track and the focus is on the 43 cars that made the race are the men and women in this converted factory that worked all week to put the car in the show.

"Everything they can think of they're trying," Keven said. "You can tell when we don't make a race. The morale, it kind of gets hurt. It's dejecting to them when they don't get to see the car on the track and see their work. They're not getting enough credit."

Keven was born in 1984, when Bobby Rahal replaced Baker and the organization started leveling out.

"Ever since, it's been going downhill," he said.

Keven's only reminders of past glory are the trophies and pictures in the museum. That, and being of Wood blood, drives him to breathe new life into the organization.

"Especially with my grandfather still being alive," he said of Glen. "They don't want to have it quit while he's still around. It's his legacy and they want to keep it going as long as we can for him.

"There's a lot of pride in our name. I'm thankful for being a Wood. It's kind of a double-edged sword, though, but I'd take it any day."

Mike Smith doesn't share the Wood name, but he takes just as much pride in turning things around. He's worked for the organization for 18 years and has known the family since he was 6.

"My dad was one of the Wood's bookies," Smith said with a chuckle. "I remember coming in and seeing all the trophies and checkered flags hanging up. I want to see that again."

Smith, an aerodynamics specialist, has been to Victory Lane only three times with the Wood Brothers. One of those was The Winston All-Star race with Michael Waltrip in 1996.

As bad as things have been in the past, he's never seen them this bad.

"It's been hard," he said. "I'm actually dreading Fridays [qualifying day] now, which we ain't never done."

Smith knows it's not feasible for a single-car team to compete with multicar teams such as Hendrick Motorsports and Roush Fenway Racing. He understands larger teams have more engineers and resources to draw on.

He also believes that with the same chassis that everybody else uses in the new car and with Roush-Yates engines (that already have produced two wins this season), things should be better.

"If we could win a race, just a race, and finish in the top 35, we could call it a good year," he said. "It will happen one day. Things will get better."

One day at a time
Bernie Marcus, Ford Racing's aerodynamics engineer, sat off to the side as Eddie Wood waited for an important call.

But Ford is doing anything but sitting idly by and watching the Wood Brothers drown. The company has added another engineer over the past few weeks and is doing all it can to right this historic ship.

Other teams, regardless of make, are encouraging, as well.

"There seems like there's a lot of people interested in us and supporting us, telling us don't get discouraged and keep digging and that kind of thing," Eddie said.

That doesn't make it any easier, particularly when Eddie and other members of the family have to stay throughout the weekend to entertain sponsors and guests who expected the car to be in the field.

"I'm tired of walking in the garage area bumming drinks off of other teams," Leonard said. "Not much fun."

Leonard still comes to the shop on a daily basis, but he hasn't been involved in many of the decisions since turning the business over to his nephews years ago. He believes, as does Eddie, that the turnaround is just a matter of getting the right people in the right places.

Sadler isn't so sure. He believes that the Wood Brothers are at a crossroads, that if they don't soon expand to a multicar team they may not survive many more years.

"We haven't seen many one-car Cup teams become successful," he reminded. "It's tough for those guys to compete week in and week out. They are just fighting an uphill battle every week."

Pearson doesn't know what the problem is, but he knows what he would do to correct it.

"I told some of them just the other day they need to let Leonard go back and be over everything," he said of his former crew chief. "Let him be the crew chief and set things up like he used to. I don't think they would have no problems making races then."

Leonard isn't ready for that role anymore than Pearson is ready to tackle NASCAR's new car.

"I couldn't drive a car where you go in a corner and you feel like the front end falls down on it," said the three-time champion. "It's like running on a solid car or something."

But Leonard is ready to see things turn around.

"I don't have nothing to do with the business end of it, but my thought is it needs to be fixed -- now," he said. "To be honest, and I don't mean this like I need special treatment, but I think anybody that's been racing for 50 years should be in the race each week anyway."

That certainly would make life easier for Eddie, whose plate became even fuller on Monday when his crew chief left.

"Right now, all I'm thinking about is getting my stuff running and getting in the top 35," he said. "You've got to be competitive first. It doesn't take very long to get behind, but it takes a long time to catch up.

"When you're out of the top 35 everything snowballs on you. You miss one race, oops. You miss a second, it just starts to snowball. But like a very good friend of mine once told me, 'Nobody died today.' This is not a funeral."

Eddie believes Martinsville would be a fitting place to get this season on track because of what the track has meant to the family. He knows the car is better than it was a few weeks ago, and with other past champions safely in the top 35 Elliott is almost assured a spot.

And he is certain of one thing.

"I'm gonna have a hot dog there," Eddie said, a faint smile returning to his troubled face. "I'm going to have one for breakfast, maybe two. That's the least I'm going to carry out of there."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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