Brant James
Wednesday March 12th, 2008

Leonard Wood could barely reach full gait before he was stopped, his hand grasped for a shake, a shoulder squeezed. A half century in NASCAR garages bred many friendships. And in times like these, he needed them.

This was an awkward and troubling time for the historic Wood Brothers race team, and perhaps also for NASCAR itself. The sport's oldest continuously operated team had failed to qualify for the Daytona 500 for the first time since 1962. As in the Kennedy administration.

The Woods had signed Bill Elliott in 2007 to race the iconic No. 21 Ford into the top 35 in owner points and assure it entry in the first five races of this season. He finished 36th. So the 52-year-old Elliott returned to make things right, hoping at worst that his past champions' provisional (gained in '88) could earn him spots in enough races to put the Woods back on firmer footing.

But Penske Racing was allowed to swap owner points between '04 Sprint Cup champion Kurt Busch and rookie Sam Hornish Jr. And then there was '99 champion Dale Jarrett making five final points race starts before retiring. Busch was forced to use a past champion's provisional for entry into the Daytona 500 and the Wood Brothers were out.

"I don't think there are words that can describe it,'' Elliott said.

Elliott used a provisional at Fontana, Calif., when rain scuttled qualifying, but Johnny Sauter -- filling in for Jon Wood -- crashed the No. 21 during qualifying at Las Vegas, and Elliott lost a starting spot at Atlanta when Jarrett needed the provisional to qualify.

NASCAR chairman Brian France called the Wood Brothers' plight at Daytona "a disappointment,'' adding "they're a big part of our past, and they'll be back.''

But will they? While Petty Enterprises moved from rural Level Cross, N.C., to the matrix of NASCAR expertise outside of Charlotte this year, and according to published reports, is close to landing an outside investor to bolster its efforts, the Wood Brothers seem closer to following other storied teams that simply went away. Though the Wood Brothers moved from Stuart, Va., to suburban Charlotte before the Pettys, it has much to do to catch back up with a sport it once paced.

"It's just a matter of hitting the right setup,'' Leonard Wood said, almost hopefully. "I think we've got a lot of extremely intelligent people in that shop, and when I see them working and setting it up, I don't know why it's not showing up better because they['ve] got all the talent they should need''

While owners of teams in other major sports such as baseball or football have tangible assets -- including the assurance of playing in league-sanctioned games -- race team owners make almost a fool's bargain. NASCAR and its promoters provide a purse and a venue, while teams pay the freight. Expensive and quickly obsolete equipment is worth a fraction of its cost immediately after purchase, and thanks to an independent contractor relationship that has greatly benefited NASCAR and its ruling France family, there is no guarantee of competing.

NASCAR could protect its founding teams by selling them franchises, in essence, guaranteed entries in races. But most team owners consider it highly unlikely the sport will ever allow teams to buy franchises, however, and many others think it shouldn't.

Among them is Eddie Wood, Glen's son and a co-owner of the team that took over daily operations with his brother, Len.

"I was always brought up to say, 'If you can't make it any better, don't say anything','' Eddie Wood said. "I wouldn't know what to say or how to change it or make it any different than what it is. So, that being said, it is what it is, and here we are.''

The sport made some concessions in '05, ostensibly to protect teams and their vital sponsor relationships with the top-35 rule. But it mainly protects larger, monied teams. Racing, France said, is about competition, not nostalgia.

"I think we have to be about performance, and when you start protecting and insulating and all that stuff, we think it erodes the competition a little bit -- or a lot,'' France said before the Daytona 500. "While you want to protect -- and we have various things that do reward teams for their longevity and their performance -- longevity on its own can't be the one thing. You've got to perform well.''

Jarrett's retirement after this week's race at Bristol should help Wood a bit, freeing up five more uses of the past champion's provisional for Elliott as all remaining active past champions are inside the top 35. But he's 46th in points, 11 spots and 213 points from 35th place, and in a virtually hopeless position, even this early. He and Jon Wood will be under pressure to qualify on time all season while most cars work on improving their cars for the race.

"It makes you feel like you're starting a lap down,'' Leonard Wood said.

Though Eddie Wood said his sponsors remain supportive and were aware of the team's potential plight before the season, he called the situation "a night-and-day fight, day-in and day-out.''

Battling to reach the top 35, he said, "will eat you alive. ... If you panic, you're done.''

It's an undignified reality for a team so much a part of motorsports history. Formed by brothers Glen and Leonard in Stuart, Va., the team has the third-most wins in NASCAR history (97), 117 poles and four Daytona 500 victories since Glen took their first ride in a Grand National race at Martinsville in '53 with Leonard as chief mechanic.

Glen Wood never won much behind the wheel, and the family didn't self-propagate its driver lineup as did the Pettys -- Lee (three titles), Richard (a record 200 wins and seven championships), Kyle and Adam -- but their integrity and unparalleled acumen under the hood of a stock car attracted some of the greatest drivers to ever race. Among the legends to slide behind a wheel of a Wood Brothers car were 17 of the top 50 drivers of the first half century of NASCAR, as named by a pan-industry panel: David Pearson, Curtis Turner, Junior Johnson, Cale Yarborough, A.J. Foyt, Donnie Allison, Dan Gurney, Neil Bonnett, Parnelli Jones, even '86 Indianapolis 500-winner Bobby Rahal.

They Woods won the Daytona 500 in '63, although their driver, '61-winner Marvin Panch, had to be replaced by the unheralded "Tiny" Lund after being badly burned in a sports car crash while attempting to set a closed-course speed record at Daytona International Speedway. Lund, who was walking the garage shilling for rides, helped rescue Panch and won the first of his five career races with the helping of cunning fuel strategy.

Perhaps one of the saddest facets of the Wood team's slow fade from relevance is that is has been overwhelmed in a new age of engineering after once being among the sport's greatest visionaries. So proficient were the brothers at maximizing the performance of tools and crewmen to improve pit stops that Ford racing manager John Cowley approached them in May of '65 about helping the teams of Colin Chapman and '63 and '65 Formula One champion Jimmy Clark master fueling the rear-engine-powered Ford Lotus with a new gravity-fed system in the Indianapolis 500.

Their ingenuity didn't end there.

In '65, the Wood brothers truncated a two-tire NASCAR stop from 48 to 15 seconds in just four years by crafting rounded wheel studs and more reliable pneumatic wrenches and jacks, but were tasked only with fueling Clark's car at Indianapolis. They assumed it would take about a minute to load 58 gallons. After a week, they had it down to 15 seconds. Clark led three times for 190 of 200 laps and won by nearly two minutes.

We did the least we've ever done in our lives and got the most publicity we ever got,'' Leonard Wood told The Virginian-Pilot in a '94 article.

But they were known as much for being gentleman as for being racers.

"I drove for the Wood Brothers a number of years, and they were very good folks to drive for," Panch said. "They're very honest. As a matter of fact, the very first time I drove for them, after the race we used to stand in line at the payoff window and they'd pay the drivers, and then we would split up the purse with the car owner. I got home a week or so after Atlanta and I got a check through the mail from Glen for $50. The next race I said, "Glen, what in the world was that $50 for?'' He said, 'Well, this old boy gave me $100 for a decal on the quarter panel there and I figured you were entitled to half of it.'"

So as Leonard Wood strode the bustling garage before the Daytona 500 this February, a duffel bag over his shoulder, looking for a place to watch a Daytona 500 without a vested interest for the first time in decades, all those friends were there to make the disappointment a little less pointed. Things would be better, he said.

"My friend said it's like being homeless,'' he laughed. "I'm friends with [everyone] so I will just hang out a little bit. I always like to pick at them anyway, but I guess I can't pick too much now.''

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