When I did my first one-on-one interview with the Wood brothers, Glen and Leonard, I was scared to death.
It was about 42 years ago when I was starting out as a motorsports writer for The Roanoke Times and the Woods, with driver David Pearson, were scorching the NASCAR Winston Cup competition.
The late Dick Thompson, the superb public relations director at Martinsville Speedway, recruited me to do a story on the Woods for his race program.
At first, I didn’t want to do it.
“Dick, I hardly know the Woods,” I said. “I don’t think anyone does. They aren’t exactly outspoken and outgoing in the garage area.”
“You’ll do fine,” Thompson said. “I’ll set up the interview at their shops up in Stuart (Va.).”
A couple of days later Thompson called me.
“Well, that wasn’t easy,” he said. “They wanted to know things like who you were and how long it would take. I told ‘em you would be as quick as possible. Get on up there.”
You have to understand that among the media of the day, the Woods were considered one of the best teams in NASCAR.
They had a small organization but they could hold their own – and beat – such powerhouses as Holman & Moody, Petty Enterprises and Bud Moore Engineering.
But it seemed they were distant. They weren’t sociable. They went about their tasks efficiently and silently.
And when it came to interviews, their answers were brief and enigmatic. The Woods never gave a straight response when it came to explanations of how they won a race.
The media, jokingly, often referred to a “magic chassis change” as the secret to their success.
In truth they didn’t have the slightest idea.
Especially reticent was Glen, the elder brother listed as the team owner. His younger brother Leonard, the chief mechanic and able pit crew member, was a little better. At least he smiled a lot.
In fact it was Leonard who answered virtually all my questions during the interview. Now, admittedly, most of what I asked was mere prattle because I knew the Woods weren’t about to let loose of any of their competition secrets.
I heard, “No, let’s not go there,” more than once.
But then something happened.
I asked the Woods how hard it was to keep up with NASCAR’s seemingly endless rule changes – which, at the time, were made to keep competition equal and the auto manufacturers happy.
Leonard abruptly left the room.
He came back carrying a box. He emptied the contents on the floor.
Carburetor restrictor plates of myriad sizes and shapes were spread out all over the floor.
“See this?” Leonard asked. “This is what I have to do constantly to make sure we’re fast and within the rules. It’s not easy and it takes up a lot of time.”
Then he smiled.
“You can’t take a photo of all this,” he said.
Then the reason that was the center of the Woods’ success hit me. Leonard had just very dramatically shown me how hard he worked, how experimental he was and how dedicated he was in his role as the team’s engine builder.
No wonder the Woods were the toast of NASCAR. By 1972 their cars had been driven to multiple victories by the likes of Curtis Turner, Marvin Panch, A.J. Foyt and Cale Yarborough.
In ’72, their first with Pearson, they won six times.
That was just a harbinger of things to come. The Woods won 11 of 18 races in 1973 and seven more in 1974.
They were making the most of Glen and Leonard’s leadership and mechanical skills.
It has always been reasoned that Glen was the strategist. The Woods never ran for a championship. They competed only in superspeedway races, which paid the most money.
Glen opted for the combination of a higher income and fewer expenses. I also think he preferred to race where the team was strongest.
The only exception was their hometown track, the half-mile Martinsville Speedway. Suffice it to say, uh, they were “compensated.”
Meanwhile, it was Leonard who was the technical genius. He didn’t learn from schools or manuals. He was a naturally talented mechanic who could build motors from the time he was 13 years old.
As an engine builder he was diabolical – almost like a mad scientist. No one knew exactly what he did, and he sure wasn’t about to tell anyone, but his engines were routinely the most powerful on every superspeedway. The numbers proved it.
It didn’t end there. Leonard was also the architect of a Wood Brothers pit stop – routinely the fastest in NASCAR.
Leonard was one of the best tire changers in the sport – yes, his duties with the team were many – but he was also responsible for modernizing the equipment of the day.
He created a lightweight jack, one far lighter than the 70-80 pounders of they day. With the use of hydraulics, Delano Wood, jackman and the most flamboyant of the Wood Brothers, could have a car lifted in two pumps. It took other teams as many as 10.
Leonard is also credited with finding ways to get the team’s air guns to remove and replace lug nuts more quickly and modifying the gas dump cans to allow fuel to flow faster.
Without Leonard’s natural skills and creativity, the Wood Brothers would have never achieved the status and notoriety they hold to this day.
That’s the biggest reason why Leonard is one of the latest inductees into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Buck Baker, Herb Thomas, Rusty Wallace and Cotton Owens join him this year.
Pearson was a member of the hall’s second class and his tenure with Woods certainly had much to do with that.
Leonard will join Glen as a hall of fame member. It’s only appropriate. They established their greatness together.
Over the years Leonard and I became friendly acquaintances who could converse easily and laugh often.
Of course, I have never asked him what he did or how he did it.
I think he’d smile. But he wouldn’t answer. Not to this day.