The Glory The Woods Held At Darlington, Until …

Darlington Raceway’s lore is filled with men, machines, races, controversy and even the fantastic and unbelievable.

The have been great failures, unusual winners, accidents seemingly triggered by a spectral hand, pit stops gone askew for reasons no one could fathom, and much more.

Much of this has been attributed to the speedway itself and its unique 1.366-mile layout, in which no two sets of turns are alike, and, for years, with its cheese grader-like racing surface – the one filled with crushed oyster shells – that tore up tires so quickly a car raced only a precious handful of laps before it was junk. The question became how to get the piece of junk down the straight and through the tough turns as fast as possible.

Not all the junks could do it and sometimes, they couldn’t get out of their own way or escape a faster car and mayhem ensued.

The teams that won were nearly always those whose cars always produced speed, but at the same time learned much about tire management. Simply put, their cars were faster at the start and were faster than others when tire wear began to kick in.

Petty Enterprises, DiGard Racing Co., Junjor Johnson and Associates, Harry Ranier Enterprires and Wood Brothers Racing were a few of the teams who understood the complexities of racing at Dalrington, and, as such won most of the races through the 1970s.

At that time, easily the most successful of the aforementioned teams was the Woods and their driver David Pearson.

Pearson hand already won two Grand National championships by the time he joined the Woods in 1972. He earned his first in 1966 with Cotton Owens swept the ’68 and ’69 titles with Holman-Moody.

The fact that the Woods were not going to pursue a championship, and thus not compete in as many as 50 races per season, appealed to Pearson – himself tired of the grind.

In 1972, the Woods entered only 17 races. But, with Pearson, they won six of them.

1973 was a remarkable season. The Woods entered just 18 races but – get this – with Pearson, they won 13 of them – an unheard of and since unmatched 72% winning percentage.

In 1974 The Woods and Pearson won seven of nineteen, in ’75 it dropped to three of 21, but it ’76 it rose to 10 of 22, then to 2 of 22 and four of 22 in ’78.

In 1979, Pearson was again united with the Woods and again expectations were high. But ironically, it would all come to an end during an unexpected incident on pit road – where the Woods usually excel.

Things began to unravel when Pearson entered pit road on lap 302. He’s thinking was that the Woods were going to put on two right-sides only. So when that was complete, Pearson shot toward the exit of pit road at high speed with the lug nuts dangling on the left-side tires.

Horrified over the situation, crew chief Leonard Wood hollered into the radio: “Whoa!” “Whoa!”

Pearson thought he had hollered, “Go!” “Go!” And so he did. He got to the end of pit road, where the left side tires on his Mercury flopped to the ground.

Pearson wound up 12th in the race, won by Darrell Waltrip over Richard Petty.

Later in the week, Wood Patriarch Glen Wood announced that Pearson was no longer part of the team. He admitted that the Darlington pit-road incident had something to do with it. It was the climax of several little things.

Leonard, however, denied the miscue at Darlington was to be blamed. He added that certain matters hadn’t been worked out. He cryptically added that with 12 different teams capable of winning, new strategies had to be planned out.

Hard to figure what strategies a team, which had won 29 supespeedway races since 1972, could adapt.

In the years ahead, for the Woods, there weren’t that many glorious years. Oh, there were victories, but they never again came in the abundance they did before Darlington in 1979.


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