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For Leonard Wood, Indy feels a little like '65 again

July 28, 2012, David Caraviello,

INDIANAPOLIS -- Hall of Fame selection's pit stop innovations helped Clark win Indianapolis 500

Leonard Wood returned to Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Friday as a recent selection to the NASCAR Hall of Fame, and with his face adorning the hood of the No. 21 car fielded by the Wood Brothers. He brought with him memories of his first trip to the Brickyard as a competitor, which came 47 years earlier and involved a very different type of vehicle.

That would have been in 1965, when Ford called upon the Wood Brothers to pit the entry of world champion Jim Clark in the Indianapolis 500. Leonard and brother Glen Wood were well on their way to reinventing pit stops in NASCAR competition, and Clark's team had been plagued by pit issues at Indy in previous years. Ford connected the dots, and the results were a dominant victory by Clark and an unforgettable experience for the usual NASCAR pit crew.

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The newest Hall of Fame class includes three gentlemen known for their skills on the track, one of the sport's most successful owners and a crew chief who changed the game.

Not that there weren't some initial concerns about how a pit crew from Stuart, Va., would bond with an English race team -- Ford engines powered the Lotus cars of director Colin Chapman -- and a Scottish driver. But those were pushed aside soon after the Wood Brothers team arrived in Indianapolis.

"We came up a week ahead to get familiar with the car and prepare the car for a pit stop. This was a foreign crew, and we didn't know how these guys were going to accept us," said Leonard, who on Feb. 8 officially will join his brother in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. "Ford wanted us to be there, but if [the regular team members] don't want you to be there, it's not going to work as good. But they rolled out the red carpet. They were happy we were there. They just turned the car over to us and let us prepare the car for the stop."

It was a different time, with different rules and a different kind of pit stop. Back then, cars at Indianapolis used treaded tires that were so sturdy, one pair typically lasted the whole race with plenty of tread left to spare. Since the cars got faster as more tread wore off, the Wood Brothers had no intention of changing tires. Their primary job was to fuel the vehicle, which they did using a typical bit of Wood Brothers ingenuity, moving the fueling ports up 12 inches off the bottom of the gas tanks. That allowed them to use gravity to fuel Clark's car rather than pressure, which was the standard practice at the time.

There were plenty of doubters. In the inspection line, a competitor saw the relocated fuel ports on the No. 82 car and offered to bet Leonard Wood that they couldn't get 20 gallons of gas in the tank in a minute. Wood didn't take the bet because he knew better. After inspection, Clark did a practice run and his NASCAR pit crew packed 58 gallons of fuel into the vehicle -- in 15 seconds.

During the race, Leonard Wood was on the outside of the car fueling one tank, while a cousin fueled the other side. Glen Wood and the other members of the team kept the fuel lines straight. "Clark, you just could just tell us was so on top of his game," Leonard said. "I told him, the hoses, if you stop short, they won't reach. If you overshoot it, it will buckle the hoses. He said, 'You just tell me where to stop.' He put it right on the money. And when we finished, the car was leaving just as I was clearing the front of the car."

The Woods also pitted Lotus driver Bobby Johns that day, but Clark was the priority, and with good reason. The once (and soon to be again) world champion was at his best, leading 189 of 200 laps and dominating the event. The Wood Brothers crew aided the effort by turning pit stops in the 17-second range, very fast for the time. Leonard Wood doesn't remember what times other pit crews were turning. "All I know is A.J. Foyt, he pitted, and when we pitted, we were lapping him," he said.

Foyt was Clark's toughest competition that day, but still no match. The Woods' fueling system was so effective that even the television commentators at the time were doubting how much gas they were getting into the car, assuming that Clark would have to make extra stops that never materialized. After the victory had been sealed, Chapman jumped over the pit wall and hugged the Wood Brothers on pit road.

This week, Wood is back at Indianapolis in a different capacity. To honor his recent selection to the Hall of Fame, his nephews Eddie and Len and niece Kim -- who now operate the Wood Brothers organization their father and uncle founded -- are fielding a No. 21 car with Leonard's face on the hood. In a salute to his role in Clark's Indianapolis 500 victory, the vehicle Trevor Bayne will drive is painted candy-apple red, the same hue as the Wood Brothers NASCAR entry in 1965.

"To remember Indianapolis years ago, and being up here in '65, and having your face on the front of the car 47 years later," Leonard said, "it's just awesome."