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Garage Series: Racing history in rural Virginia

July 09, 2013, Kenny Bruce,

Tucked away behind the trees of a small town, the Wood family history is rooted

Second in a series: traces the evolution of race shops throughout the years.

STUART, Va. -- A branch of the Mayo River flows behind the building here on the corner of Mayo Court and Dobyns Road.

The 'creek-side shop.' (Courtesy of Wood Brothers Racing)

The proximity of the easy-flowing waterway led its owners and employees to refer to the structure simply as the “creekside shop.”

Officially, it was known as Wood Brothers Racing to anyone and everyone in and around this tiny area tucked away in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

From 1956 through the summer of 1995, cars rolling out of its doors won 96 times in what is now the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

Leonard (L) and Glen Wood (R) roll a car from the garage. (Getty Images)

Legendary drivers wheeled the familiar red and white No. 21 Ford into Victory Lane through the years. Foyt, Panch, Gurney, Yarborough and Pearson to name a few.

It is a shop like few others.

“I traded 68 acres of mountain land for it,” says Glen Wood, 87, the founder of the legendary NASCAR team and a talented driver in his own right. “If we had kept the land, well, it’s grown enough timber to pay for the shop.”

It was a simple transaction, but laid the groundwork for one of the most successful organizations in the sport today.

• • •

Like many teams that can trace their lineage back to the early days of NASCAR, Wood Brothers Racing had humble beginnings.

The roots of the legendary team are found elsewhere, about a 10-minute drive from the corner the team called home for so long. Just out the Woolwine Highway, past an area known as Buffalo Ridge and then left on Ivy Road.

It’s here that you’ll find the beech tree still standing guard at the edge of the yard, its towering presence softened by the sounds of the stream that runs alongside.

Cale Yarborough (C) with (from left to right)
Clay, Glen, Leonard and Delano Wood. (Getty Images)

The home it watches over, a simple white frame house, sits in the background at the foot of the hill.

“When we pulled the engine out, we’d swing a chain over that big limb there,” says Glen. “That tree doesn’t seem to have grown that much since then …”

All five Wood brothers -- Glen, Leonard, Delano, Clay and Ray Lee -- grew up here. Ray Lee still calls it home.

Racing intrigued Glen Wood, a sawmill operator who eventually took the plunge and, with the help of boyhood friend Chris Williams, became a co-owner and a driver.

“We only worked here a year or two,” he says. “And at one time, we had a two-car garage here by the tree.

“My daddy worked at a garage … we took the car over there sometime. You actually raced the car sort of like it was, you didn’t do a whole lot to it and it wasn’t that hard to keep up.”

His first car number was 50 “because it was 1950 and we paid $50 for it,” Wood says.

In one of the more memorable beginnings in the sport, Wood wrecked in his first start. His car caught fire and burned as it was being towed home.

Wood might have been discouraged after his fiery beginning, but he was equally determined. He eventually bought out his partner, and the check -- for $2,500 and dated Nov. 12, 1958 -- can be seen in the Wood Brothers Racing museum.

In 1958, Glen Wood became the sole owner of the shop and team. (Courtesy of Wood Brothers Racing)

The split was amicable. Racing was far from lucrative. “It wasn’t enough money for two people to live on,” Wood says of the early buyout.

“I guess I just asked him if he wanted to sell his part (and) he agreed. A few months after I had bought it, I wondered to myself, ‘What did I do that for?’ When I had him as a partner, he had to pay half of what we lost. All of a sudden it was just me.”

• • •

By the 1960s, NASCAR had taken hold, and the sport of stock car racing was changing. What had begun more than a decade earlier as an eight-race series had grown into a series that often consisted of 50 or more races a year sprinkled across the country.

Dirt was slowly giving way to asphalt, both on the track and in the race shop.

Working in the Wood Brothers Racing shop. (Getty Images)

And race cars were no longer taken straight from the dealership to the track without any preparation. Parts that couldn’t withstand the furious pounding were either strengthened or replaced with heavy-duty pieces. It would be a few years before teams began building the cars from the ground up, as is the case today. Roll bars had yet to give way to roll cages.

In and around the South, new teams and new owners were sprouting up, joining others that had already become established. Holman-Moody, one of the most dominant organizations of its era, had launched in 1957, and by the 1960s cars fielded by the Charlotte-based team had begun to show up in the winner’s circle on a consistent basis.

Over in Spartanburg, S.C., Bud Moore Engineering was up and running, while the Daytona Beach area had seen the arrival of fabled teams run by such men as Smokey Yunick and Ray Fox. And by the mid-'60s, a fellow named Junior Johnson was setting up shop in his Ingle Hollow, N.C., backyard, having given up driving for ownership.

Corporate America hadn’t taken notice and what sponsorship existed at the time often came from local businesses. Detroit, on the other hand, had slowly begun to return after a brief flirtation with the sport some years earlier. The automakers weren’t cash cows, but their growing supplies of parts and pieces helped keep the sport moving forward.

A transformation was underway. And Wood Brothers Racing was doing everything it could to keep up.

• • •

“At that time,” Wood says, “I guess most everybody that was in racing had something similar.”

The original creek-side shop, at roughly 2,400 square feet, would be considered modest by today’s standards. But over time, as the sport continued to grow, Wood Brothers Racing grew as well.

The old Wood Brothers Racing shop.
(Courtesy of Wood Brothers Racing)

Before the team packed up and moved across town in the fall of 1995, the shop had been expanded some 17 times, according to Wood, and the floor space topped out at 17,000 square feet.

Although they didn’t start running a full schedule until much later, the Wood Brothers team didn’t lack for the necessary equipment required to race competitively.

“See that opening?” asks Len Wood, Glen’s youngest son. “On the other side of that wall was the dyno room. We had what was called a Go-Power Dyno. And we just ran the tailpipes out through the wall there. … You could hear it two miles from here.”

There aren’t a lot of houses nearby, but the roar of a dyno running wide open didn’t go unnoticed.

“It wasn’t but one (neighbor) that complained about it but she really did,” Glen Wood says. “She done some of the worst cussing you ever heard anybody do.”

Today, Len and siblings Eddie and Kim oversee the Wood Brothers Racing effort.

The team has moved its racing operation twice since leaving the old creek-side site, and currently operates just outside of Charlotte.

Stuart, however, will always be home.

“A lot happened at that creek-side shop,” Len says. “In 1979 we had a flood. It was Martinsville race weekend and it rained and rained and rained. It washed out the back wall … the water probably got 10 feet high. Basically it washed everything out of the basement.”

“There was a car parked out there, just up the road,” Glen Wood adds. “And we just watched it go floating down the river.”

The skies have darkened and a light rain has begun to fall as the car pulls back out onto the highway, away from the once-plain block building. History fades in the rearview mirror.

“We had a lot of winners,” the elder Wood says, “come out of this place.” writer Kenny Bruce is the president of the National Motorsports Press Association. For more of the Garage Series return to the Mobil 1 Technology Hub in the coming weeks.

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