Speedy Thompson

Bowman-Gray Stadium
(Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

‘The Madhouse’ and the Wood Brothers’ first Cup win 60 years ago

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Leonard Wood has been to a lot of race tracks and seen a lot of things.

Sixty years ago this weekend, he stood near the guardrail at Bowman Gray Stadium and watched his brother, Glen Wood, beat a handful of fellow future NASCAR Hall of Famers to earn Wood Brothers Racing’s first Cup Series win.

In a sign of the times, Glen led all 200 laps around the short track in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, nicknamed “The Madhouse.”

“I watched (Glen) run and enjoyed how he was in and out of traffic, working traffic and leading every lap of it. So fun to watch your brother go out and beat everybody like that,” Leonard told NBC Sports. “You could just come right to the guardrail and watch them come in. I learned more about handling at Bowman Gray than any other one race track because you’d stand at that guardrail and watch the car come in the corner, you’d watch it drive through the middle and then you’d watch it drive off.

“The changes you’d make, (you’d see) right in front of your eyes. You could see the suspension and how it worked. Great place to learn as a young kind trying to figure it all out.”

WINSTON-SALEM, NC: Glen Wood at Bowman Gray Stadium in the early 1950s during weekly NASCAR modified and sportsman racing. (Photo by ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images)

The brothers from Stuart, Virginia, had been visiting the track since the early 50s, competing in modifieds, convertibles and NASCAR’s top division.

Leonard detailed his brother’s driving style that helped him lead every lap that day and in two more Grand National races at Bowman Gray that year, on June 25 and Aug. 23, for a total of 600 laps led.

“(Glen) had just a technique of how he passed on the outside,” Leonard said. “What he would do (is get his) left-front fender up to the outside of (the other car’s) right-rear fender and he’d hold it tight against the guy.

“(Glen) wouldn’t be like a foot or two away from him. He’d hold it tight against him to even touching him. When he’d come off the corner, he’d inch up another foot. Then the next lap he’d inch up another foot and then once he got up beside of him, he’d just blend out and away he went. Just give a guy all the room he needs, but to hold it tight against him, it kind of messes him up too, it slows him down.”

Using that method in the April 18 race, Glen beat Rex White, Jimmy Massey, Richard Petty and Ned Jarrett. In June, he beat Lee Petty and White. In August, he topped Lee Petty and Junior Johnson as he lapped the field.

An ad in the High Point Enterprise newspaper promoting the Grand National race Glen Wood would get his first career win in.

By the time Glen retired from racing a few years later, he had 29 wins at Bowman Gray in modifieds, convertibles and the Cup Series.

“I liked the flatter tracks,” Glen said in 2010, nine years before he passed away at 93.  “If you got your car handling good, you could beat people without trying too hard.”

Another level to Glen’s dominance at “The Madhouse” in 1960 is what the Woods were competing against.

Their blue Ford Fairlane, which had the No. 16 on it, had a bolt-on hard top which could be removed to transform it into the convertible it spent most of its time as.

While they were racing a 1958 Ford, every other driver in the top five of the April race was piloting a 1959 or 1960 model car.

How Glen Wood’s first Grand National win was covered in the April 19, 1960 sports section of the Charlotte Observer (newspapers.com).

To emphasize how well that No. 16 performed, Leonard recalled a visit with it to Martinsville Speedway.

Glen was pulling out of the pits when Marvin Panch drove by in a 1959 Ford. Panch passed him going down the backstretch. With Glen still on his warm-up lap and Panch exiting Turn 2, Glen caught him and passed him on the backstretch.

There were two keys to the car’s power. One was its lightness, a product of the Woods tending to build their cars from the remains of vehicles that had been in fires, which burned the heavy soundproofing materials located in the door panels.

Second, it was a low rider.

“Nobody really seemed to think about how low you could get your car,” Leonard said. “We had it just as low as you could get it suspension-wise. There was no limit, you know with the height rule. … I always liked it as low as we could get it.”

Sixty years and 98 Cup wins later, the Wood Brothers are synonymous with with the No. 21 on the side of their Ford cars. But they wouldn’t take that numeral to Victory Lane for the first time in the Cup Series until six months later when Speedy Thompson won at Charlotte Motor Speedway for their first speedway win.

Leonard explained how the No. 21 became their permanent number (aside from using the No. 7 in 1986 as part of a 7-11 sponsorship).

The first race car they ever had was labeled with the No. 50. But after being involved in a wreck that burned the car, they rebuilt it and placed the No. 16 on it, the number Glen won with in 1960.

(L-R) Curtis Turner, Leonard Wood, Earl Parker of the Champion Spark Plug Company, and Glen Wood look over an engine at a NASCAR Cup race in 1961. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

“When we started running convertibles, we was running 22,” Leonard said. “Fireball Roberts had the hard top running the 22. When they’re running (convertibles and hard tops) together, the convertible had to change the number. The hardtops had priority. So we put 21 on it and left it.”

While there was no sentiment behind the decision that led to the No. 21 becoming one of NASCAR’s most iconic numbers, Leonard got a little sentimental when asked if it felt like six decades had passed since the Wood Brothers’ first Cup win.

“In some ways it does, in some it don’t,” he said. “It feels like it’s been a long time. I get to looking at things, looking at the (team) museum (in Stuart, Virginia), the history of the Wood Brothers and just think everyday about Glen and I, how much fun we had and what all we did starting out. You didn’t have a lot of money and you just had to make your parts … just how far we’ve come since we started.”

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There’s no racing going on amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but that’s not keeping Leonard from staying active at home.

“I design remote control cars,” he said. “I’ve been doing that for a long time. I’m catching up on a lot of that right now.”

Like the cars he tinkered with in his days at Bowman Gray Stadium, they have quite a bit of power. His 1/10th scale cars “run like 70 mph … Like full 2.5 horsepower. That’s a lot of horsepower for a little car.”

With COVID-19 being particularly harmful to people in his age range, the 85-year-old former crew chief “don’t want to take no chances on that.”

Whenever he goes out, Leonard wears a double-canistered mask, “like you use at a paint booth.

“If I have to go out to get groceries, post office or bank or anything, I put a double-canistered mask on. Whenever I take it off, I spray it with Lysol.

“Another thought is, if you go somewhere and you’re a little worried about where you been, spray the inside of your car with Lysol and close the doors when you park it.”

You heard the man, stay safe.

April 12 in NASCAR: Hurt Allison holds off Wallace at North Wilkesboro

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On April 12, 1992, Davey Allison was playing hurt and driving an overhauled race car.

Even that wasn’t enough to keep Allison out of victory lane for the spring race at North Wilkesboro.

The race came a week after Allison hurt a shoulder in a crash at Bristol Motor Speedway.

With Jimmy Hensley on standby in case Allison needed to be relieved, Allison started seventh in a car crew chief Larry McReynolds had “pretty much rebuilt” overnight, swapping out four shocks, three springs and the sway bar, according to the next day’s Charlotte Observer.

Hensley was never needed and Allison’s car proved reliable.

The Robert Yates Racing driver took the lead for the first time on Lap 313 when his team got him off pit road first ahead of Rusty Wallace.

They would do it again on Lap 346 and the remaining 50 green flag laps saw Wallace give chase after Allison.

It would prove futile as Allison edged Wallace by .15 seconds to claim his second win of the year following his Daytona 500 victory.

His shoulder wasn’t the only thing bothering Allison over the course of the afternoon.

“My left leg starting cramping real bad in my thigh and my calf (during the last caution) and I couldn’t stretch my leg out, so I couldn’t rub either one of them to get them worked out,” Allison told ESPN. “I just kept mashing on the foot rest down here and it finally went away. When they threw the green flag it was just take care of the race car and take care of myself the rest of the day.”

The victory was the 11th straight Cup win for Ford dating back to 1991. Ford would win two more races before Dale Earnhardt put an end to the streak in the Coca-Cola 600.

Also on this date:

1952: Buck Baker won a 100-mile race in Columbia, South Carolina. During the race, driver E.C. Ramsey crashed into a passenger car as it tried to cross the track during the race, according to “Forty Years of Stock Car Racing: The Beginning.” Ramsey then climbed from his vehicle and ran over to the passenger car, where he proceeded to beat up its intoxicated driver until the police intervened.

1958: A night after they finished 1-2 in a race in Columbia, Speedy Thompson and Jack Smith repeated the effort in a race at Piedmont Interstate Fairgrounds in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

1970: Pete Hamilton led the final 17 laps to win at Talladega. At one point in the race, Cale Yarborough drove for five laps without a windshield after his Wood Brothers Racing removed it. It had been damaged when a fan on the backstretch threw a beer bottle and it impacted on the windshield. “I had to cover my nose and my mouth with one hand so I could breathe,” Yarborough said according to “Forty Years of Stock Car Racing: Big Bucks and Boycotts.”

1981: It was a day for notable firsts at Darlington Raceway. Bill Elliott started from his first of 55 career Cup poles in the CRC Chemicals Rebel 500. It also saw the first outing of Harry Gant as the driver of Hal Needham’s Skoal Bandit car. It would become a permanent pairing four races later at Dover.

March 31 in NASCAR: Fireball Roberts wins after switching teams

Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images
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It’s one thing to switch teams at the end of the season and even during the season but in March? Just barely a few races into the season?

Fireball Roberts began the 1963 Grand National season with Banjo Matthews, running five races with Matthews before switching to Holman-Moody Racing before the Southeastern 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway on March 31, 1963.

With his new team, Roberts went out and won the 500-lap race, finishing ahead of Fred Lorenzen, the only other driver to run every lap. Junior Johnson was third, finishing three laps behind the leaders. Richard Petty was fourth, five laps behind Roberts. Only 12 of the 35 cars that started were running at the end.

Roberts went on to win three more times for Holman-Moody that season. He ran nine races with the team in 1964 before dying from injuries he suffered in the 1964 World 600.

Also on this date:

1957: Buck Baker won at Asheville-Weaverville Speedway in Asheville, North Carolina. He led the final 96 laps in the 200-lap race and was the only driver to complete the full distance. Runner-up Speedy Thompson finished a lap behind.

1996: Jeff Gordon won the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway for the second consecutive year. He would go on to win the track’s spring race four consecutive seasons.