Wood Brothers Racing

Matt DiBenedetto: ‘No margin for error’ at Bristol Motor Speedway

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It will be a weird feeling for Matt DiBenedetto on Sunday.

He and the rest of the Cup Series will embark on a 500-mile race at Bristol Motor Speedway for the first true short-track race of the season.

It will be DiBenedetto’s first trip back to the hall-mile track since last August, when he came within 12 laps of earning his first Cup Series win. Instead, he finished second to Denny Hamlin in his best career finish. For DiBenedetto, Bristol represents the site of “probably one of the most defeating and toughest days of my life” and one of the “most rewarding.”

“It was a tough week on us, so there was a lot of not really feeling how to feel,” DiBenedetto said Friday in a Zoom press conference. “But ultimately it led to being a big factor in me getting this opportunity to drive the 21 car this year, so it was a big day and everything was meant to be.”

DiBenedetto enters his ninth race as the driver for Wood Brothers Racing.  But he’s not revisiting last year’s night race in his preparation for Sunday’s race (3:30 p.m. ET on FS1).

“It’s still that painful that I’ve never watched (it),” DiBenedetto said. “I can’t remember what lap, but I cut it off and I can’t even watch it.  It would be too much.

“But as far as what I’m gonna try to learn for this Sunday, I’m actually gonna go back and probably watch mostly 2018 stuff because, thank goodness, we have the low downforce back for Bristol, which will make the racing way, way better, so I’m excited about that.”

As with the first four races back amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Cup teams will get no practice before taking the green flag in “Thunder Valley.”

DiBenedetto said it has been “amazing” how cars have been able to fire off without any preparation, thanks to simulations and notes from previous races.

“The heights (on the car) and everything are usually pretty close, just because they have so much information to work (with),” DiBenedetto said.  “Really, it’s not too big of a deal.

“Actually, it’s even better than I thought just firing straight off in the race. The (competition) yellow and things like that help so you have a little time to adjust on your car and work on it, so they’ve done a good job with that.”

But Bristol is a different animal. DiBenedetto said the race will be “nerve-racking” without on-track preparation.

“Bristol, there’s just no margin for error.,” he said. “It’s really, really fast.  It’s an insanely fast short track.  You’re on edge already even when you have your car dialed in. … It’ll work out fine, for sure, but you just really are out and out praying that your car is dialed in right because it’s very sensitive.

“If you’re off just a little bit at Bristol, it can affect you worse than these tracks where it’s a big race track – a mile-and-a-half – and you don’t have to worry about going a lap down if you miss it or things like that, so this one will be a little bit more treacherous.”

DiBenedetto will be hoping to capture some of his Bristol magic from last year. Since finishing second at Las Vegas in February, DiBenedetto has finished better than 13th just once in the following six races, placing ninth in the second Darlington race.

After starting fourth Thursday night at Charlotte, he led 10 of the first 11 laps before ending the first stage in third, but finished 15th.

“Car speed is there and great and we’ve shown if we hit it or we’re close we can be up front at any of these races,” DiBenedetto said. “I’d say we’re not in our rhythm yet, but we will be. I have no doubt about that, but we’re still learning each other and making little mistakes figuring out each other’s communication.

“(Crew chief) Greg Erwin and I are figuring out working together and we still have a lot of room for improvement, which is a good thing because I know we can run up front and can contend for wins quite often. We have a lot of room for improvement on the execution side as far as putting our race together perfect from start to finish.”

Wood Brothers Racing wins first quarter NMPA Pocono Spirit Award

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Wood Brothers Racing has won the first quarter National Motorsports Press Association Pocono Spirit Award for charitable work in helping seniors in and around its home base of Stuart, Virginia.

The organization spearheaded a campaign to provide COVID-19 quarantined seniors in nursing homes and assisted living facilities — including Landmark Center and the Blue Ridge Therapy Center in Stuart, and 10 other facilities in the region — with electronic tablets to allow residents to communicate with family members.

Starting with $1,500 in seed funding, Wood Brothers Racing began a crowdfunding effort that raised $33,000 from contributions of $10 or more. That funding paid for 220 tablets for residents in those 12 facilities. More than 1,100 individuals contributed to the fundraising effort.

“We were shocked at the response we got,” Wood Brothers Racing senior vice president Jon Wood said in a statement. “I think everyone has some connection with a senior and many of those are in facilities that are affected.

“What we didn’t anticipate was the huge number of people wanting to contribute, and it just shows that we aren’t all that divided in a time of crisis.

“It was extremely gratifying to hear the stories since, how this helped ease some of the anxiety and stress from both the residents and the families. These people did nothing wrong. They managed to do something right in fact, that being to live to an age where they needed help, and so it seemed unfair for them to be cut off from the very people that give them comfort.

“Unfair because they were being protected from something many of them didn’t understand or weren’t able to fully grasp and the way they were going about being protected only added to their fears and frustrations. This just helped alleviate some of that, so in every way I can think of, it was a total success.”

Others receiving votes were:

* The Joey Logano Foundation, which teamed with Bobbee O’s BBQ and Elevation Church to provide free meals to children under 18 years old over a two-week period.

* Steve Myers, executive vice president and executive producer of iRacing, for spearheading an effort to bring virtual racing competition to a national audience during the pandemic.

* General Motors, which ramped up its assembly lines to produce personal protective gear for front-line workers and ventilators for patients in critical need during the pandemic.

The Pocono Spirit Award is voted upon by NMPA membership.

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How military service helped shape future careers in NASCAR

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Among major professional sports, NASCAR has had one of the longest and most meaningful relationships with the U.S. military.

That is most notable every Memorial Day weekend when for more than 30 years Charlotte Motor Speedway has honored present and former members of the military, especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

While fans and military members will not be in attendance for the 61st Coca-Cola 600 this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a modified version of the annual salute to the military will take place Sunday.

Even without fans and former and current military members in the stands, there will be a military presence at the track in the form of former service members who work for teams or in the sport.

Here are some of their stories:

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TIM CLARK

– Senior Vice President and Chief Digital Officer, NASCAR

– Military service: U.S. Army, 1994-98 (active duty) and 1998-2001 (reserves). Served as a specialist/armored crewman, primarily on tanks.

If anyone would ever try to strap Goodyear racing tires on an M1 Abrams tank, it likely would be Tim Clark.

“Driving an Abrams tank doesn’t translate into a career in digital media, no matter what they try and tell you. Tanks don’t maneuver quite as well (as a stock car),” Clark said with a laugh to NBC Sports.

Tim Clark takes a spin on an Abrams tank. (Photo courtesy Tim Clark)

After piloting tanks in places such as Fort Knox, Kentucky; Fort Riley, Kansas; Fort Irwin, California and Germany, Clark joined NASCAR in 2012.

He came from a military family. His father, grandfather and uncle all served. He joined shortly after graduating from high school.

“(Being in the military) taught me the value of organization and teamwork, being motivated and working on a cause greater than yourself,” Clark said. “Some of the lessons that I learned there are by far the most important things that I’ve been able to apply from a career standpoint, no doubt.”

Clark takes pride in how the Coke 600 has honored veterans over the years.

“I think the respect that’s shown is the best part for me,” Clark said. “The drivers meeting is a great example. You’ll have a ton of VIPs and celebrities introduced, but the standing ovations are almost always reserved for military members.

“Being able to see it from both sides and through two different lenses, it’s incredibly powerful and I’m thankful to have the opportunity not only to have been in the military but also to now work for a company that has so much respect for the military.”

Clark said being in the military serves as good preparation for civilian life. He can’t count the number of times soldiers have asked him how they can someday also work in NASCAR.

Tim Clark during his time in the Army. Photo courtesy Tim Clark.

“That is one of the most pleasant surprises of my time in the military,” Clark said. “The Army does a phenomenal job of preparing you to move into a civilian life and into a career. They help you with resumes, letters of recommendation and tips on how to apply what you’ve learned in the military into your careers and civilian life.”

Clark acknowledges that with fans and military missing, Sunday will be a strange feeling. But at the same time, he’s heartened that CMS and NASCAR will make sure service members and veterans are still honored.

“In an ideal world, we have not only troops at the track but the fans and everyone else out to enjoy the race,” he said. “But if the alternative is that we have a race that doesn’t have anyone in the stands and instead it’s just television entertainment, I think there’s a lot of value in that.

“Our ability to provide some entertainment and a distraction for not only the troops but for all NASCAR fans is top of mind for everyone. We’re doing that in a way that’s going to be the safest option for everyone.”

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TORREY GALIDA

– President, Richard Childress Racing

– Military service: U.S. Navy, 1984-90. Served as an intelligence officer

With three years as an intelligence officer on the U.S. Nimitz aircraft carrier and three years at the Pentagon, the skills Torrey Galida acquired — things like analysis, interpretation, direction and execution — laid a foundation that has carried over into nearly a quarter-century in automotive manufacturing and racing, eventually becoming president of Richard Childress Racing in 2014.

“It was all part of my grand plan,” Galida said with a laugh.

Torrey Galida went from an intelligence officer in the Navy to president of Richard Childress Racing. (Photo courtesy Torrey Galida)

Unlike some current members of the NASCAR community who went from high school into the military and eventually to college, Galida graduated from the University of Colorado, joined the Navy for six years and then earned an MBA from Duke University.

Galida went on to a lengthy stint as an executive with Ford, ran the pace car program for the Indianapolis 500, and was a key executive at Millsport Motorsports and Roush Fenway Racing before joining RCR as Chief Operating Officer in 2011.

Galida has never forgotten his military service. He sits on the board of the Defense Alliance of North Carolina and along with the support of team owner Richard Childress, began a unique program of involvement with veterans more than three years ago.

Before the pandemic, RCR hosted veterans on the first Wednesday of the month, providing coffee and doughnuts and guest speakers. Galida said the event would attract about 200 veterans each month.

“We’ve also done a couple of special events,” Galida said. “We did lunch last May to celebrate the 75th anniversary of D-Day and had over 1,200 people, including 64 World War II vets and five or six that actually participated in the invasion of Normandy.

“It was amazing to see all those people there and incredible to see that many World War II vets.”

RCR, which employs 24 veterans, also is involved in a number of other military initiatives, including an annual “military salutes” program with Dow Chemical Co. at Michigan International Speedway. The initiative features a stars-and-stripes paint scheme on Austin Dillon’s race car that includes the names of nearly 2,000 Dow and RCR employees or family members who are former service members.

“Even though I’ve been around this for 15 years,” Galida said, “it was really a pretty cool experience to see your name actually on the car.”

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DALE INMAN

– Retired NASCAR crew chief

– Military service: U.S. Army, 1959-61, Specialist E-4 ordnance specialist

Dale Inman is the most successful crew chief in NASCAR history, winning eight championships (seven with Richard Petty, Inman’s cousin, and one with Terry Labonte) and 171 races overall.

Inman started going to races with Richard and father Lee Petty in 1951, with several of those trips to Daytona Beach, Florida, for races on the sand.

Dale Inman was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2012. Photo: Getty Images.

After attending the last sanctioned race on the beach in 1958 and the first Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway in February 1959, the then 23-year-old Inman was drafted into the Army seven months later.

He served as an ordnance specialist, which oversees logistics. In Inman’s case, he oversaw the movement of trucks, deliveries and repairs.

Before Inman became a seven-time Daytona 500 winner with Petty, his Army tenure was fairly routine, with one exception.

Not surprisingly, it involved racing.

“In 1960, while in France, me and some friends in the Army went to Le Mans,” he recalled. “We took tents and camped out. We got there a day or two before the race and somehow we rode around the racetrack.

“One of the boys had a car over there and we went riding around the racetrack through the streets and by the houses, which were barriers (for the racetrack). It was unreal.”

Inman was discharged in 1961 and went to work as Petty’s crew chief after the 1963 season.

“There’s no question about how things I learned in the military helped me in civilian life, things like leadership, guidance or how to run a tight ship,” Inman said. “Whether in the Army or NASCAR, if you’ve got five or more people under you, you’ve got to have a leader, right?

Dale Inman, shortly after his arrival in France with the U.S. Army in 1960. (Photo: Dale Inman)

“And you’ve got to respect the leaders. When I became a crew chief, people did respect me and I certainly learned a lot from the military. You’ve got to be disciplined, you know.”

Another story Inman likes to tell is about how “one of my heroes” – a fellow soldier who served a few years before him and someone who would one day join him in the NASCAR Hall of Fame – didn’t exactly get as good of a deal in the military as Inman did.

“They extended (the tours of service of) certain people depending on their birthday,” Inman said. “I missed getting extended an extra year by seven days.

“But Leonard Wood (one of the patriarchs of Wood Brothers Racing) got extended and he had to stay in another year, which cut into his racing.”

Not surprisingly, Wood’s specialty in the Army was the same thing that would lead him to fame and fortune in NASCAR – being a mechanic.

These days, Inman is happily retired in his hometown of Level Cross, North Carolina, where he and Richard Petty grew up together. Inman fondly recalls what the military means to him, particularly all the years it has been tied to NASCAR.

“I still get a thrill when I see the flyovers at the racetrack,” he said. “Any time I’m at the racetrack and see a veteran in a wheelchair or on crutches or with lost limbs or anything, I go out of my way to go speak to them and thank them and carry on a conversation the best I can, and I think they appreciate it too.”

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RANDY FULLER

– PR representative for Brandon Jones and Joe Gibbs Racing

– Military service: U.S. Air Force (1975-78 and 1982-2004). Served as F-16 crew chief, PR specialist, security police and recruiter.

Part of Randy Fuller’s job has been to pass out various sponsor caps to team members for photos in victory lane when his driver wins – NASCAR’s so-called “hat dance.”

Randy Fuller on guard of Air Force One. (Photo courtesy Randy Fuller)

Fuller couldn’t be more suited for that role, as he’s worn many hats in his career, including a 26-year tenure in the U.S. Air Force.

After graduating from high school, Fuller went from being a security police officer to F-16 crew chief to recruiter (he led a team of over 1,200) and marketing and public relations specialist.

He earned several of the Air Force’s most prestigious awards for his service, including for leadership and was named one of 12 Outstanding Airmen of the Year in 1997.

Between his military stints, he also served as a police officer – both full-time and part-time – from Georgia to Utah to Niagara Falls.

Just days after retiring from the Air Force at the end of 2004, Fuller began wearing another cap, that of a NASCAR public relations person.

Over the years, Fuller, 62, has worked with a number of NASCAR notables while overseeing the Air Force’s NASCAR program, including Dale Jarrett, Wood Brothers Racing, Elliot Sadler and Ricky Rudd.

Shortly before he was due to retire from the U.S. Air Force a second time, then-Chief Master Sergeant Fuller was tracked down in San Antonio, Texas by NASCAR team owner Jack Roush to become a public relations person for an up-and-coming driver named Carl Edwards.

Fuller would hold that role for more than 10 years.

While Fuller took Edwards under his wing, he also treated him like a staff sergeant – in a good way.

“I’d only been working at Roush for like three weeks when we had a conversation,” Fuller said. “Carl goes, ‘Why do you always take your sunglasses off when you talk to me?’ I said, ‘Because you can tell a lot by people’s eyes and they can tell a lot by yours. It’s just a matter of respect. That’s what we did in the military.’

“Carl did that ever since. He just picked it up and embraced it. If you notice, Brandon Jones is doing that now, too.”

Since Edwards’ retirement in 2016, he still speaks with Fuller weekly while the latter has gone on to rep a number of promising young drivers including Christopher Bell, Ryan Preece, Kyle Benjamin and Jones.

“It’s pretty neat to mentor people,” Fuller said. “Between the Air Force and NASCAR, there’s so many similarities that you can’t even believe.

“But I think the biggest thing is the team. You can’t just fly an F-16. That pilot is just like the driver. You can’t fly it without the rest of the team refueling it, pre-flight, that kind of stuff, right? Same thing in NASCAR. You’ve got people that never even get recognized that are back in the shop, never go to the track. And these guys are probably some of the most important people besides the driver.”

Fuller has taken part in Charlotte Motor Speedway’s annual Salute to the Troops for more than 20 years, both while in the Air Force and as a team PR rep.

“The pride is huge,” Fuller said. “The hair on the back of my neck still stands up when a flyby goes across.”

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EARL BARBAN

– Spotter for Jimmie Johnson

– Military service: U.S. Marines (reserves) 1982-88. Served as a truck driver.

If Jimmie Johnson was a general in the military, you might say Earl Barban would be his soldier in charge of recon.

Earl Barban (Photo: Earl Barban)

A member of the U.S. Marine Reserves for six years, since his discharge in 1988, Barban has been one of the top spotters in NASCAR.

The 55-year-old Barban has been Johnson’s eyes in the sky for five (2006, 2009, 2010, 2013 and 2016) of the latter’s record-tying seven Cup championships.

He’s also served as spotter during in Xfinity for Chase Elliott (Barban and his wife also drive Elliott’s motor home to and from races), William Byron and Tyler Reddick, as well as Noah Gragson. Elliott, Byron and Reddick won series titles with  Barban.

He was a truck driver in the Marines, a role Barban carried over to civilian life for nearly a decade with Team Penske, piloting haulers for Rusty Wallace, Bobby Allison, Al Holbert, Danny Sullivan, Rick Mears and Emerson Fittipaldi.

“I think my work ethic probably was a huge thing that transferred from the military to privately and personally career-wise,” Barban said. “Whatever the job or task at hand was, you’d just go ahead and do what you had to do to get it finished.”

Being in the military also instilled focus in the St. Louis native.

“My dad used to make fun of me that I had 21 jobs and 21 cars before I was 21 years old, everything from wiring the electric meter that goes on your house to putting the ball on Ban roll-on, mop buckets, making the blades for can openers, Steak n’ Shake hamburger flipper, rental cars and brick laying,” Barban laughed. “But it’s been 32 years in racing since then.”

Part of what led to Barban’s first job with Team Penske, followed by Hendrick Motorsports, Robert Yates Racing and then back to HMS was the spit-and-polish routine he learned in the Marines.

“When you when you walk in, I think there’s a presence: clean cut, (shirt) tucked away pretty nice, pleated pants and polished boots,” Barban said. “I feel like that definitely translated into my private life after having that experience.

“I think that any person that has any military background whatsoever is definitely a good hire.”

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Original Wood Brother, Ray Lee Wood, dies at 92

Ray Lee Wood
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Ray Lee Wood, one of the original members of Wood Brothers Racing, died this week at the age of 92.

The third son of J. Walter and Ada Wood, Ray Lee joined his brothers, Glen, Clay, Delano and Leonard, in forming NASCAR’s longest running race team in the early 1950s. He was part of the efforts that would win the 1963 Daytona 500, the 1965 Indianapolis 500 and the inaugural American 500 at North Carolina Speedway at Rockingham in 1965.

Wood changed the front tires and helped prep the cars that were driven by Glen and other NASCAR legends.

He took his turn behind the wheel as well. In 1958, on the sands of Daytona Beach, Ray Lee hit 142 miles per hour on the measured mile in a hopped-up street car, topping the speed chart for that day.

“Ray Lee could have been a race driver as well as Glen,” Leonard Wood said in a media release.

When the Wood Brothers won the car owner’s championship in 1963, Ray Lee was the listed car owner of record and the championship trophy bears his name.

Ray Lee felt “the calling of the Lord” in 1965 and he left racing behind at the end of the year, but not before Curtis Turner won in Ray Lee’s final race with the team on Oct. 31 at Rockingham.

“Ray never went back to the track after 1965, but he supported us all the way and always followed our races on the radio or TV,” Leonard Wood said. “He was a great brother and a great all-around person.

“I can’t say enough good words about him.”

April 18 in NASCAR: John Andretti’s spectacular Martinsville drive

Photo by Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images)
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No greater authority than Richard Petty, a winner at Martinsville Speedway a record 15 times himself, put the seal of approval on John Andretti’s stirring Cup win at the historic half-mile track on April 18, 1999.

“It looked like the good old times,” Petty said.

Andretti overcame an early spin that put him a lap down and charged past Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton in the final laps to win. Andretti completed a sweep for Petty Enterprises that weekend after Jimmy Hensley won the Truck race for the team the day before. Andretti’s win marked the first Cup victory for Petty Enterprises at Martinsville in 20 years.

Andretti started 21st and spun on Lap 48 after he was hit from behind by Ward Burton. Andretti passed leader Jeff Gordon on Lap 135 to get back on the lead lap and began working his way through the field.

A key moment came when the field pitted on Lap 383 of the 500-lap race. Andretti entered 11th and exited fourth after taking two tires. He trailed only Gordon, Mark Martin and Burton.

“I’d been begging for (two tires) all day because I wanted track position, and I wanted to get up there and fight,” Andretti said that day.

Said Gordon afterward: “I’m sure he didn’t take two tires at the end. There’s no way.”

Andretti was third with 50 laps to go, trailing only Gordon and Burton. Andretti passed Gordon for second with 12 laps to go. That left only Andretti’s close friend, Burton, for the win. Andretti charged while ignoring a vibration with the car.

Andretti ran underneath Burton on Lap 494 and they ran side by side for much of two laps before Andretti got by.

“I’ll never forget coming around and taking the checkered flag at Martinsville,” Andretti said that day.

Andretti died Jan. 30 after a lengthy battle with cancer. He was 56.

Also on this date:

1954: Herb Thomas won at Hillsboro, North Carolina, one of a series-high 12 victories he scored that season.

1960: Glen Wood led all 200 laps to score the victory at Bowman Gray Stadium, marking the first win for Wood Brothers Racing in what would become the Cup Series.

1970: Richard Petty led the final 349 laps to win the Gwyn Staley 400 at North Wilkesboro Speedway. He was the only driver to complete all 400 laps.

1982: Dale Earnhardt scored the first of his nine career wins at Darlington Raceway.

2009: Mark Martin won at Phoenix, tallying his third victory in the first eight races of the season. He went on to win five times and finish second in the points.