With another racing season in the books, it’s natural to begin looking back on the highs and lows of the year.
Most years, the highs outnumber the lows, and this year was no exception.
Among the personal highs this year are a quality one-on-one interview with Jeff Gordon back at the first Bristol race, some reminiscing with Bill Elliott about the days before he ever drove a Cup car and several afternoons spent in the Nationwide Series garage, visiting with crew chiefs like Ricky Pearson and Tony Eury Sr., down-home folks who have been around for years but remain as passionate about competition as anyone who ever applied for a NASCAR hard card.
But the best experience of the racing season for me came as a result of a side trip to Virginia, to see a beekeeper.
The beekeeper in this case was Ray Lee Wood, one of the original Wood Brothers of NASCAR fame.
Wood lives on his family’s home place, in a neat white, wood-frame, tin-roofed farmhouse. The entire farmstead is neat and well-tended, looking much the same as it likely did 50 or more years ago.
We sat in the shade of a giant beech tree, near a spring and talked about keeping bees, raising beans, reading the Bible and about auto racing.
Ray Lee Wood gets the same twinkle in his eyes that his brother Leonard does when the subject of long-ago racing adventures comes up. But Wood wasn’t a full-time racer like his brothers Glen and Leonard. He ran a bulldozer during the week and was one of the team’s tire changers on the weekends.
Still, he worked with some of the legends in the sport and was a member of the Wood Brothers crew that helped send Jim Clark to victory in the 1965 Indianapolis 500.
It was on that trip to Indy that Ray Lee Wood’s life changed forever.
“When we were up there in Indiana, I felt the calling of the Lord,” Wood said. “He had something else for me to do.”
It was the same calling his brother Delano, the Woods’ long-time jack man, felt, and one that led to his retirement from racing at the end of the 1983 season.
Ray Lee Wood stayed on the family crew through the 1965 season and ended his career with one of the most memorable races in NASCAR history. It was at Rockingham, in the track’s inaugural race. Wood’s old friend Curtis Turner, who had been reinstated by NASCAR after a long suspension but was considered over the hill by many, won the 500 miler that day.
Wood’s never been back to a race track since that fall day at Rockingham, but he does watch enough racing on TV to keep up with the No. 21 Ford that he helped make famous.
He now spends his Sundays in the Pentecostal Holiness church just down from his home in Buffalo Ridge, Va., just north of the Stuart, where the family’s race team was based before moving to Charlotte a few years back.
But he still cherishes the memories he has of his racing days and of his experiences with people like Curtis Turner who were the backbones of the sport in the early days.
Although Turner’s reputation was that of a hard-partying type, he and Wood were close friends.
“Curtis was something else,” Wood said. “If he liked you, you really had a friend.”
On many a race weekend, Wood would hitch a ride home from the races in Turner’s airplane so he could be back at work in his grading business on Monday morning.
The stories of Turner’s exploits with airplanes are almost as legendary as his prowess behind the wheel of a race car. But Wood said his flights with Turner were uneventful, for the most part.
“One time when we were coming home from Pennsylvania, Curtis got a little sleepy,” Wood recalled, smiling and chuckling as he told the story. “He said, ‘Don’t let me go to sleep.’
“I told him, ‘Don’t worry, I’m not going to let you go to sleep.’ ”
They landed safely.
Although Wood, now 82 and still a bachelor, has experienced life in the fast lane, he also appreciates the simpler life he’s led for many years, a life spent on the quiet country lane where he grew up.
“There’s just something about this old home place,” Wood said, adding that while he lives alone he’s never lonely.
“The Lord’s always there, and you can always talk to him,” he said.
Rick Minter is a veteran, award-winning sports journalist who joined The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1991 covering motorsports as well as serving as a bureau chief. From 2000-2008 Minter focused on racing exclusively, traveling the NASCAR circuit as the paper’s motorsports writer. Rick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.