Published September 18, 2012
It is a family tree in the greatest sense of the description.
Its scientific name is fagus grandifolia – not exactly a regal tag. Civilians know it as the American Beech tree, generally found up and down the East Coast from Maine to northern Florida.
Of all the millions of its species from across much of the continent, this one grew to maturity – and grows still – along a small creek that rolls through Buffalo Ridge, a mountain valley community near Stuart, Va.
Although its size – 80 feet high and a limb span of 100 feet – and its age – probably 150 years – are impressive, this particular beech has a place in history because its strong lower limb, one that stretches almost across the creek and toward the old Wood family homeplace, literally supported what became one of the most famous auto racing teams in the world.
Wood Brothers Racing grew from these roots.
The relatively small, white-clapboard farmhouse along Highway 8 was home for Walter and Ada Wood and their five sons – Glen, Ray Lee, Clay, Delano, Leonard – and a daughter, Crystal. They were hard-working, church-going folk, well known in and around Stuart and up and down the valley as solid, salt-of-the-earth citizens.
But the boys – they liked fast cars. There was ragtag racing nearby, and Glen soon found himself drawn to the activity – a far cry from the tractors and trucks of the farm and another life he already had begun – as a sawmill operator.
The boys hammered together an old 1938 Ford coupe and had nowhere to test it to see how fast it might go. Except, well, there was Highway 8 right in front of the house. It’s a typical twisting mountain road – a little wider now than then, but there are a couple of relatively long, straight stretches running along Buffalo Ridge not far from the Woods’ front yard.
In the dark of night, this is where Glen Wood, in 1950, made the first fast runs on a long trip that would lead far out of the Virginia hill country and on to Daytona, Indianapolis and motorsports capitals of every stripe.
“I came down through here wide open with that thing,” remembered Wood, now 87, stressing that it really wasn’t that dangerous because traffic in those days in the backcountry was negligible. And other folks weren’t out that late at night, anyway.
“If you had a good car, you could run 95 down through there.”
They had good cars. (Still do).
But, back at the farmhouse, sometimes the engine had to be dismantled and doctored. This meant pulling it out of the coupe, and here the big beech tree came into play.
“We hung a chain over the limb and hoisted it,” Wood said. “It was the only way we had to get the engine out. We didn’t have a skyhook or anything. You did what you had to do.”
There was no garage, no workshop. After a few months of tinkering in the shade of the beech, the boys built a small two-car shed under the tree, and there the legend of the Wood Brothers began growing, even as the tree at the root of it all reached toward the sky, fed by a nearby spring.
Glen ran race cars throughout the 1950s, riding the early wave of interest in this fledgling thing called NASCAR and figuring out that he could drive as well as any of the other country boys who were firing up old jalopies and challenging their neighbors to a run. With younger brother Leonard’s mechanical help and with the other brothers pitching in, Glen built a reputation as a winner.
He still worked the sawmill – there was little to no money in racing at the time, but, by the arrival of the 1960s, it had become clear that fast cars could carry the Woods to much bigger things than the timber in the surrounding mountains might provide.
“I was racing and sawing at the same time,” Glen said. “It got to where timber was a right good ways away. You had to go somewhere to find it. I was doing pretty good racing.”
Wood sold the sawmill, and the boys moved from one race shop to another – each time bigger and better – as they began to turn the tiny town of Stuart into a Southern racing capital.
Now, seven decades into Wood Brothers Racing, the family is resting between NASCAR Hall of Fame inductions. Glen, the patriarch, went in with the last class. Leonard, the mechanical wizard who, it is said, could build an engine from a paper clip, goes in with the next group.
The enterprise that started on an isolated valley farm is known across international borders as one of the most storied organizations in motorsports and is treasured in NASCAR as a bedrock team that, after Glen, gave history-making rides to David Pearson, A.J. Foyt, Cale Yarborough, Curtis Turner, Dan Gurney, Neil Bonnett and a long list of other racing notables.
The team’s history is practically a template for a look at NASCAR through the years. This became exceptionally clear to members of the family’s second generation of racers – Glen’s sons, Eddie and Len – when their father was voted into the NASCAR Hall. Glen’s election started the sons on a deep and wide search for every available piece of Wood Brothers Racing history, and they unearthed enough to not only rekindle their interest in the family’s long motorsports story but also to restore and rehabilitate the team’s historic artifacts, including photographs from across the years.
Some of it was readily available. The Woods opened a team museum in Stuart in the mid-1990s, and Glen had decorated its walls with dozens of photographs of winning race cars and team drivers. But the Hall of Fame election demanded a search for the best stuff out there, and that continuing project – with Leonard scheduled to join his brother in the Hall next year – put new life in Wood Brothers Racing history for the second generation.
And, oddly, the fact that the team has been racing only part-time in Sprint Cup, largely because of sponsorship issues, gave Eddie and Len, who now run the team along with their sister, Kim, more time to appreciate all that had gone before them and to put new supports under the history.
“I’ve always liked old racing history, but Dad getting elected to the Hall of Fame – all of a sudden that brought it to the front,” Eddie said. “We had to get stuff together – the best stuff – for his exhibit. That kind of started it. If we didn’t do something with what we had and what was out there, it probably would never happen.”
So the gathering of artifacts began, and so much stuff was assembled that it became tough to choose the best. Too, there was the virtual certainty that Leonard soon would follow his brother into the Hall, so decisions had to be made about what went in the Glen “stack” and what related more closely to his brother.
These were pleasant problems to have.
And getting the stories behind everything proved to provide some of the best parts of the adventure. Eddie and Len knew some of them, of course, having been raised in the family operation and having been around their father and uncle from daylight to beyond dark on most days for most of their lives, but still there were gaps and stories untold.
“We’ve learned more about their history in the last two or three years than we did the first 50,” said Len, 56. “I wouldn’t take anything for the last few years. If we had been racing full time, we wouldn’t have had time for all that we’ve done.”
He and Eddie, 60, drove their father to Michigan last year for a reunion of sorts with Ford Racing officials and, along the way, heard story after story about racing’s early years, the team’s hardscrabble beginnings and how the brothers stretched a dollar into twice its size.
Among the results of the sons’ renewed interest in the team history is a sort of extension of the Wood Brothers Racing Museum into the adjacent shop, where huge photographs of key moments in the No. 21’s history adorn the walls. Eddie Wood has sifted through thousands of images to pick the appropriate shots to enlarge and put on display, and there are many more to come.
“The photos got out of hand pretty quick,” he said. “But there’s so much. People, particularly older people who remember some of the earlier stuff, will come in here and just stand and stare at them. Some of them will tell us they remember being there when such and such happened.
“There’s so many things we want to do with all this, and we’ve got a long way to go.”
There’s also racing to do, of course, and that’s another unique part of the Wood Brothers story. The team left its home in Stuart in 2004 to move to the Charlotte area to be closer to NASCAR’s hub. It was a tough choice but one the family found necessary because of the modern realities of the sport.
Still, though, “home” is Stuart. Charlotte is the office. All of the members of the Glen Wood family still live in Stuart. There are their homes, all in a row along Rhody Creek Loop outside town – first Glen’s, then Kim’s, then Len’s, then Eddie’s. Further down the road as part of a 50-acre spread is Glen’s garden, now protected from hungry deer by a high fence. The late-summer harvest keeps Bernece (Glen’s wife) and other family members busy.
The Woods moved away from Stuart but never left. Kim has another house near the shop outside Charlotte, and Eddie and Len have part-time residences there when they’re in town. But pull out of Stuart for good? No way that was going to happen.
“Kim says the place in Charlotte is a house and the one up here is a home,” Len said.
A year ago, the hometown’s love for the team was certified again with the naming of a portion of Virginia Highway 8 “Wood Brothers Drive."
It’s the first part of a two-hour drive to the Charlotte shop, and the brothers and their sister split time between the two locations. The Stuart shop remains open, also.
“Charlotte is just a place we race out of,” Eddie said. “You need to be in that area because that’s where all the resources are. We were pretty torn up about moving. But, like a friend said, if you’re going to cut timber, you have to go where the trees are. That made a lot of sense. That’s where we work. We live here. It just happens to be two hours away.”
Back at the old homeplace, the days go by much as they have for years and years. There is farmwork to do and grass to be mowed, particularly with the long rains of this summer.
Ray Lee, third of the five brothers and, like each, once a racing team member, lives in the house and works the land. Just down the way, at the end of the road, is a small cemetery where the Wood parents, Walter and Ada, are buried.
And it’s possible still – perhaps best at first light with a cup of coffee or in early evening with the breeze coming down the ridge, to sit out under the old beech tree and dream of what was.
There, over the creek, is the bough that does not break, representing the circle that is not broken.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.