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The Woods Of Virginia – Part 6; Rocking The Rock

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, January 15 2010
The Wood Brothers go to work on the car of Curtis Turner during a pit stop at Rockingham. (Photo courtesy of Wood Brothers Racing)

The Wood Brothers go to work on the car of Curtis Turner during a pit stop at Rockingham. (Photo courtesy of Wood Brothers Racing)

By Rick Minter | Senior Writer

The Wood Brothers Racing Team has been one of the backbones of NASCAR since the sport was founded. The Woods, from Stuart, Va., have been racing continuously in the division now known as Sprint Cup since 1953 and have 96 wins to their credit.

In a RacinToday exclusive series, Eddie Wood, one of the second-generation members of the team, discusses what he considers the top 10 wins in Wood Brothers history.

The wins aren’t ranked in any particular order, but this week’s entry recalls Curtis Turner’s victory in the inaugural race at North Carolina Motor Speedway in Rockingham, the American 500 on Oct. 31, 1965.

The roots to the dramatic victory, one of the most popular ever in NASCAR, reach back to the late 1950s, when Turner helped Glen Wood and his Wood Brothers racing team secure backing from Ford Motor Company, a relationship that continues to this day.

Turner was an interesting character. His love of the party was almost as well-known as his driving ability. But when it came to racing, he was the Dale Earnhardt of his day, as his hard-charging style made him a fan favorite.

“At that point in time, he was as big as Earnhardt in popularity, maybe even more so,” Glen Wood said. “Especially if he was running on a dirt track. He was as good as there ever was on dirt.”

But Turner had run afoul of NASCAR founder Bill France when he tried to organize a driver’s union. It was part of his effort to raise funds for Charlotte Motor Speedway, which he and current owner Bruton Smith co-founded.

France suspended Turner, and for four years he was left to run in circuits other than NASCAR. By mid-1965, fans were restless for a variety of reasons. After a meeting in Atlanta between France and some of the leading track owners of the day, Turner’s suspension was lifted.

The popular driver was free to race, but many felt that at age 41, his best driving days were behind him.

Ford racing boss John Cowley approached Glen Wood at the Southern 500 in Darlington that year and posed the age question to Wood.

There was no question in Wood’s mind that Turner was plenty capable. And he had other reasons, too, for fielding a car for Turner.

“Based on our friendship and what he’d done for me in the past, there was never any question that we’d do it,” Wood said.

In Turner’s first time back in a Wood Brothers Ford, he crashed with Bobby Isaac at Martinsville. He bounced back with a fifth-place finish at North Wilkesboro then it was on to Charlotte, the track Turner helped build only to lose his interest because of  the track’s financial woes.

As the laps wound down, Turner found himself in a furious battle for the lead with A.J. Foyt, Fred Lorenzen and Dick Hutcherson. When Lorenzen and Foyt crashed with six laps to go, Turner had to spin to miss the wreck. He recovered to finish third, but he told the Woods afterward that he felt he was in position to win.

When someone pointed out that it would have been difficult to find enough racing room to pass that many cars, Turner responded in typical fashion, Wood said. “He said, ‘well there was still some asphalt there, and there was plenty of grass.’”

At Charlotte, the seat brace in his car didn’t fit well. This was long before drivers had seats custom fitted. The brace, combined with a rough racing surface, actually cracked one of his ribs. So for the race at Rockingham, Leonard Wood fabricated a special brace that let Turner’s shoulder absorb much of the energy.

The Woods went with the harder of the two tire compounds offered for that race, but still Turner qualified fourth behind pole-sitter Richard Petty.

The race turned out to be a test of man and machine – 500 miles on the one-mile track, a race that took nearly five hours to run.

During the mid-portion of the event, Marvin Panch in the Woods’ familiar No. 21 and Turner in the No. 41, held down the first and second positions.

But in the end, it became a classic battle between the aging Turner and the 26-year-old Cale Yarborough.

Many figured Turner would wear out when it counted, especially those who saw him napping on the decklid of the car during pre-race practice, recovering from a long night of partying.

That didn’t turn out to be the case. On the contrary.

Turner was able to build a healthy lead and it looked like he would easily beat Yarborough. But grit from the new surface at Rockingham got under the hood and began eating away at Turner’s fanbelt.

Over the final laps, Turner had to slow to keep the engine from frying and Yarborough moved in.

Turner still had enough to pull off the victory.

“It was the old man against the young sprout, and the old man won,” Wood said.

As time went by, the victory, already a special one for Wood, became even more important to him.

“It turned out to be the last win he ever had, and it was in our car,” Wood said.

– Rick Minter can be reached at rminter@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, January 15 2010
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