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The Woods Of Virginia – Part 10; ‘He Hit Me’

Rick Minter | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, February 12 2010
A collage of photos from what some consider the best Daytona 500 ever. (Photos courtesy of The Wood Brothers Racing Team)

A collage of photos from what some consider the best Daytona 500 ever. (Photos courtesy of The Wood Brothers Racing Team)

By Rick Minter | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

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, will choose what he considers the top 10 wins in Wood Brothers history.

The wins aren’t ranked in any particular order. This week’s 10th and final entry recalls the team’s triumph in 1976 Daytona 500.

video-bugThe race has been called one of NASCAR’s best ever, but for the Woods and their driver, David Pearson, the story began the year before, when what looked like a sure-fire 500 win slipped away at the end.

In that ’75 race, Pearson was leading late, challenged by Benny Parsons, who had drafting help from Pearson’s chief rival, Richard Petty, who was eight laps down.

With less than three laps to go, Pearson came up on the slower cars of Cale Yarborough and Richie Panch and wound up spinning. His car wouldn’t restart – the starter failed him – so he wound up fourth, two laps down.

“It just got away,” said Eddie Wood, who by that time was a full-time crew member as was his brother Len, joining their father and uncles on the family team.

In the ’76 Daytona 500, the battle couldn’t have been scripted any better if it had been orchestrated by Hollywood. The race featured NASCAR’s two biggest stars, Richard Petty, NASCAR’s King and Pearson, the Silver Fox, along with Indycar racing’s top drawing card, A.J. Foyt dueling for the lead in the Great American Race.

In those days, race teams typically had just two radios, one in the pits and one in the car. Eddie Wood wore the headset in the pits and relayed information to and from his uncle Leonard Wood to Pearson in the car.

And unlike today, at a giant track like Daytona, the radios usually only worked when the cars were in sight.

As the leader took the white flag, Petty led Pearson.

Eddie keyed his radio and asked: “Can you get him?”

Pearson responded simply: “I don’t know.”

Then the cars went out of sight ,and the crews could only wonder what was happening on the backstretch. Suddenly the fans in the grandstands, who could see what was happening, were on their feet.

“There was a big roar from the crowd,” Wood said.

Then, as the leaders entered Turn 3 and the radios were back in range, Wood heard Pearson simply say: “I got him.”

Then as the cars came through Turns 3 and 4 and the engine noise began to build as the cars accelerated down the homestretch, there was even more noise from the crowd, and Pearson again keyed his microphone, which at that time required him to take one hand off the steering wheel and push the “talk” button mounted on his left shoulder belt.

Wood heard Pearson say: “He’s under me.” And then: “He hit me.”

By this point, the crowd, estimated at 125,000, was going wild. Petty and Pearson had crashed and were kicking up dirt and spinning around.

And while Pearson’s Mercury was still spinning, he pressed the talk button and asked Wood: “Where’s Richard?”

“He did this with one hand on the push-to-talk button, and his voice was as calm as if he was talking on the telephone,” Wood said. “I was all excited, but I told him that Richard had stopped, to come on.”

Pearson, just as calmly, radioed again: “Well I’m coming.”

And he steered his crumpled Mercury across the finish line at a snail’s pace to score his first and only Daytona 500 triumph, although he did win an all-time record five times in the summertime 400-miler.

Pearson was able to keep going in the ’76 500 because being the cunning Silver Fox that he was, he had the presence of mind to knock his car out of gear as he was about to crash, thereby keeping the motor from conking out as it had the year before.

Petty’s engine stalled and wouldn’t refire, and his crew pushed him across, drawing a one-lap penalty, which didn’t affect the finishing order as he still finished second over Benny Parsons, the winner from the year before.

But just the sight of Parsons coming by the melee gave Wood cause for concern.

“I initially thought, ‘Benny’s going to win it again,’ but he was a lap down,” Wood said.

Despite the way the race turned out, there were no hard feelings between the two teams, Wood said, adding that even though his family and the Pettys have been rivals for years, their relationship has been a friendly one.

“The first person I’ll look up when I get to Daytona is Dale Inman (Petty’s long-time crew chief),” Wood said. “There’s so much respect on both sides.”

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

Rick Minter | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, February 12 2010
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