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Minter: Leonard Wood Fueled Success

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, July 1 2010

Leonard Wood and the Wood Brothers service the car of Jim Clark at Indianapolis in 1965. (Photo courtesy of The Wood Brothers Racing team)

By Rick Minter | Senior Writer

Several years back, I was standing in the back of Kyle Petty’s hauler, enjoying one of those rare moments in NASCAR reporting when even the lamest question brings a treasure trove of good quotes.

It happens all the time with Petty, and his father the King. That’s not always the case with some of the rest of the current crop of drivers.

At one point during that conversation, Leonard Wood passed by outside the door. Petty interrupted his answer to say something that stuck with me since. “That man’s still the smartest guy in this garage,” he said.

I thought I knew a lot about Leonard Wood. As a teenager, I traveled across the South to attend NASCAR races with some of the most rabid Wood Brothers and David Pearson fans that have ever lived.

But in the years since, the more I find out about Leonard Wood, the more impressed I am.

This weekend, he’s not in Daytona Beach, where he usually spends his Fourth of July holiday. Instead he’s in England, at the Goodwood Festival of Speed, a three-day affair where historic race cars making a hill climb draw 100,000 fans a day.

He’s there because of his role in one of auto racing’s most stunning events – Jim Clark’s win in the 1965 Indianapolis 500 –  the first for a Ford-powered car, the first green car to win the event, the first rear-engine car to win and the first in which the open-wheel racing set got a taste of the mechanical wizardry of Leonard Wood and his racing brothers from Stuart, Va.

Clark’s car, which went on a world tour after the Indy win, has spent most of the years since in The Henry Ford museum. But Clive Chapman, son of the car’s original owner Colin Chapman, has restored the car and it will be driven this weekend by one of the late Clark’s fellow Scots, Jackie Stewart.

Wood and his brother Delano will represent the original pit crew, which was called on by their friends at Ford back in ’65 to assist in the Indy effort. Assist might be the wrong word. The Woods shocked the Indy racing world with their pit work. Clark’s total time in the pits for the entire 500-mile race was 41.9 seconds.

“We got the most publicity in the least amount of time that we ever got in our lives,” Leonard Wood said recently. “We hit a home run for sure.”

Just as they often did in the NASCAR arena, the Wood Brothers kept their Indy efforts under wraps until show time.

The key to the quick pit stop, Leonard Wood explained recently, was in the team’s fuel storage tank, literally and figuratively speaking.

It was the first year that Indy cars had to be fueled by gravity. The tank that Ford and Lotus engineers designed and Leonard Wood perfected had a giant ventura inside. If you understand the principle that makes carburetors suck gasoline and air that makes airplanes fly, you know where this story is headed.

At the time, supposedly knowledgable racing people figured it would take more than a minute to refuel a car on a pit stop.

Leonard Wood knew better than that before he ever left Stuart.

Once he finished his work, he and his crew made a mock stop, sort of. Once they jumped over the wall and hooked up the two fueling hoses, they stood around a bit before opening the fuel valve.

The results seemed to stun even Leonard Wood.

“We turned that thing on, and it put in 58 gallons in 15 seconds,” he said. “It just sucked the fuel out of there. We knew then we were going to be under 20 seconds on the pit stops.”

Wood, who handled the right side fueling himself, said he could feel the sides of the race car buck when the fuel rushed in.

Clark, of course, did his part too, stopping exactly where Wood told him each time. Wood said he remembers Clark saying he was going to take it easy in the race, since the plan was to run all 500 miles on one set of tires. But Wood said that during pit stops, once he finished his fueling and jumped out the way, Clark was gone like a rabbit. The first stop was 17 seconds, the second a little longer due to less gravity pressure in the tank.

Leonard Wood said the Indy triumph, when compared to all he’s done in NASCAR, ranks right at the top of what he considers his greatest career moments.

But he also remembers some of the other aspects of that long-ago month of May, things like the sounds of the engines in the Lotus-Fords firing up for the first time each morning in the garage.

“They sounded so beautiful,” he said. “They had two bugles out the back and equal-length headers.”

He also recalls how much he and his brothers enjoyed working with Clark and Chapman and a crew, all of which were from a foreign form of racing as well as a foreign country.

“We had no problem at all with them,” he said. “They seemed to be happy we were there. Otherwise it wouldn’t have worked.”

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

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, July 1 2010