Leonard Wood Was/Is A Gearhead’s Gearhead
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Innovator and inventor are two words that can be used to describe Leonard Wood, who was inducted Friday night into the NASCAR Hall of Fame with Rusty Wallace, Buck Baker, Cotton Owens and Herb Thomas.
However, when it comes to the personable Wood’s close-knit, Stuart, Va., family, they prefer to identify him as the heart and the backbone of the famous Wood Brothers Racing team that has set records in NASCAR’s top stock car racing series for more than six decades.
“He’s got Henry Ford in him, Thomas Edison and some Albert Einstein,” nephew and team co-owner Eddie Wood said. “He’s got a natural understanding of physics. That’s probably his biggest gift. He understands how things work. He doesn’t have to look it up. He doesn’t have to read about it. He can look at it and in his mind he knows how it works.”
It’s a gift the intelligent Wood has possessed since he was a boy. He was always ahead of his time, no matter the decade, and his phenomenal understanding of mechanics led the Wood Brothers to numerous records, including 98 victories, 15 of those at Daytona International Speedway, and 118 poles. In the 1970s, his potent engines claimed 13 consecutive poles at Charlotte Motor Speedway with 11 of them being earned by NASCAR Hall of Fame member David Pearson.
Wood developed a flow bench using a vacuum cleaner, increased tire wear by lengthening the right-front spindle, made templates for the parts and pieces he developed years before CNC machines came into existence, cooled his first engine dynamometer with water from a nearby river and created equipment that resulted in record-breaking pit stops not only in stock car racing, but the Indianapolis 500 as well. The Wood Brothers’ lightning fast pit stops became legendary and ushered in a new era on pit road, all thanks to Leonard Wood.
“It would be amazing to know what went through his mind and how brilliant that mind is,” said NASCAR Hall of Fame member Dale Inman, a Leonard Wood contemporary and pit road rival. “He did everything on the team. He
did the motors. He did the chassis. He made all of the calls on the pit stops and then he changed tires. We knew every time we went to the race track the (No.) 21 car was one we’d have to beat no matter who was driving it.”
Inman noted if Leonard needed something and he didn’t have it, he could make it and that was a talent very few people possessed in the sport’s early days.
“I would like to have his qualities of craftsmanship,” Inman commented.
Leonard’s craftsmanship and his gift for understanding mechanics surfaced at an early age. During World War II, the now 78-year-old Wood carved cars from blocks of wood and sold them for 75 cents each. He even tuned his bicycle, setting it upside down and working on the wheels to make them spin faster; adjusting the bearings and using light oil.
At age 13, he built what most people would describe as an early Go-Kart, using a discarded gasoline washing machine motor. Two years later Leonard was working on race cars for his then 25-year-old brother Glen, who entered the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2012. It was a passion that even got him chastised by one teacher after he fell asleep in class due to having worked on a race car most of the night; a teacher who told him he would never amount to anything because he slept all day.
For 45 years, the inventive Leonard served as the team’s chief mechanic even developing items while serving in the U.S. Army in Germany in the late 1950s. While in Germany he found a model airplane engine and made a car that would run in circles by itself while hooked to a cable that was attached to a stake driven into the ground. Years later the “toy” delighted nephew and team co-owner Len Wood when he visited the race shop as a child.
“I was 6 or 7 years old when I’d go down to the shop at night and run that little car,” Len recalled. “We’d drive a stake in the drain and fire it up. It had nitro and methanol in it. You’d hold your ears and watch it run until it ran out of gas. Then he’d say, ‘OK. The show is over.’”
For Leonard, there was no such thing as a typical work day. He normally spent all day at the race shop, would go home for dinner and then return to work. If he was developing a special manifold, carburetor or a set of cylinder heads, he never stopped until he had the project the way he wanted.
“I’ve seen him take a box manifold, cut the whole inside out with a saw and then basically hand form the inside of it and it would be considerably better,” Len said.
In the sport’s days of the 180-degree headers, Leonard worked for two or three days straight on a set, finishing them at 3 a.m. The team then loaded the car and headed to Darlington, arriving a day late. At that time, even if a team arrived late it was still possible to sit on the pole and that’s exactly what the team did with the headers that made their Ford-product sound like an Indy Car.
“GM had already been running them, but the way the engine was on a GM you could make them a little shorter and they needed to be short to run,” Leonard explained. “You had to cross over under the oil pan and it was hard to make them short enough. So I made them a little bit bigger. If you can’t go short, you go bigger.”
It was such developments that often left the Wood Brothers’ competitors perplexed over how they were defeated. Such was the case in the 1963 Daytona 500 when Tiny Lund won the race without having to change tires. The unheard of feat was accomplished by Leonard lengthening the right-front spindle between the two ball joints.
“In those days the cars were high off the ground and when it would go into the turn the right-front would lay under,” explained Leonard, who built the replica of Lund’s 1963 Ford that will be placed in the Hall of Honor in Wood’s display. “It would wear out the tire on the outer edge. With this spindle, it would pull it in at the top and keep the footprint of the tire flat on the pavement. So when we got to Daytona it wore the tire straight across.”
On each pit stop, the tires’ tread was measured. At the end of the race, the tires still possessed tread.
Leonard’s development of equipment never stopped. Even today he still chuckles over Purolator’s public relations representative not understanding his excitement over receiving a vacuum cleaner powered by two motors. Leonard couldn’t wait to get it out of the crate so he could test the venturi he had made.
“Back then you could make any design venturi you wanted,” Leonard explained. “He said, ‘By all means, forget about the race car. Let’s get the vacuum cleaner uncrated.’ He didn’t know that vacuum cleaner played a big part in that car winning the following race. The more suction the vacuum cleaner had would give me a finer reading on which venturi was the best.”
However, it probably was the venturis he developed for the refueling tank used at the 1965 Indianapolis 500 that garnered international fame for the Wood Brothers. Manufactured by the Englishmen building Jim Clark’s car, the device developed by Leonard allowed the Woods to fill the car with 58 gallons of fuel in 15 seconds.
“This is the first time they went with gravity flow. They’d been putting it under pressure before,” Leonard said with a grin. “It was the most publicity we’d ever received for the least amount of time in our lives.”
Three years ago Leonard traveled to England to make an appearance with Clark’s restored car. It was then he learned that when the Englishmen first heard the family’s Virginia accent at Indianapolis they were concerned about how the team would perform.
“They said as slow as we talked they didn’t know how that was going to work. They hoped we could pit faster than we were talking,” Leonard said with a laugh.
That Memorial Day in 1965 the Woods pitted two cars – Clark and Bobby Johns – and each stop was under 23 seconds while the regular Indy Car crews were taking at least a minute.
Leonard’s inspiration for his inventions was the desire to solve a problem. The evolution of the pit stop began with the desire to change tires quicker. First the socket’s entry was streamlined, then the studs were recessed so the lugs wouldn’t cross thread. He even made a small bracket on the back of the air guns with a lug on it. That way if one was lost, the extra lug could be pulled off and put on the wheel. At that time, the lugs weren’t glued on the wheels prior to each race.
Now the tire changers were getting the wheels off before the jackman could get the car off the ground. Leonard enlarged the piston in the plunger so the jackman could get the car off the ground in two pumps instead of 10. Now it was time to get the fuel to flow quicker into the car. To make a can that would refuel the car quicker, Leonard reverted to the air flow knowledge he had gained in designing cylinder heads.
Leonard never sought a patent on any of his creations because he wanted to keep them a secret. It wasn’t about making money in the industrial market; it was about winning on the race track. And the lengths to which Leonard would go to keep his inventions secret are legendary.
“I’ve heard a story that he once changed cams in Daytona without pulling the cover off the car,” Inman said. “There’s also a story that he went under the car with a 4-by-6 foot sheet of aluminum and put all of it underneath there in little pieces somewhere when the car was jacked up and covered. There are a lot of stories told about Leonard.”
Len points to the engines his uncle constructed as the most significant contribution he made to the family team. There was less focus on aerodynamics and more on horsepower in those days. He said Leonard cited a Craftsman lathe he obtained in the 1960s as winning more races for them than any other piece of equipment he ever purchased. That’s because it allowed him to make the rings used under the base of the carburetors the way he wanted them.
“To me the term chief mechanic really applied to him,” Len said. “He did everything about the car. He didn’t just do those jobs; he excelled at those jobs – all of them.
“We were getting ready to go to Riverside one January and a brake drum fell off the left front of the car and broke his toe. So he made an aluminum shoe and he changed tires with his aluminum shoe. If you can think of it, he can make it.”
Today, Leonard still does all of the team’s cowls and air cleaners. He also produces anything that needs to be handmade.
“If you can draw a picture of it or describe to him what you want, he can make it,” Eddie said. “He can invent something and it will be invented right the first time. When he makes it better, it will be better, but it worked right the first time.
“No matter how important you think he is to this race team that’s not enough. I can’t put into words to where anybody could understand it. He was the one who made it go. At the heart of the (No.) 21 was him.”
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