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Winning The 600 Made Kyle Petty Feel Like A Wood

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, May 28 2017

Kyle Petty who drove a Wood Brothers Racing car to victory lane at Richmond Fairgrounds in 1986. But it was winning on Memorial Day weekend in Concord that made Petty feel like he belonged in the iconic No. 21 car. (Photo courtesy of Wood Brother Racing)

By Deb Williams | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

CONCORD, N.C. – In February 1986, Kyle Petty snaked his Wood Brothers’ Ford through a multi-car crash to obtain his first NASCAR victory, but it wasn’t until slightly more than a year later when he won Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Coca-Cola 600 that he felt he truly deserved to be the legendary team’s driver.

“I think the (Charlotte) win was validation for me that maybe it was OK (for me) to drive the Wood Brothers’ car; maybe I’m not just faking my way through this,” Petty said 30 years after his first NASCAR superspeedway victory.  

Throughout Petty’s boyhood and teenage years the Wood Brothers were viewed as one of Petty Enterprises’ primary competitors. In fact, the battles in the 1970s between the third-generation driver’s father – Richard Petty – and the Wood Brothers’ driver – David Pearson – became legendary.

“You knew those were the guys you had to beat on a big race track,” the 56-year-old Petty said about the Wood Brothers. “I was on the other side always trying to beat them and then all of a sudden I’m getting to drive for them and I’m thinking, ‘Oh my gosh! They made a huge mistake hiring me. This can’t be right. They must have had a lapse in judgement to put me in their car.’”

That’s why it meant so much to Petty to stand in Charlotte’s victory lane that unbearably hot day in May with Glen, Leonard, Eddie and Len Wood.

“They had dominated that place with Pearson and with (Neil) Bonnett,” Petty said. “They sat on poles ad won races there all the flippin’ time. For me, that was a big race; that maybe I do belong with the Wood Brothers because I always felt they were a lot better team than I was a driver. For me, it [the win] was more about them.”

When Petty joined the Wood Brothers for the 1985 NASCAR Cup season he was 25 years old and owned only one victory — the 1979 ARCA season opener at Daytona. He hadn’t cut his teeth on the weekly short tracks like many of his contemporaries, including Alan Kulwicki and eventual NASCAR Hall of Famers Mark Martin and Rusty Wallace.

Petty emerged from his inaugural season with the Wood Brothers with seven top-five and 12 top-10 finishes. In the second race of their sophomore season together, Petty capitalized on a situation that occurred when Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt wrecked the first four cars while battling for the lead. At the time, three laps remained in the Richmond race and Petty was fifth. He tippy-toed through the sheet metal carnage and at age 25 had secured his first NASCAR victory.

One might say he backed into the Richmond victory, but that wasn’t the case with the 1987 Coca-Cola 600. In stock car racing’s longest race, the then 26-year-old Petty led three times for 35 laps, including the final 17. And he survived a blistering hot day that took its toll on engines and those who led the 1.5-mile track’s 400-lap event. Only 17 of the 42 drivers that started the race were running at the finish. It was a day that was full of foreboding for anyone who led. Of the 10 race leaders, six fell by the wayside before the race’s conclusion. Eight of the top-nine finishers never led during the race. Petty assumed the lead with 17 laps remaining when Wallace’s Pontiac dropped a cylinder. That left him the only driver on the lead lap. Morgan Shepherd, who was nursing a second-degree leg burn he suffered a week earlier in the All-Star race and battling a stomach virus, finished second. Sterling Marlin relieved Shepherd midway through the race, but Shepherd returned for the finish.

“I really didn’t want to lead,” Petty said that day after the race. “… I was looking around for someone else to lead, but I was the only one left.”

Despite Petty’s rather comical remarks about the race’s high attrition rate, Len Wood believes the Wood Brothers’ 70th superspeedway victory showed Petty was a winning driver; that his Richmond victory wasn’t a fluke.

“Going with Kyle was going with a young kid,” Len said. “With him winning in Richmond, he didn’t beat them, but he won. Charlotte, by outlasting everyone and not messing up, he backed up what he could do.”

Petty’s victory was the Wood Brothers’ first at Charlotte since 1982 when Bonnett won the World 600 and their first on a superspeedway since 1983 at Daytona with Buddy Baker. After the race, they celebrated by stopping for dinner at a Golden Corral in Lexington, N.C. They haven’t celebrated a Coca-Cola 600 victory since that day.

For the 1987 Coca-Cola 600, the Wood Brothers used the car Petty had driven to a sixth-place finish in the All-Star race the previous week. Len said that after the All-Star race the team returned to their Stuart, Va., shop and took the car apart.

“We did it pretty much in one day,” Len continued. “We stripped it and did maintenance on it; took everything out and magnafluxed it. It was not uncommon for us to turn a car around that quickly. They didn’t have the templates that they do now. The templates were looser and inspection was looser during that time.”

The car wasn’t the only item the Wood Brothers carried over from the All-Star race to the Coca-Cola 600. They also took the set of tires they used in the final 10 laps of the all-star event to put on Petty’s car during his last pit stop in the 600-mile race.

“We still had bias-ply tires in those days and you could take tires from one race track to the other if you had them left over. You actually owned them,” Eddie Wood said. “They [tires] ran really well (in the All-Star race), which is why we wanted to save them. We were already at Charlotte. It wasn’t like you were going to have to store them somewhere. They probably stayed in the hauler the whole time. It wasn’t like you had to wrap them in bubble wrap and hide them from someone.”

For Petty and the Wood Brothers, the four years they spent together are still special to them and they consider one another family.

“We had a lot of fun when we were racing with Kyle,” Eddie said. “That was probably one of the most special times in my whole career. We ran well; had good results in the points every year. It was just a fun time.

“The thing that’s really cool about it was when we first got together we would talk about growing up and the stories that he would tell were exactly like the stories we told. It was just a different family. We had so much in common because we all grew up in racing.”

Petty views his time with the Wood Brothers as educational.

“I learned more about racing and how to drive a race car and what was expected of me as a race car driver than all of the other times,” Petty said. “Even though I drove for my dad and I drove at Petty Enterprises for a couple of years, I was driving and I was learning, but Leonard and them took the time to teach me.

“Leonard did stuff that I’d never seen before and it would help the car. Leonard Wood is the smartest man that I’ve ever worked with and the smartest man to ever walk through the gates of a garage area bumper-to-bumper, knowing completely about a car. You have good chassis guys like Dale Inman, engine guys like Waddell Wilson, but total car, Leonard was the best.”

NASCAR Hall of Famer Leonard Wood said if the car wasn’t performing well, Petty never blamed it on the engine, which was prepared by himself and his nephew Len and then built by Tommy Turner at the Holman-Moody facility in Charlotte.

“Some drivers think they know what they need. Some drivers you have to give them what they need,” Leonard said. “What they think they need is not what they need sometimes. But Kyle knew what he wanted and what he wanted was what he needed. He had a good style of driving.”

And it was a driving style that paid off for two of NASCAR’s first families.

 

 

       

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, May 28 2017
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