Mason Adams Published

How Appalachian NASCAR Hall Of Famer Leonard Wood Reinvented Racing

A line of old race cars are seen. The one closest to the camera is white, and the ones farther out are red.
Wood Brothers #21 race cars in the team’s museum in Stuart, Virginia.
Mason Adams/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

This conversation originally aired in the April 21, 2024 episode of Inside Appalachia.

Stock car racing’s roots run deep in Appalachia. 

Our twisty roads and dark hollers were home to moonshiners — and moonshine runners, who became known for their driving skills. And they became some of NASCAR’s first stars when it formed in 1948. But NASCAR’s oldest continuous racing team had nothing to do with moonshine. 

The Wood Brothers first started running races in 1950. Glenn Wood drove their cars, and he was enshrined in the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2012. His brother Leonard followed in 2013. Leonard worked on the cars, and was part of what was known as “the most skilled pit crew in the world.”

Glenn Wood passed away in 2019. The team is run by his kids and grandkids. Leonard is now 89. And he still works daily at the Wood Brothers Racing Museum in their hometown of Stuart, Virginia. 

Inside Appalachia Host Mason Adams dropped by to speak with him.

An elderly man sits at his desk with one hand on the other. He has white hair, wears glasses, and wears a blue button up shirt. Behind him is a NASCAR shirt.
NASCAR Hall of Famer Leonard Wood at the team’s museum in Stuart, Virginia.

Photo Credit: Mason Adams/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Adams: The first thing I wanted to ask you is, I’ve had people tell me that drivers help but it’s really mechanics that win races. Is that true? 

Wood: It’s both. You can have the best car in the world and the driver not do his job like it’s supposed to. But yeah, a good driver is a big credit to your winnings, but he can’t carry it on his back, he’s got to have something that’ll perform. I’d rate it equal, one or the other.

Adams: Were you mechanically inclined as far back as you can remember in life, or was there a moment where it kind of clicked for you?

Wood: No, I was always mechanical in mind. I’d always tear my toys apart. Brother Delano, his next Christmas were like brand new, and mine all torn to pieces. Back when I was just 12 years old, I was making little Jeeps out of wood. Then I made one and had a steering wheel on it and I would come roaring down that hill, the back of the hill. We used to have a bottle of oil, and we’d oil the axles and put the wheels back on so they drove faster, you know. Those little bottles are still buried up there for a long time. Then  I made a gasoline-powered go kart when I was 13. It’s in the museum over there, and it’s got a washing machine motor on it.

I can remember when I was just a young thing, I told my dad I wanted something with a motor on it. And so then my sister’s husband’s dad had a washing machine with a gasoline motor on it, and when electricity came along, he took the gasoline mode off and put an electric motor on it. My brother in law gave me that motor, then I made a go kart out of it.

A man's elderly hands are shown on a desk. They look worn and worked.
Hall of fame racing hands.

Photo Credit: Mason Adams/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Adams: Oh wow. So my 11 year old loves tearing stuff apart and sometimes builds it back together, sometimes not. What advice would you have for him? 

Wood: Well, when you decide to make something, you do heavy concentration and you stick to that until you get the thing done. You don’t just do a little bit here and lay it down and all that. When you start to make something, concentrate hard on what you want to build and how you want to build it, and keep doing it ‘til you get it fixed.

I used to design zone cylinder head ports and intake manifolds and all that, and when I’d start, I’d just keep at it ‘til I got it like I wanted it. I didn’t lay it down and forget about it, come in next week and work on it. When you really want to make something and make it run, you just concentrate ‘til you fix it. I don’t know at times that I have thought of ways to do it, and something just triggers my mind how to do it. And then before I get done, something else triggers my mind, “No, this is the way you do it — even better.”

I tell people, “I know what I do know and I also know what I don’t know.” My dad always said what he didn’t know it make a great big book, and I feel the same way. But I do thank the Lord [for] the talent he gives me to do the things I do.

Adams: What’s your next project?

Wood: Eddie and Len always come up with something for me to do. They decided to have me make a half-size 427 engine. We started making it. I have a great machinist — Bennie Belcher. He’s the greatest I’ve ever seen. He can take regular milling machines and turning lathes and all that, and make it look like a CNC made it. He and I together, you know, we made this 427 half-size like we ran at Daytona.

So Eddie tells Edsel Ford what they’re going to have me to do. Edsel says, “Well, it’d be nice to have it to look like a 427 that won Le Mans in 1967.” So that’s what we ended up making, was one like that won the Le Mans race in 1967. Edsel said, “We’ll put it in the Ford museum,” so that’s where it is now. So now they decided to make a 429 Boss Hemi engine like David Pearson drove in the ‘71 Mercury. So we got that about two-thirds done right now. And we’re going to make that one run. The one in the Ford museum, the manifold, all that’s fixed, but you don’t have any parts to make it run. But this one’s gonna run.

A large workshop is shown with tables and gadgets for working on cars.
A workshop at the Wood Brothers Racing Museum in Stuart, Virginia.

Photo Credit: Mason Adams/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Adams: I’ve thought about that famous Wood Brothers pit crew and how tight y’all had that system. Where did that come from? Was that a combination of the mechanics applied to the pit crew and maybe some military background? Or do you know?

Wood: We were at Charlotte in 1960, World 600, the very first one. And we had two cars. We prepared two Fords. So Fireball Roberts and Smokey Yunick made a pit stop, to change two tires and fuel. Took them 45 seconds. John Cowley with Ford Motor Company told us, “I think there’s some time to be gained in the pits.” We started working on it, so right away we was down to 25 seconds with the same deal. Then we just worked from there.

We would machine the studs, recess the end of them, you could put a lug nut on them and start the lugs. Then put a spring in the socket, so whenever you went from one lung to the other, throw the socket out and all that, and now we’ve got the tires changed. Now we’re waiting on the jack to get up. It took about 12 pumps. So I enlarged the plunger so it only takes like two strokes to jack the car up. So now I got the tires changed, now the gas won’t go in. So now we start working on the fuel system, streamline that to where it improved the fuel flow, and now we got a quick pit stop. 

We was coming back from California and we stopped down at Greenville, South Carolina to fuel the truck and get a bite to eat. Brother Ray and I was in this little ton truck, and the race car’s on an open trailer and these people, these fans were all standing around looking at it. When we come out when it was 20 degrees, so we didn’t stand around and talk. We got in the truck and left.

We get between Greenville and Charlotte, ready to stop in Charlotte. And this truck starts vibrating and shaking and brother Ray said, “You can even feel it in the roof.” I’m looking at the one side to see if there was an airport nearby, an airplane warming up or whatever, and then it quit. Then we got up to Charlotte and we had to exit off, and it started up again. I look out the side glass and see steam coming out the exhaust pipe for the race car. And so I told Ray, “Stop this thing.”

We stopped and I went around, and I could see this silhouette of a human behind the windshield. I’m thinking now, one of the crew members has pulled a trick on us and got in the car. Then I’m thinking, no he ain’t that dumb, as cold as it is. I look in, this guy’s got Marvin helmet on. I said, “What do you think you’re doing?” And he said, “Let’s go!”

Anyway, we pulled him out and then about that time, a sheriff drives up, and we handed him over to the sheriff.

Adams: Oh my goodness.

Wood: I didn’t know the guy. I don’t know where he lives and haven’t heard from him since. I would love to get to talk to him. But I don’t know where he is, whatever happened to him.

Adams: Thank you very much. It’s been an honor talking to you.

Wood: Well, same here. You’ve been interesting.


View Leonard Wood’s 2013 hall of fame video and a video of him building a half-scale model.