Indianapolis Motor Speedway, site of Sunday’s Crown Royal 400, is one of the most revered arenas in the sporting world.
It hosted its first race in 1909 and in the years since has become what most would agree, the most famous race track in the world.
Up until 1994, the Speedway was the exclusive race course of the open-wheel racers who competed in the Indianapolis 500. Since then, NASCAR has played a big role at the track with the running of the 400-mile race commonly known as the Brickyard 400.
Leonard Wood, whose work over the years on the No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane/JDRF Ford earned him induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, has a special appreciation for Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Fifty years ago this past May, Wood had his greatest day at Indy as he and his brothers worked the pits for Jim Clark as he drove his Lotus Ford to victory in the 500, giving Ford its first win in the famed race. Using their pit road skills developed on the NASCAR circuit, the Wood Brothers serviced Clark’s car in just two stops for a total time of 41 seconds. The Woods also serviced the car that NASCAR regular Bobby Johns drove to a seventh-place finish that day.
But Wood’s relationship with Indy began long before the 1965 race and continues to the present day.
As a young boy he listened to the Indy 500 on the radio with his father, J. Walter Wood.
“He always enjoyed keeping up with the Indianapolis 500,” Wood said of his father. “It was a big priority.”
Leonard Wood continued to follow developments at Indy even as he and his brothers began racing their own stock cars down south.
When Wood was stationed in Germany during his Army days, he built a model of the Indy racer driven by Jimmy Bryan, complete with the car’s distinct rear fin. Bryan won the 500 in 1958, while Wood was away from the tracks serving his country.
In 1964, Wood and his fellow Ford racers from the NASCAR circuit attended the 500 as guests of Ford Motor Company.
“Ford chartered a plane and flew us up there,” Wood recalled. “We sat in the grandstands in turn three.”
Sadly, that race was just two laps in when a fiery crash claimed the life of drivers Dave MacDonald and Eddie Sachs.
For Wood, the loss of MacDonald was especially tough to take. The previous November, he’d driven the Woods’ No. 21 Ford in a NASCAR race at Riverside, Calif., and nearly won the race. MacDonald led a race-high 92 laps but suffered a mechanical malfunction late in the race and would up finishing second.
“The transmission got hung in third gear for the last 100 miles or we would have won that race,” Wood said.
A year after watching the 500 from the grandstands, Wood and his brothers were called on by Ford to pit Clark’s car.
It was rare at the time for the Indy car set to call on some NASCAR competitors for help, but the two groups hit it off just fine.
Years later, at the 2010 Goodwood Festival of Speed in England where the Lotus was back on the track with Jackie Stewart behind the wheel, Wood learned that back in ’65, after hearing the Woods’ Virginia drawl, Clark’s crew wasn’t immediately sure the team had made the right decision in bringing in a NASCAR crew.
“Some of the crew guys that were there told us that after hearing us talk so slow that they hoped we could pit the car faster than we talked,” Wood said. “But they didn’t resent us being there at all. If they had, it wouldn’t have worked.”
Leonard Wood’s next trip to Indy came a few years later, thanks to Indy legend A.J. Foyt, who also won four NASCAR races for the Woods, including the 1972 Daytona 500.
“A.J. sent a plane to pick us up, and we went up there for qualifying,” Wood said.
Then in 1994, Wood was back on pit road at Indy for the inaugural Brickyard 400. Appropriately, the No. 21 Ford, with Morgan Shepherd driving, wound up with the same pit stall, just past the Gasoline Alley entrance, that Clark used in 1965.
Leonard Wood has been to the Brickyard many times since, but from a personal standpoint, the 2012 running of the Brickyard 400 stands out the most for him. In that race, the No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Fusion carried a special paint scheme honoring his 2013 induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
“That was the most exciting race for me, seeing that candy-apple red No. 21 coming down the straightaway with my face on the hood,” he said. “Of course I might be a little prejudiced.”
Wood will be back on pit road again this Sunday for his second race at Indianapolis of the current season. Back in May, he attended the Indy 500 to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of Clark’s 1965 win. At that race, Roger Penske, whose Team Penske now has an alliance with the Wood Brothers, played host to Wood and the other old timers in attendance.
“Roger Penske bent over backwards to make sure we had whatever we needed,” Wood said.
And after the race, Wood was just outside Victory Lane where Penske and his driver Juan Pablo Montoya were celebrating the “Captain’s” 16th Indy 500 victory.
“We weren’t in Victory Lane, but we were right there showing our support for him 100 percent,” Wood said.
On Sunday, Wood plans to be just outside the spotlight again, as at age 80, he continues his role as a member of his family’s race team.
“I’ll be there hanging out and cleaning the grille,” he said.
Wood Brothers Racing PR