Shining stands climb to the sky, ready to be occupied by 70,000 screaming fans. On your way into the track, nice shiny haulers decked out in familiar logos hawk t-shirts and stuffed toys manufactured by name brand monstrosities. The TV coverage begins with music you know by heart and commentators appear dressed in safe, ordinary suits. NASCAR, in case you hadn’t realized, represents corporate, obese America. Everything about it is huge and designed for the fans to want more, more, more.
This week, I was reminded once again that boardrooms were not where our sport came from. I spent a couple precious hours touring the Wood Bros. Racing Museum in Stuart, VA, located 30 minutes farther into the hills from Martinsville.
While the building is new, the family that created the museum is not. The Wood Bros (both Leonard and Glen) are already members in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Over the decades they were responsible for building and racing some of the very first cars that competed in the Cup series, creating innovations in the garage and above all maintaining the family business. And as the morning went by, I saw that despite how all the other grass roots shops have grown into something that look like skyscrapers, family is still at the heart of Wood Bros. Racing.
If you’ve ever visited a team’s museum, you’ll understand what I mean by a pristine environment. So often the walls are clad in glass, every inch filled with trophies and achievements—displayed as only companies with near bottomless pockets can. But the Wood Bros wasn’t quite like that. The entry hall is more like a sports family’s living room—trophies from the smallest tracks and wins to photos with close friends all vie for space.
Glen’s wife, Bernece, welcomed us inside into the finished portion of the museum. Like the entry hall, every empty spot has been jam packed with memories. And it is as you start to read the engravings of trophies and the tags on various car parts, the idea that you’re in just another NASCAR shop starts to vanish. The totality of what the Wood Bros. accomplished starts to overwhelm. Cars, pistons, shocks, carburetors line the shelves. In another case, stuffed between photos of past drivers, sits the handwritten draft of Leonard Wood’s HoF induction speech. What I’ve known for years intellectually as one of the mainstay teams in NASCAR’s history now became real in all its totality.
But still, in the corner seated at a more than ordinary desk, the nicest lady spoke to her son, as any woman might. Before her displayed with pride were photos of her grandchildren and the newest great-grandchild dressed in an Easter bunny outfit. Bernece raised a racing family—not a business.
I enjoyed all this enlightenment. But it was about to get better. In the back room, where they used to build the cars, the family has been working on a new portion of the museum, and since we came from so far away and wouldn’t be back soon, might we want a peek? Of course, we did.
Len Wood, Glen’s son, walked us around. We didn’t just talk about the larger than life stock cars dating back through the 80’s. There are images of Bayne’s Daytona 500 win, hoods from cars—each with its own story. Machinery from the old shop stood still proud, waiting for the rest of the displays to be finished. But there were also the signs the team manufactured to hang over their assigned garage stalls at the track strung along the walls. The disappointment in Len’s voice when he said the team can no longer create their own signs, thanks to sponsor dollars and contracts, really nailed it home. Even after 60 years on the track, this particular team is still run by family. They work together, play together (it’s a killer slot car set up they’ve got back there) and grew up together. Pride remains a palpable emotion in his work.
Next to the collection of various hoods on the wall, sits a picture of Len’s sister Kim as a little girl. With her legs dangling from the office chair, the photo hangs over the now empty desk. Daddy’s first tool box hides in the shadows, a more humble display of the bits that built a Hall of Fame team.
Hall of Fame…three words we live with daily and rarely take a moment to consider the entirety of what it all means. Which is why Len and Eddie are also working on their Hall of Fame wall.
The names already decorating it are enough to make any NASCAR fan’s tongue dangle. But when you pair the list with the image from the entry hall of this garage from back when, where there was no paint, or much pavement or even a street light—just a ramshackle garage on the side of the road—it’s then you know what NASCAR is made of.
It’s been created out of all the best things America has to offer; a desire to build something, the want for a strong family and the determination to never settle for second best. Here is the heart of NASCAR, far away from the glass and steel towers of downtown Charlotte, and without the negotiated contracts that tell us what we might and might not do.
The Wood family just plain did it.
It’s a giant story in a small and humble setting. I was so fortunate to meet the family for those few moments and cherish the generosity they offered in sharing their great journey with me. And I’m all the more awed that the journey is not over. Not by a long shot.
The next time I enter one of our iconic tracks, I will remember that it is not Sprint or Sunoco or even multi-million dollar purses that have made NASCAR great. It is the character and depth of people like those involved in Wood Bros. Racing.
And that is why I’m still a NASCAR fan.
Kyle Larson Stat
Series: Sprint car
Track: Placerville Speedway
Car: No. 57
Points Standings: n/a
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