iRacing Executive Vice President and Executive Producer Steve Myers knew you couldn’t have a return to a legendary track without a certain legendary car. Jon Wood didn’t think it would be possible to field his family’s legendary Wood Brothers entry.
But when all was said and done… he’ll be the one driving it.
This Saturday, May 9, the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series will race at the virtual North Wilkesboro Speedway, a former mainstay on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule from 1949-96. However, it looked for a moment like the Wood Brothers Racing’s iconic No. 21 car wasn’t going to be in the event. The team’s driver, Matt DiBenedetto, is missing the race due to a prior family commitment.
But the team put together an 11th-hour replacement: Jon Wood, the team’s senior vice president, co-owner and social media person. Wood is the grandson of NASCAR Hall of Famer Glen Wood, who won two poles and had two top fives and four top 10s in five North Wilkesboro starts as a driver. Granddad fared even better as an owner, winning twice in the 1960s with Marvin Panch while racking up 14 top-five results.
Now, it’s Jon’s turn to try and add to that legacy.
We may have a late add. The team is working double overtime (socially distancing) to make accommodations for our replacement. More to follow. 😂
— Jon Wood (@_JonWood) May 6, 2020
“I didn’t ask Matt [DiBenedetto] if he was gonna run, but I didn’t not ask Matt if he was not gonna run or whatever,” Wood told Frontstretch. “The reason being is I knew they were going to be releasing the North Wilkesboro track to the drivers, spotters and stuff like that. And I’ve been helping Matt out with spotting. So I knew there was the off chance that I would get that track.
“I didn’t have reason to think Matt wouldn’t race, so it wasn’t like I was just being nefarious about it. But I just deliberately waited to ask him until after they had sent drivers the track. As it turned out, he ended up telling me [he couldn’t race] before all that anyway.”
Wood informed Myers that DiBenedetto wouldn’t be in the race. But while many other full-time Cup drivers won’t have their driver or car in Saturday’s event, iRacing officials quietly insisted that the No. 21 still compete.
“Particularly Steve [Myers] felt pretty strongly that the No. 21 needed to be in the race,” Wood said. “So we were trying to figure out a plan. I had kind of resigned to the fact that we would even be in it. I just thought, ‘Well, this is not going to happen,’ and didn’t really worry about a paint scheme — just kind of gave up on it.
“And then he [Myers] called me [Wednesday morning] and said would I be willing to do it. And first, I thought he meant would I be willing to have the car in the race. I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s fine.’
“But then he was like, ‘No, no, I mean you drive.’”
Ran a practice race last night for the @iRacing #ProInvitationalSeries at North Wilkesboro. I have a picture below that sums it up quite nicely. I’m so terribly sadly screwed. @iRacingMyers your fault pal. pic.twitter.com/UJoI0wkqoS
— Jon Wood (@_JonWood) May 8, 2020
Wood has 208 career starts across NASCAR’s three national touring series, including two wins in the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series. However, he hasn’t driven a race car since 2008 when he split time driving for his family team in Cup and Trucks.
Despite not having competed against Cup Series drivers in 12 years, Wood has a leg up on some of his competition this weekend in that he’s actually turned laps at the real North Wilkesboro. At the end of 2004, Roush Fenway Racing held a “Gong Show” to select the replacements for Wood and Carl Edwards, who were both moving up the ranks the following season. Wood took a few laps in the truck before any of the participants to shake it down.
“I ran a couple laps, and from what I was told, I was the first race vehicle back on the track since [Jeff] Gordon won in ’96,” Wood said. “It wasn’t hard for me to believe because there were trees growing up through the grandstands. The truck was kicking up rooster tails with dust and stuff going down the straightaways.
“The track was actually in really good condition otherwise. But it looked like something out of “Life After People” on History Channel, where you wake up and everybody’s gone, and there’s still toilet paper on the toilet paper rolls. That’s what it looked like. It was really, really eerie.”
Fast forward 16 years, and Wood is presented with the opportunity to take to the historic track again, albeit the virtual version.
“I’d always kind of wanted to do it since this whole thing started,” Wood told Frontstretch. “It seemed like something fun to do.”
On top of that, Wood took notice of several former drivers such as Jeff Gordon, Bobby Labonte, Elliott Sadler, Greg Biffle and Trevor Bayne competing in various iRacing leagues the past few months.
“But I just never did it,” Wood said. “I’ve got two kids, and everything’s chaotic, so I don’t really have the time to devote to being good at it.
“I do have a rig, and I race in a weekly league. But beyond that, I wouldn’t consider myself a hardcore sim racer. Never really did it or got around to asking if I could, so this was kind of a neat thing. And it sort of forced me to step up and help out, but I’m happy to do it. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Wood purchased his iRacing rig in 2017 after several of his friends on Twitter pressured him into joining iRacing.
“It sounds weird to say you’ve got friends that you’ve never technically met, but this is a different period in time,” Wood said. “What you would categorize as a friend is different. I consider them just as close a friend as people I went to school with or people that I interact with on a daily basis.”
At first, Wood competed in quite a bit in sim racing and started racing in the CORT Series. But as time went on and life got busy, Wood’s interest in it waned until earlier this year, when a bet with his league commissioner went wrong.
“I said, ‘If Matt [DiBenedetto] finishes top five at Daytona [International Speedway], then I’ll run every race,’ not really thinking,” Wood said. “Because Daytona, that’s one of those where it’s pretty likely you’re going to get wadded up. So I never really thought twice about it.
“Matt crashed, and I said, ‘Alright, double or nothing. If he [DiBenedetto] goes to Vegas [Las Vegas Motor Speedway] and finishes top five, then I’ll run all the races,’ not thinking that right out of the box we would be that competitive. And lo and behold, Matt finishes second. So that’s how I got back into it.”
When the COVID-19 outbreak first started, Wood went to his parents’ house in Stuart, Va., to do a charitable drive of giving tablets and iPads to nursing homes so the elderly could communicate with their families. Since then, he has been quarantining there, and with plenty of downtime, he made a special trip back to his house in Mooresville, N.C., to get his sim rig.
“Had I not done that, then it would’ve been out of the question for me to be able to race on Saturday,” Wood said.
And while his driver, DiBenedetto, has entertained in the Pro Invitational Series by wearing costumes such as a giraffe onesie, Wood will not continue that tradition.
“No, I’m going to be doing good just to turn mine on,” Wood said. “Again, I’ve done it and know the ins and outs of how to join a league and do all that stuff, but it’s really complex how they’re managing these Invitational races. … That’s the part I’m nervous about is making sure I don’t screw up and not get my [paint] scheme entered the right way or show up for one of the hosted things.”
If there was ever a week for Wood and the team to get the paint scheme right, this weekend would be it. This Saturday, the No. 21 will have a throwback paint scheme that will serve as a tribute to Daytona 500 winner Marvin Panch, who passed away in 2015, and one of the original Wood Brothers, Ray Lee Wood, who passed away on Tuesday (May 5). The throwback is a paint scheme from the 1960s, when Panch won two North Wilkesboro races and Ray Lee was a tire changer on the No. 21.
“We picked a scheme that I think was actually one of the last cars he [Ray Lee] would’ve pitted while he was on the pit crew,” Wood said. “We need to pay our respects to both Marvin and Ray Lee.”
Oops. Forgot to add what it’s a throwback to. pic.twitter.com/LviSiUtKZH
— Wood Brothers Racing (@woodbrothers21) May 7, 2020
If Wood does manage to do everything correctly to get into Saturday’s race, he still has one major obstacle to overcome: poor internet speeds in Stuart.
“Cable internet is nonexistent up here,” Wood said. “Everybody’s either got DSL, or I guess they don’t have internet. I don’t really know. But the internet is tragically, overwhelmingly terrible. The few races that I’ve run up here in the league that I’m in, a couple guys mentioned that my car was blinking. And I’ve never, ever had that happen, so I didn’t know how to handle it.
“So I guess the rule will have to be Saturday, my kids are gonna have to go outside or something. They can’t be streaming. Every aspect of other internet services are gonna have to be down so that I can do this.”
For Wood, competing in this race isn’t a comeback attempt and it certainly isn’t his seeking redemption for a NASCAR career that ended at 27 years old. It’s merely a substitution, as he’s grown to enjoy the business side of racing.
“When I stopped driving, it was during the financial crisis. Sponsorships were cutting back. We had to cut back to a part-time schedule. It was kind of a forced decision,” Wood said. “I didn’t like it at first, and I didn’t like switching over to the ownership side of things and working that angle of racing. But looking back, I’m kind of glad I did, because I’ve come to a whole new appreciation for how the sport works and the people who are a part of it.
“I think when you’re driving — this is not a criticism of drivers at all — but when you’re a driver, you don’t really get to see how hard everybody else — well, I guess you get to see the work the crew members put in, but you don’t see behind-the-scenes stuff that all the marketing people and the production crew, that sort of thing, even the media.
“I have a better understanding of how every bit of it works now. My dad and my uncle are getting a little older, so it’s good to work side by side with them and kind of learn the business side and how to manage things.”
All that Wood has learned from the second generation of Wood Brothers could be put front and center very soon. When NASCAR first comes back, the rosters for teams are limited. No one from the Wood family will be at the track when the season resumes May 17 at Darlington Raceway, as they will utilize every roster position for people who work on the race car.
“We had the option, but it just made more sense to make sure that [crew chief] Greg Erwin had all the resources he needed,” Wood explained.
But whenever the rosters expand and the team elects to have a management person there, Wood will go to represent the owners of the team, as his father Eddie and uncle Len are both in their 60s, in the at-risk demographic of COVID-19.
“They kind of decided they would send me when the time comes,” Wood said. “But I’m not worried about that. Our team is self-sufficient, and we don’t even need to be there. It’ll run like clockwork.”
Four races in 11 days will be tough on all the teams, but it will be far from the greatest challenge they face coming back.
“It’s more a matter of making sure you don’t break any of the county or the state guidelines on social distancing, on number of people in the shops,” Wood said. “That’s gonna be the tough part. Racing every three days is hard as well. You’re basically doing a week’s worth of race prep in two days. And that’s going to be a challenge, not only for us, but everybody. But it’s the only way.
“Our sport is unique in that if our event doesn’t happen, then nobody gets paid. The teams don’t get their money. The sponsors don’t pay because they didn’t get their races run. It’s just a trickle-down effect. It’s literally race or go out of business. … Not saying that’s taking precedence and that’s more important than lives and safety. That’s certainly not the case. But we are in a situation where we need to make every race happen. And that being said, we got to do it right so that we don’t have an issue where we have to stop or something goes wrong and they can’t complete the schedule. We got to do it right.”
Wood feels that everyone in NASCAR is taking this situation very seriously and has prepared for it well.
“I would feel better,” he noted, “About going to Darlington than I would going to the grocery store.
“They’re that prepared, and it’s very, very serious. I sent an email out to all our guys [Wednesday] just kind of outlining how they really need to pay attention and not give anybody any ammo to criticize the sport or our team in particular and say, ‘See, we told you so.’
“But I do think they’re ready.”