Petty-Wood Brothers rivalry is back
It was May 23, 2011, backstage at the Charlotte Convention Center. Members of the just-inducted NASCAR Hall of Fame class of 2011 were filing into the media room, escorted by friends and family, and moving toward the stage for their rounds of Q-and-A.
Leonard Wood, he of the famed Wood Brothers Racing team, had just arrived from the grand ballroom, where he introduced its greatest driver and Hall inductee, David Pearson. The Silver Fox was still chuckling over a comment that Wood made during his remarks, reminding the crowd that Pearson won 43 races in the Woods' famed No. 21 Mercury. As he said it, he cast a glance to the front row and toward Richard Petty, he of the Petty Enterprises No. 43 Dodge, and jabbed "Nice number" to raucous applause.
Now, a half hour later, Wood was about to hit the step up to the media stage, but a motorized scooter suddenly flew in to block his way, stopping with a BANG!
Startled, he looked up to see Maurice Petty, who had just accepted on behalf of another member of the class, his father, Lee. Richard's brother and longtime engine builder smiled and winked.
"Well, looky there. A Wood finishes second to a Petty again."
The greatest rivalry in American motorsports history is back, nearly six decades after it started. A showdown that once divided grandstands across the nation and created dual demilitarized zones along North Carolina's longest borders was in danger of fading into distant memory. Now, thanks to the NASCAR Hall of Fame, their one-upmanship has been resuscitated, as both sides unapologetically keep score of spires scored in the Hall of Honor.
"Oh, there's no question that we're keeping track of who is getting in, ours and theirs," says Glen Wood, founder of Wood Brothers Racing, the team's first driver and one of this weekend's five new Hall inductees. "It's kind of like it was when David was racing Richard. The Pettys jumped out to a big lead, just like Richard used to do. But we're reeling them in now, just like David used to do."
On Friday night, the NASCAR Hall of Fame will welcome its third class. The inaugural group in 2010 included Richard Petty. Many felt that Pearson should have joined him, but the Fox had to wait a year, joining Lee Petty in the '11 class. The 2012 inductees include Dale Inman, crew chief for nearly all of Richard's stock car success, and Glen Wood. There's also Cale Yarborough, who won 13 races driving for the Wood Brothers, including the 1968 Daytona 500.
For those of you scoring at home, that's three apiece in three years, with more expected in the not-so-distant future. There's little doubt that Leonard Wood will be voted in at some point. And the Petty family continues to use its Hall of Fame pulpit to lobby for Maurice, who entered the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in Talladega this past April.
"It's amazing to think that six of the first 15 into the Hall have their ties in just two teams," Richard Petty says. "But then again, if you know your NASCAR history, then you shouldn't be surprised. We've been running neck-and-neck for a long time."
Then His Royal Fastness pauses and smiles. "But our neck was just a little longer a few more times than theirs was."
Glen Wood and Lee Petty first competed against each other under the NASCAR banner on May 17, 1953. Petty won the 200-lap event (after a postrace scoring recount) at Martinsville Speedway, Wood's home racetrack. Wood completed only 25 laps in his first Grand National race and finished 30th out of 35 cars. Petty won $1,000. Wood won $25.
In the 58 seasons since, the Pettys and Woods have accounted for 384 Cup series wins, 14 in the Daytona 500 alone. Lee and Glen gave way to Richard and the all-star roster of part-time drivers whom the Wood Brothers employed. Leonard called the shots as crew chief for most of those drivers, while Inman did the same for Richard. Lee and Glen continued on as team owners, eventually grooming their children to take over -- Richard and Maurice taking the reins in Randleman, N.C., while Eddie and Len eventually became the next generation of Wood Brothers up in Stuart, Va.
But as the 1980s arrived, Richard quit winning Cups and Pearson left the Woods. The rivalry slowed to a crawl, and for the better part of the last three decades, the teams have had to settle for occasional victories and frequent financial troubles. Their 1-2 finish at Bristol in 2001, with Elliott Sadler in the 21 and John Andretti in the 43, was seen more as fortuitous nostalgia than a sign of returned relevance.
Now they are de facto teammates, both part of Roush Fenway Racing's massive Ford family tree. Last year the Woods won the Daytona 500 with Trevor Bayne, while the Petty name (as Richard Petty Motorsports, not Petty Enterprises) was once again inscribed on a trophy, thanks to Marcos Ambrose's win at Watkins Glen. It was the first time since 1986 that both teams visited Victory Lane in the same season.
"As much as we like to poke each other, there's also a kinship there," Leonard Wood admits. "We grew up in the sport together, we enjoyed our greatest days in racing at the same time, and we have leaned on each other when times were rough."
To so many modern NASCAR fans, the two families were known only as also-rans. The NASCAR Hall of Fame, paired with last year's wins, is changing that. Now the Woods and the Pettys are again running door-to-door. This time it's a dash for racing immortality. And the smack talk has never been better.
"Well, if y'all are going to claim Cale, then we get to claim Buddy Baker when he gets in," Inman said to Glen Wood at a recent joint appearance. "He won two races for us."
"He won one for us, too," the elder Wood replied. "So did Marvin Panch, so we get him ..."
"Yeah, but Marvin won for us, too ..."
"Dan Gurney drove for us ..."
"Us, too ..."
"Not Joe Weatherly, though ..."
The two men rifled off more names before shaking their heads and laughing. Finally Glen Wood added, "This argument might not ever get settled."
Said Inman, "That's kind of how it should be, isn't it?"
Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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