As the 27-car starting grid for Thursday's first Gatorade Duel 150 qualifying race rolled off pit road, I climbed the stairs of the Sprint Fan Deck. Hundreds of fans lined the railing that overlooked the frontstretch and the Cup Series garage below. They snapped photos and shouted down to the stars, cars, and crews of today's billion-dollar sport. They begged and pleaded for autographs from everyone from Cup champs to tire changers.
Behind them, an older gentleman in a black Ford Racing jacket shuffled up the stairs and silently took a spot against the mostly empty rear railing at their backs. I paused to see if anyone recognized him. They did not. So I eased over to stand next to him and extended a hand.
"Mr. Wood, how are you today?"
It was Glen Wood, founder and co-owner of Wood Brothers Racing. He shook my hand, slapped me on the shoulder and asked me to stand with him to watch the race, specifically the red No. 21 Ford Fusion driven by Bill Elliott.
This, race fans, was a very big deal.
Sixty years ago Glen ran a sawmill in Stuart, Va., a tiny town tucked into the Blue Ridge Mountains along the North Carolina-Virginia border. When he and his four brothers saw another local woodman, Curtis Turner, become a local racing hero, they decided to build a race car of their own.
"Yeah," Glen told me with a wink. "That ended up being a pretty good idea, didn't it?"
Yes it did. Wood Brothers Racing has scored nearly 100 Cup Series wins and 117 poles, and when Petty Enterprises merged with Gillett Evernham Motorsports in 2009, Wood Brothers became the oldest team in NASCAR.
The 84-year-old pointed to the high banks of Turn 3 as the field eased through behind the pace car. "I drove here twice. Both races were in 1959, the first year it was open. The biggest track any of us had ever raced on was Darlington and when we rolled in here it was, 'Well now, what do we have here?'"
He ran two races that weekend. The first was a NASCAR Convertible Series race (yes, they used to run races without roofs). He started on the pole and was in the lead late, but ran out of fuel. Sort of.
"We were running 130 miles an hour, but the place was so big that I'd get on that long backstretch back there and it seemed like it took forever to get down to Turn 3. Then that last time the fuel started choking off. But when I hit the banking it fired back up, so I took after the three guys that had passed me," Wood said.
That was Shorty Rollins, Marvin Panch and Richard Petty, who were running three wide on the narrow frontstretch, creating a wall of bumpers that Wood couldn't get around. Rollins won by two feet over Panch. Wood finished fourth. Two days later Wood started the inaugural Daytona 500, starting eighth but finishing 34th of 59 cars with a cracked clutch. That was his last superspeedway race behind the wheel, but certainly not as a car owner.
"Marvin ended up driving for us, you know. I felt like we would've won the Daytona 500 with Marvin in 1963, but he got hurt in a sports car crash."
They won it anyway, with substitute driver Tiny Lund. They also won the 500 with Cale Yarborough in '68 and A.J. Foyt in '72. But the most famous of the team's 97 Cup wins came four years later in the greatest finish in racing history, when David Pearson and Petty wrecked off the final turn of the final lap and Pearson took the checkered flag rolling at all of about 15 mph. (See for yourself here.)
"David got around Richard down the backstretch, but Richard got back by him over yonder," Wood said, craning his neck to cast a glance over toward Turn 4. "Richard was on the inside and came up on David a little early, squeezed him toward the wall. He thought he could make David back off, but he didn't. The most amazing part of it was that as David was spinning into the grass he came over the radio and said 'That so-and-so wrecked me.' "
As the green flag dropped and the engines roared to life in the Duel race, Wood leaned over and spoke above the noise.
"This is when you like having a guy like Bill in your race car. He's starting third and we're already in the Daytona 500 on our qualifying time. He'll see what he's got, but if everybody decides to get crazy he'll get out of there and make sure we don't end up with a wrecked car."
For an hour, the living legend verbally coached Awesome Bill through the 60-lap race.
"Bill, be careful up there "
"He'll ease up out of this mess right here "
"Oops, they'll hang him out to dry now "
"Ol' Michael Waltrip has his work cut out for him today. You know, he's wrecked a lot of race cars, but it's not because he's careless. It's because he's fearless. A lot of other drivers could use more of that."
Wood went on to talk about an increasingly careless attitude that seems to be creeping into today's paddock. Six decades of owning, buying, and building race cars will make a man sensitive to the cost of carelessness. But even though he stopped driving in 1964, he hasn't forgotten the physical cost.
"We ran a convertible race at Asheville-Weaverville [N.C.] in 1956, and there was just a cloud of red clay dust sitting on the backstretch. I was running along and when I went into that cloud and -- bam! -- I ran into a pile of wrecked cars that were sitting in there."
He split his lip, cut his tongue and was so groggy from the collision that when he tried to climb out of the car he fell dizzily back into the seat. Meanwhile, cars kept hammering into the dust cloud and slamming into the carnage. All but one car ended up crashed, so the race was called with nine laps remaining (goofiest box score ever, check it out here).
"Joe Weatherly got so spooked he started trying to climb up the wall to get out of there. That was more than 50 years ago, and I still remember how much it hurt. These young guys get to feeling invincible in these new safer cars and with the soft walls, but I guarantee you it still hurts."
As the checkered flag flew over the closest finish in Gatorade Duel history, Elliott safely crossed the finish line 22nd, sliding into the 40th starting spot for Sunday's Daytona 500 and, more importantly, keeping the car in one piece. ("Other teams can afford to wreck their best stuff and replace it with something else. We can't.") It will be the 52nd Great American Race. Glen Wood has had a car in all of them.
I walked with Mr. Wood down the stairs from the Fan Deck as he apologized for being so slow. We shook hands and he slapped me on the shoulder again as he turned to walk into the garage.
Making my way to the media center, a fellow member of the press corps jogged over and asked, "Hey, who was that old man you were up there talking to during the race?" I took him by the arm and pulled him over to the Goodyear Legends of Daytona exhibit and banged my finger on the photo of David Pearson checking out his wrecked Mercury in the '76 500 Victory Lane.
"You see the guy pushing the car right there? The one in the glasses? That's him."
Then I pointed to the giant blue sign overhead.
"He's a Legend of Daytona."
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.