AMONG THE ADVERTISED scenic attractions of Patrick County, Virginia, together with the Bob White Covered Bridge near Woolwine, the R. J. Reynolds homestead near Critz and the Philpott Reservoir, is a modest cinderblock building, in Stuart, on the banks of Poorhouse Creek.
The building is owned by Glen and Leonard Wood, formerly of nearby Buffalo Ridge, and though their names aren't familiar in the drawing rooms of Georgetown, you can bet they're known in the White House.
For the Wood Brothers, who build and maintain a racing stock car in that building, are artists of the wrench and five iron and if Jimmy Carter ever heeds a pit crew in the Daytona 500 he'll probably choose them. After all, why not the best?
For more than fifteen years the Woods have been dazzling the nation's stock car racing fans - including the current President - with high-speed choreography in the pit lanes. They make a practice, even an art, of fueling their race car, changing two tires, wiping the windshield and sending the driver on his way with a drink of water and a kind word - all in fifteen seconds or less. Last April in Darlington, S.C., they did it in 12.7 seconds, so fast Leonard left his thumbnail under the right front fender.
They are the world's Fastest Pit Crew, and you can buy Wood Brothers jackets and hats, car decals, license plates and tee-shirts.
If burden of acclaim weighs heavy, the Wood Brothers carry it with some grace, greeting visitors with a sense of bemused wonder at the things some people make a fuss about.
"We always figure if somebody makes a special trip here to see us, well, the least we can do is talk with them," Leonard Wood sighed the other day as he perched on a stack of tires washing down a breakfast hot dog with a Dr. Pepper. "But I don't know what we do so much different than what everybody else [in racing] does now. I guess it's the family thing."
It is "the family thing" that lifts the Wood Brothers above the wrench-wielding anonymity of racetrack machanicdom to semi-cult status in Southern culture: a fourteen-member band of siblings, sons and sidekicks from the VIrginia hills traveling around the country together and wowing them in the big time.
In addition to Glen, the car owner, and Leonard, the engineering brain, the team also includes brothers Clay and Delano. Brother Ray Lee worked with them until 1965 when he joined the Holiness Church, which didn't hold with racing on Sundays. So he quit. But by then Glen's two sons, Eddie and Len, were coming along. They now work in the shop full time and Leonard calls them "my two right-hand men."
Then there's Ralph Edwards, who is first cousin to Glen's wife; Butch Moricle, a nephew; and Grover Adkins, Glen's partner in the Lincoln-Mercury agency in Danville. That hardly leaves room for non-family members like Cecil Wilson, who also works making towels at Fieldcrest Mills; Ken Martin, a tobacco farmer from over at Sandy Ridge, North Carolina; Hylton Tatum, of Stuart; George Scruggs, who runs a transmission shop, and Jack Kendrick, a Roanoke hardware salesman.
When the Wood Brothers spring into action, most of the team stays "behind the wall," timing laps and doing a hundred support jobs that keep a racing car on the track. When their No. 21 Mercury pulls in, however, seven pour "over the wall," Delano lunging for the hydraulic jack that lifts the car and Leonard and Edwards springing to the front and rear wheels respectively, pneumatic lug wrenches screaming.
Martin jams a hose-topped ten-gallon gasoline can into the car's spring-shut gas cap while Len crouches beside him catching spilled fuel.
Clay Wood vaults over with the new tires, their lug nuts stuck loosely to the wheel holes with glue. Glen wipes the windshield and talks to driver David Pearson, a 42-year-old grandfather from Spartanburg, South Carolina who has driven for the Woods for five years. Pearson, know as "The Gray Fox," is part Cherokee Indian.
When the car thunders back onto the track seconds later, Eddie Wood crouches at a special CB radio, talking to Pearson over the roar of the engine that sounds, at the average superspeedway, something like world II.
"When we started (big-time racing full time) around 1962 nobody was seeming to put any emphasis on pit stops," Leonard Wood remembers."They were taking forty-five seconds and longer. We just figured we could make time in the pits a whole lot easier than on the track . . . get maybe half a lap on the next guy with every stop. We talked it over and it became a family thing. Everybody worked at it."
By 1965 they had gotten so good at it that the Ford Motor Company, then heavily into racing, sent them to the Indianapolis 500 to pit the late Grand Prix driver Jimmy Clark. They didn't want to go.
"Well," explained Leonard, "we'd never really been up there before and we didn't know those people or that kind of racing. But more than that, well, you just don't walk in and start pitting another fellow's car. I mean, you just don't do that . . . giving orders . . . But they were real nice and made us feel like they really wanted us. So we did what we could."
Ford ballyhooed the Wood Brothers as its secret weapon - a grifts-fed team of razor-sharp country boys mys* teriously capable of superhuman speed. Indy veterans snickered.
When the race was over, the Woods had the track announcers babbling over their stopwatches. They had fueled Clark twice in a total of 44.5 seconds - faster than any team in the history of the race - and sped his unfamiliar little car to victory by nearly two minutes.
"I don't see what everybody's making such a fuss over," said Glen at the time. "We didn't even have to change the tires."
The Woods could have made a career of INdianapolis, but they came back to Patrick County and stocks cars. "We've never really thought of leaving," Leonard said.
There have been some disadvantages to staying: Parts have to come from Charlotte, North Carolina, the hub city of stock car racing. Airline connections to Riverside, California, and other distant race tracks are difficult to make.
There are also certain rural environmental hazards, including the water moccassins that keep showing up in the dynamometer room of the tidy cinderblock shop.
"Eddie found the first one last summer," Leonard said. "He thought it was an air hose hissing over there in the corner."
But there are advantages, too. Moving would have meant breaking up the family team, and the future in racing is always uncertain enough without that.
"You have good years and bad years," said Leonard. "It seems like as soon as you'll figure something out that gives you a little more speed and you win a few, somebody comes along with something they've got that beats you and you start all over again . . .
Last year was our best year [$283,686.33 plus sponsor money]. We won all three of the richest races - in Daytona, Charlotte and Darlington. But this year we won Riverside early in the year and then lost six in a row. No money in that."
In addition, there's the uncertain future of motor racing in the age of the energy crisis, relieved only by personnal acquaintance with the Man in the Whit House.
"I think he understands about stock car racing. I mean he really understands!" said Glen. "He had us and all the drivers to a reception in the mansion when he was governor of Georgia. We got a picture of him with us around here somewhere."
Thinking of the future, Glen's been buying bottom land just south of town and setting out potatoes and corn. "You want to have something on the land for the kids, you know," he said. "I don't think the boys are as close to the land as when I was a boy . . . But I'm awfully proud of them. They keep us young ,they're right smart and they wanted to work with us. They decided that on their own, and they're making a real contribution.
"I don't care what they do with their lives, but I always told them, whatever they do take pride in it and respect it and be the best they can. That's what we've always tried to do and I guess it's worked out."