Trevor Bayne and the Woods (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Tony Lund, circa 1963, is standing proudly next to the white and candy-apple red Ford on Daytona's frontstretch grass.
It is now a huge, framed photo inside the Wood brothers' racing shop on the backside of Charlotte Motor Speedway, over on NC 49.
And it speaks of a different time in this sport.
Lund's Daytona 500 win, subbing for injured Marvin Panch, was the first for the Woods at that track, and it has been followed by many others -- with A. J. Foyt, Cale Yarborough, David Pearson, Neil Bonnett...and most recently Trevor Bayne, in that 2011 surprise.
The Woods have been racing NASCAR since the early 1950s, and they were winning races at this Charlotte track almost from the day it opened back in 1960. Speedy Thompson, Pearson, Bonnett, Kyle Petty...
But for the first time in ages the Woods will not have a car entered this weekend here.
One of the most storied machines in stock car history...
Lack of sponsorship is the simplest answer. This sport has become incredibly expensive, grossly overpriced. Mega-teams dominate.
It's not enough these days to load up a rollback with a single car and stack the box with cans of Beanie Weenies.
A decent sponsorship runs a cool $16 million-plus. Prorated over 36 races a season, that's nearly $500,000 a race weekend.
Leonard Wood, working his replica of that 1963 Daytona 500 winner (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Not a lot of guys can afford to play this game. The barriers to entry are huge, and getting bigger.
The Woods, now Len and Eddie, Glen's sons, are among the few still trying to survive.
That Daytona victory two years ago looked for a while to be that big shot in the arm the Woods have needed to get back up front. Bayne, so personable, and so young... just 20, by a day, that afternoon at Daytona.
But Mr. Big, as Robert Yates liked to call him, never picked up the phone.
And here two years on, racing is still a struggle.
Eddie Wood, now head of the Wood Brothers team (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
The incomparable Pearson, in that legendary 1973 season, won 11 of his 18 starts for the Woods, that during an era when the Woods won one of every three NASCAR tour events they started.
The Woods created the strategy of lightning pit stops, with lanky Delano Wood hauling the jack and Leonard the front gun.
It is a storied stock car operation. And if the owners of NASCAR's Hall of Fame ever straighten out that operation, the entire Wood brothers team would be enshrined.
But time marches on.
Eddie Wood stands next to the team's Charlotte car, which at the moment is being prepped for the Monday NASCAR test. "They're trying to make racing better on these 1-1/2-mile tracks, and they've got some good ideas," Wood says. "A bigger spoiler is one of them. Nothing is set in stone yet."
Eddie Wood may have learned patience, and peace, through his chess. He's been chess playing for years. Serious chess. At the track "we'd play chess for a while, move out to work on the car, leaving the board, with a note of whose move it was, then later returning to work on the game some more.
"We had a game we were playing once while driving down the road, and I got mad after Len beat me two games in a row, and I threw it out the window."
Tiny Lund, in the Woods' 21 (Photo: Wood Brothers)
So why aren't the Woods racing at Charlotte in Saturday night's 500?
"We've got funding to do 12 races this season, and we'll be at Talladega next week, and Texas and Homestead.
"Why not Charlotte? It's just the way it worked out. You've got a lot of things to factor into where you're going to go. And this is just the way it worked out.
"Last year we had some extra funding from the Camping World/Good Sam guy. We never could make that work out this year. It just didn't work out."
In the team's nine races so far, not much to talk about: 27th at Daytona, 23rd at Las Vegas, 18th at Texas, 43rd at Talladega, 16th at Charlotte, 15th at Michigan, 20th in July at Daytona, 28th at the Brickyard, and 21st at Michigan.
One lap led.
No longer the glory days.
Yes, but this situation bears directly on the state of the sport of NASCAR racing, which has become rather ragged in several respects the last few years.
Checking the numbers, it looks like NASCAR's overall popularity may have peaked in 2003, then dipped in 2004, came back a bit in 2005, and been on a downward slide pretty much ever since.
Time Magazine's current issue discusses some of the problems Time here
We discussed some of the problems earlier this season too NASCAR bounce back here
Some key factors perhaps:
-- R.J. Reynolds' dropping its grassroots Winston weekly racing series in 2003, then pulling out of the sport entirely;
-- NBC's dropping the sport at the end of 2006, after cutting promotion of the sport through 2005 in advance of the changeover to ESPN/Disney/ABC;
-- and the car-of-tomorrow controversies in 2007-2008.
Other points of note here:
-- The push toward night races -- the Daytona Shootout, Texas, Richmond, Darlington, Charlotte All-Star, Kentucky, Daytona-July, Bristol-August, Atlanta, and this Charlotte 500, 11 races this season -- might be counterproductive. TV numbers appear to show the night time audiences are 10 percent lower than an otherwise similar day race. And there appears to be a similar effect on attendance.
-- The 2012 season had the fewest number of caution flags since 1990.
-- More Cup races are on cable now than a few years ago, which may also cut into viewership.
A pair of Hall of Famers: David Pearson and Leonard Wood (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Time Magazine just laid out some of the problems in this week's current issue, and also NASCAR's game plan for recovery.
But an impartial observer might be hard-pressed to see a quick turnaround here.
One big point -- NASCAR executives put so much hope and hype into these new 2013 stockers, which they dubbed the 'Gen-6,' as a marketing pitch. And the 2013s simply haven't delivered.
Last weekend's fiasco at Kansas was merely the latest in a stretch of events where 'clean air,' as in what only the leader has, has been crucial.
Side by side racing, bump-and-run, all that good stuff, well, such as its been has been overshadowed by other events, like the Michael Waltrip-Richmond flap.
In the face of all that, the Woods are laying out plans for 2014, which would be their 61st NASCAR season. Hopefully 20 Cup races, hopefully again with Bayne. But nothing's firmed up yet.
Leonard and Glen Wood, the men who started it all (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Remember, it's all about the costs.
And Monday's testing here will likely result in some rules changes, which won't come free.
Rules changes that, in the wake of too many lackluster races, would appear to show that all the homework done on the 2013s simply wasn't enough.
Maybe NASCAR's Bill France Jr. was right -- no team owner needs to be running more than two cars a weekend.
Multi-car teams, are they a blessing or a curse?
Rick Hendrick's operation, for example, with its satellite engineering teams, has some 10 teams in the race field.
Even Ford's Jack Roush has trouble matching up against numbers like that.
How are smaller teams, like the Woods, supposed to survive, much less compete?
Roush's shop builds the engines and puts the bodies on the cars; the Woods do the finishing work. "That works really well," Wood says. "You can't do this by yourself; we tried that. You've got to be hooked to something bigger."
Detroit car makers drive a large part of this. Without a good Detroit deal, you might as well sell your shop and go buy some new putters or tennis rackets.
Sheer numbers of people, and engineers, have skewed the sport's balance of power.
And then there's the technology itself.
One of the biggest costs is in lightening a car's weight, Wood says. The lighter a car, the better extra-weight placement can be, improving handling.
"But when you get to chasing weight," Wood says, "there's a money-number to it, per pound.
"Once you get as light as you think you can be, then there's another level of it. You get into making specialty parts. That's where it is now, with extremely light-weight specialty parts."
How fast do you want to go?
How much money do you have?
Another issue here -- this hasn't been a great season for Ford teams all the way around, for some reason.
Horsepower? Aerodynamics? Trick rear ends?
Whatever the trick is right now, Ford teams don't seem to have it.
And chasing it isn't fun.
"No one seems to really know what it is," Wood says of Ford's current dilemma.
"The motors are great.
"But then you can get into combinations...and it could be something as simple as setups.
"When you're chasing it to get better, and you only have a certain amount of time to get better, a lot of it is just to work as hard as you can on everything.
"They'll figure it out."
However what's maddening is success sometimes seems so hit-and-miss.
"About the time you think you've figured out what's going on, and what's wrong," Wood says, "it'll be something else.'
"You're working on everything, and then you go to the track one weekend and suddenly you car runs....and you really don't know what you've fixed.
"It goes in cycles. Rick Hendrick's been through it, Joe Gibbs has been through it, we've been through it, Jack Roush, Roger Penske, everybody.
"Like Richard Childress -- his guys were struggling, and all of a sudden they win the race (Kansas last weekend).
"It's unbelievable the amount of work that goes on about the tiniest of things: Everything matters. There's nothing about these race cars, down to the paint, that doesn't matter.
"You know how restrictor plate racing is, to make your car fast. Well it's like that every week at every track now, as far as the detail.
And the days of the crew chief being just a sly good ol' boy, with a bag of tricks, well that's long gone.
Crew chiefs today are fighting sensory overload, in managing a team.
"A crew chief today is about like an air traffic controller," Wood says. "There is just so much stuff they have to keep up with; in addition to the car, you've got to keep up with the people, the parts, the engineering....
"It's hard right now, the hardest I've ever seen it. And I've been around a long time.
Trevor Bayne, just turned 20, in victory lane at Daytona (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)