Wood Brothers seek more than history

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- This is alternately billed as the little race team that could, a nostalgic one-car operation fighting the bloated-budget NASCAR behemoths, or one of the most truly revered teams in stock car history.

Take your pick.

But the truth is, Wood Brothers Racing is both.

As keepers of the longest-running operation in NASCAR, each member of the Wood family -- founder Glen, sons Eddie and Len, and daughter Kim -- has a 25-percent stake in a team that ranks fourth all-time with 97 Cup victories.

The Woods begin their 55th year of operation at Sunday's 47th Daytona 500, where Ricky Rudd will pilot the storied No. 21 Motorcraft Ford.

And while it's worth noting the team has lived longer than the Great American Race itself, it's also shocking that Wood Brothers Racing has been with Ford for its entire existence. The team has had several opportunities to switch allegiances, but never saw fit to do it.

It's called loyalty, a concept in short supply not only in NASCAR but in life.

Back when Glen kicked off what would become a family obsession passed down to future offspring, deals were sealed by handshakes. One's word meant something, and it had nothing to do with small-print contracts drawn up by lawyers who wouldn't know a dirt track from a pile of mud.

"He started in 1950 with a '50 Ford," Len said. "He paid 50 dollars for it. And this is our 55th year."

Len's specialty is engine development, and appearing to be quick with numbers, he's asked how much the gleaming No. 21 Ford sitting in a garage stall at Daytona International Speedway might fetch right now.

"Quite a bit more than that," he said.

To hear Len speak, it sounds almost as if nothing happened in between. In reality, many of the biggest names in motorsports have driven at one time or another for the Wood Brothers.

There was David Pearson, who famously limped across the finish line ahead of Richard Petty to win the 1976 Daytona 500 after crashing the team's Mercury on the final lap. Pearson won 37 races in a six-year span with the Wood Brothers in the 1970s.

Cale Yarborough, Marvin Panch, Tiny Lund, Fred Lorenzen, A.J. Foyt and Donnie Allison all were among the many legendary names that helped make the team one of NASCAR's calling cards.

"The Wood Brothers are an integral part of NASCAR and I look forward to them always being a part of the sport," is how NASCAR vice chairman Bill France puts it. "They have given us many exciting moments over the years. I don't expect that will change."

And while those are meaningful words from the man who ruled NASCAR for more than 30 years before passing the torch down to his son, Brian, in 2003, it won't guarantee the team's future.

"I think it's more about what we can do tomorrow than what we did yesterday," Len said matter-of-factly.

And that's where the focus is right now at Wood Brothers. And rightly so, because the recent yesterdays haven't been on par with the legend; even though the team has at least one victory in each of the last six decades, the last two were tallied in 2001 and 1993.

Those sobering realities have motivated Rudd, who begins his third year with the organization seeking two things that have eluded him throughout a long, successful career: A Nextel Cup championship and Daytona 500 victory.

Does Rudd really have a chance for either of those things if he sticks with the present-day Wood Brothers? The brothers' standing offer to Rudd is that he can drive for them as long as he wishes, but the question more logically is whether or not Rudd wants to stick with the Wood Brothers.

"I think I might have moved on before now, but Eddie Wood's so determined to bring this team back to where it was in the '70s -- at least get it back to competitive again," Rudd said. "It's my mission. Growing up in Virginia, I remember the newspapers were always, 'Wood Brothers this, Wood Brothers that.' It took a big slide down.

"But to me, if Ricky Rudd helped bring it back, that would mean something."

There are signs, more than the usual new-season optimism, that things are coming back. Bringing aboard crew chief Michael "Fatback" McSwain late last season was a big step toward viability.

It wouldn't have happened, though, had Eddie and Len not woken up one November morning and made a painful decision. They had just come off another winless season in 2003, one in which Rudd finished top 10 on only five occasions.

Something had to change, and so after 54 years in Stuart, Va., they packed up the operation and moved it to NASCAR's mecca: Mooresville, N.C.

In Mooresville, go to a local diner at lunch time and try not bumping into Nextel Cup team personnel. The biggest and best operations are in the Charlotte area, and if you think race secrets don't pour out with the coffee, you haven't been there.

"It seemed like we were struggling to get engineering help for the team," Len said. "The guys in the shop -- if you're in Virginia, and you come up with a trick or a secret or something good, you protect it. But it's also harder to find those secrets out.

"You can be in Charlotte at a restaurant and there can be five different race teams at lunch time, and it's like, 'Hey, how you doin'. What have you been working on?' And you find out stuff. It can be something that somebody else didn't think was very important but maybe you hadn't thought of it."

With full backing from Ford, meaning engineering help that most smaller teams in this sport simply don't have, the Wood Brothers have had strong aerodynamics. But finding the speed from the engine -- a problem even DEI is unexpectedly facing this week at Daytona -- has been worrisome.

But the Roush-Yates engines, built across the street from the Wood Brothers' new shop, are being massaged now under the guidance of Fatback and engineer Hoyt Overbagh.

Even last year, disappointing as it was overall, saw rapid improvement at the end after Fatback and Overbagh showed up. In the final 10 races, Rudd had a top-10 car enough times to move from 29th in the standings to 25th.

It might not sound like much, but a finish like that in an otherwise rough season doesn't just happen out of the blue.

"If I hadn't been here and seen it with my own eyes every day, I wouldn't believe the turnaround," Eddie said. "I think if you added up the last 12 races, we probably would have been eighth or ninth in the points, which is pretty remarkable from where we started."

Rudd describes himself as a non-politically correct person -- "I'd be the guy that turned down the promotion" -- both on and off the track. Simply put, he speaks his mind without need for sugarcoating.

He knows the Wood Brothers' history as well as anyone. He yearns to see the team running for top-10 finishes and race victories again. But despite an apparently strong car, which was ninth in Daytona 500 qualifying and has displayed drafting potential, Rudd won't proclaim anything yet.

"The future of Wood Brothers Racing will be based on performance," Rudd said, his eyes fixed straight ahead. "They've done a good job of survival, but the future will be based on the performance the next few years. History doesn't guarantee you a spot. They've been around a long time, but if the performance doesn't get better, their days are numbered."

And numbers mean everything to NASCAR's oldest operation. Eddie and Len both have sons in their early 20s who are working their way up the racing chain. The tradition that once saw their fathers sweeping the family's shop floor for $1 a day will be handed down to them one day, assuming Rudd's ominous warning doesn't play out badly.

"It will fall to them to carry on the Wood family tradition," Len acknowledged.

Sentimentality may surround the team, but Len says it's always been about racing and nothing more. The move to the Charlotte area hurt -- they still have their homes in Stuart, choosing apartments in Mooresville -- but it was done because racing asked them to do it.

Illustrating their forward-thinking approach, the Woods don't keep too much valuable memorabilia hanging around. For instance, that Mercury that Pearson coaxed across the Daytona finish line back in '76? It wound up with weeds growing through it behind the shop in Virginia.

And so they sold it for $200, not thinking too much about it.

"Twenty years later a guy calls us, he's bought this thing and he's going to restore it," Len recalled. "He offered to sell it to us when he was done -- he wanted $125,000. And we had sold it for $200. Nothing we've ever got is worth anything until after we get rid of it."

Did they buy it back? "Oh no, we didn't need it that bad. We raced. We weren't worried about preserving history. Me, I don't know anything else. That's pretty much what I'm going to be doing until I'm gone, working on a race car in some form or fashion."

Right now, that race car is in Rudd's hands. And it's a current model. There are no weeds growing through the floorboard of the No. 21 Ford.

And Len, for one, wants to hear people talk about the Wood Brothers in the present tense again.

"That'd be good, that'd be good," he said, gazing toward Daytona International's main straight as if it might hold the answer. "That's what we're shooting for."

Justin Hagey is motorsports editor for ESPN.com.