Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Stuart rejoices in Woods' return to Victory Lane

STUART -- One side of the Wendy's sign encourages people to "Try a new Asiago Combo." The other congratulates the Wood Brothers for doing the unthinkable.

Same with the Hardee's sign. And the Exxon sign. And pretty much every convenience store in Stuart that has a place for such a message.

Technically, Wood Brothers Racing hasn't been based in Stuart since 2003. But technicalities have nothing to do with it. Not to the residents of this Patrick County town, who are still celebrating Trevor Bayne's victory in Sunday's Daytona 500 -- the first win for the Wood Brothers since 2001.

And not to the members of the Wood family, who despite the business move have never cut ties with the place the legendary team was born.

"This," says Kim Hall, daughter of team founder Glen Wood, "is home."

Ask Hall what her job title is, she says this: "I'm a proud Wood daughter and Wood sister." Good enough. Because there's not enough space in the newspaper to list all her responsibilities for the family-run operation.

"It depends on what day it is," she said with a laugh Monday morning, sitting in her office at the Wood Brothers Racing Museum in Stuart. "One day I might be a seamstress. One day I might be a travel agent. One day I'm the bookkeeper. Whatever needs to be done.

"Whatever goes on business-wise with this team, I've got my finger on it."

On Monday, that including ordering a fresh supply of Wood Brothers T-shirts to meet the demands of fans, who stopped by the museum at a steady clip.

There is still a garage in the back of this building, but not a ton of work goes on there. A machinist does some gear work and transmission building for the No. 21 Ford here before taking the parts to the team's main shop in Harrisburg, N.C. The team, founded in 1950, moved to the Charlotte area in 2003 to be closer to Roush Racing, which supplied the team's engines.

The transition was a tough one for the community. Through the triumphs of such legends as Cale Yarborough and David Pearson, the Wood Brothers helped put this town on the map.

"I think it was probably hard for some people to understand," said Peggy Davis, an assistant at the museum. "But you do what you've got to do to stay in the field of racing."

In many ways, though, you'd never known they'd left. At the Coffee Break Cafe downtown, owner Mary Alley said members of the Wood family drop by nearly every day during the offseason.

"Kim always has a grilled cheese and water," Alley said. "Glen always has bacon, eggs, toast and coffee. [Glen's wife] Bernece, she always has gravy biscuits -- either with potatoes or grits or apples or oranges."

Wood Brothers memorabilia adorns the wall of the cozy restaurant, which has been tight with the team since opening more than three decades ago.

"This will really bring things back a whole lot, them winning this thing," Alley said. "Because they had gotten down real low. Real low."

But it didn't get much higher than Sunday's win -- the team's first at Daytona since Pearson took the checkered flag in 1976.

"I was standing in the middle of the floor, about five feet away from the TV, and I could see everything unfolding, obviously hoping that things would work out favorably," said Hall, the only co-owner not to attend the race. "But it was just ... I couldn't believe it. It was all just too much to have the oldest team in racing with the new kid on the block, his second race out. It's one of the NASCAR Hollywood scripts. You couldn't have dreamed that this would happen.

"My phone started ringing immediately. The first two or three people that called, I really just couldn't even speak. Couldn't get anything out. Because I was so happy for all the team, for the family, for Ford, for the hard work, for all the people in Stuart that have stood behind us for all this time, even during the tough times. Because that's when you need the support the most -- when you're down."

Davis opened the museum after the race, and fans flocked to look at the old photographs and cars. Others, such as Wood Brothers fan Harlow Reynolds of Lynchburg, dropped by Monday to join the celebration.

Reynolds built his own car modeled after Pearson's 1971 Mercury Cyclone, but he didn't know if his favorite team would ever get back in Victory Lane.

"Well, I wondered," he said. "Ain't nothin' for sure. But we always hoped they'd win another one."

He smiled.

"And of course we hope they're going to win some more."

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