By Team Ford Racing Correspondent
It is a generally accepted truism in auto racing circles that Hall of Fame crew chief and mechanic extraordinaire Leonard Wood can take a paper clip, a rubber band and a couple of tools and build a spaceship.
Wood’s wizardry propelled the Wood Brothers Racing team to great heights in the 1960s and 1970s. His pit-stop innovations and pioneering approaches to car building made Wood one of the all-time greats in the mechanical arena of stock car racing and earned him a spot in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
And Wood, now 80 years old, is at it again. He recently completed a half-scale replica of the Ford-Lotus racer the Wood Brothers team pitted for driver Jim Clark at the 1965 Indianapolis 500. On an unusual foray outside stock car racing circles, the Woods transferred their pit skills to open-wheel racing and helped Clark win the 500.
Flash forward to 2013, and Wood, then 79 but still playing a key in-house role at the Wood Brothers Racing shop in Harrisburg, N.C., decides to build a go-cart-type car for Riley Wood, the two-year-old son of Jon Wood, Leonard’s great-nephew. Riley could be the point guy in the next generation of Wood family racers, so his “first” vehicle will be important. This thought does not escape Leonard’s attention.
“I thought about building a kiddie go-cart, but I figured he’d outgrow that too quick,” Leonard said. “There had been so much talk about that Lotus, I said, ‘Why don’t we just make it a Lotus?’ Edsel Ford had been down here to the shop and was saying how nice it would be to make it look like the real one from Indy. I already had that in mind. The more I worked on it, the more I wanted it to look like the real one.”
Leonard Wood is one of those people who can envision something in his mind’s eye and then create it from raw materials. When friends and associates heard that a replica of the 1965 Lotus was under construction in Wood’s workshop in the Harrisburg facility, interest in the project jumped.
Wood began work on the car in September 2013 and added to or refined it for much of the next year. He hand-built every piece on the car except the engine, wheels and tires. He used photographs of the 1965 racer to follow the lines and details of the car.
“I’m kind of proud of it,” Wood said. “I mentioned something about being able to do something like that at age 79 and finish it by the time I was 80, but I guess I’m even more proud that I could get in and out of it.”
The car is a true beauty -- so fine, in fact, that Riley might have to fight the general public to get his hands on it. The car now is on display in the Wood Brothers Museum in the family’s hometown of Stuart, Va.
“I guess it turned out to be a little more valuable than what we thought to start out with,” Wood said. “It’s a pretty valuable piece, if I have to say so myself. It’s a very special one-of-a-kind vehicle. It was quite a joy.”
That joy spread throughout the extended Wood family. Riley saw the car recently at his second birthday party, held at the Wood Brothers’ Stuart, Va., shop.
“I can say with overwhelming confidence that the Lotus is the coolest project Leonard has built to date,” said Jon Wood. “I wasn't around during the era that he built fast race cars, so it's hard to have the appreciation that his racing accomplishments deserve, but among the things I've seen him build or be a part of, this tops the list.
“Riley is too young to realize what exactly he has been given, but when he's older I'm sure he will share my sentiment for the Lotus. It's a modern marvel and an amazing work of art, built by a man that can truly build anything, in the literal sense of the word.”
A devoted tinkerer and talented in everything mechanical, Wood said building the car from scratch without blueprints or other design notes completed a dream for him.
“I truly had fun making it,” he said. “I always wanted to make a car, a sports car or something, of my own design. Of course, I didn’t have the time or the money for that, but when Eddie (Riley’s grandfather) and Len (Eddie’s brother) asked me to make this, it gave me a chance to do what I really wanted to do anyway.”