Thrilling, late-race, come-from-behind wins have become the norm this season on NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series, but the truth is they’ve always been a part of the sport. That’s been the case for years at Talladega Superspeedway, especially since restrictor plates were put on the cars to keep them from flying out of the track. But even in the days of unrestricted horsepower on NASCAR’s fastest track, the races often weren’t decided until the final few turns.
The Wood Brothers, with their Ford and Mercury race cars, were among the elite teams in the early days of Talladega. Beginning with Donnie Allison’s win in the spring race in 1971, the Woods won four straight Winston 500s. But their overpowering horsepower and handling was never more evident than in the 1980 Talladega 500.
At that time, Neil Bonnett, an up-and-coming member of the famed Alabama Gang, was in his second year behind the wheel of the famed No. 21. Bonnett, like his close friend Dale Earnhardt, was one of the hardest charging drivers of his day. “He drove the car really hard,” said team co-owner Len Wood. “There was no stroking or laying back in him. You had to build a car and an engine that would stand the abuse he put it to.”
Out of the car, Bonnett was laid-back and fun, Wood recalled. “He was one of the most fun people we ever worked with. He didn’t mind making fun of himself, and he’d make fun of other people too.” Like the Woods, Bonnett made racing a family affair. For races at his home track, Talladega, he’d bring along his wife, kids, cousins and other kin. “It was like us going to a race at Martinsville,” Wood said of his family’s trips to the Cup track closest to their home base in Stuart, Va. For that 1980 race at Talladega, the Woods equipped their Mercury with a rear-end gear that was about 10 points higher than their competitors. With an unrestricted engine, the higher the gear, the faster the car would run. The drawback was that it would be slower getting up to speed. “It would take a couple of laps for it to get wound up, but once it did, here he’d come,” Wood said.
Bonnett qualified on the outside pole and his No. 21 was one of the dominant cars for most of the race. But a late-race caution appeared to take away his chance for a victory at his home track. “When the caution came out, we just knew it was over,” Wood said. But Bonnett had just enough time to get the Leonard Wood/Tommy Turner-prepared engine up to speed, and he drove past Cale Yarborough, Dale Earnhardt and Benny Parsons to get the win. It was the second straight win on the Cup circuit for the Woods and Bonnett, the first coming the week before at Pocono, another race in which he didn’t take the lead for good until the closing laps.
Len Wood and his brother Eddie remained friends with Bonnett for years, even during the times he drove other cars. Their last conversation came on the morning of Feb. 11, 1994, the same morning Bonnett died in a crash at Daytona International Speedway. The Woods made their normal stop at Krispy Kreme on their way to the race track. While Len was inside buying doughnuts, Bonnett pulled up and started visiting with Eddie in the parking lot. When Len came out with two boxes of doughnuts, he offered one of them to Bonnett, explaining to him that the line had grown long inside. Bonnett had other ideas. He said, “I lost the draft, and I’ve got to suffer for it,” Wood said. “That was the last time we saw him.” But the pleasant memories remain, of nine trips together to Victory Lane and countless other fun times at the track.