Among the many pieces of racing memorabilia collected by the Wood Brothers over the past seven decades is a helmet signed by 33 of the drivers who have driven the iconic No. 21 Ford now driven by Ryan Blaney with sponsorship from Motorcraft/Quick Lane.
That helmet, features the signature of Bobby Johns who died suddenly on March 7 in his hometown of Miami Fla. It has a total of 48 signatures including Edsel B Ford II, NASCAR Hall of Famers and others important to the team such as family matriarch Bernece Wood.
Johns was a part-time competitor in the series now known as Sprint Cup from 1956 to 1969, a short-track stand-out in the Southeast and a successful Indianapolis 500 racer.
He often had fast Cup cars, but one thing or another tended to keep him from Victory Lane. In the 1960 Daytona 500, he was cruising in the lead with nine laps remaining, seven seconds ahead of his closest challenger, when wind sucked the back window from his Pontiac and caused him to spin. He still finished second.
He only won two Cup races but got victories in overpowering fashion.
In the fall of 1960, in the first 500-miler but the second Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, he drove Cotton Owens’ car to a dominating win. He led 225 of the race’s 334 laps (they also were the last 225) to finish a lap ahead of second-place Johnny Allen. Speedy Thompson was fifth in the Wood Brothers Ford.
Johns’ other Cup victory came at Bristol Motor Speedway in 1962, where he led 430 laps of the Volunteer 500 to finish six laps ahead of runner-up Fireball Roberts.
It was at Bristol in the 1964 Volunteer 500 that Johns made his lone appearance behind the wheel of the No. 21 Ford. Johns, who was driving a Holman Moody Ford at the time, wrecked in practice, sustaining facial lacerations that caused him to spend a night in a local hospital. Still, he was in the infield during the race and stepped in as a relief driver for Marvin Panch, who had been overcome by exhaust fumes.
Johns brought the No. 21 home in seventh place.
The Wood Brothers also played a major role in one of Johns’ most noteworthy accomplishments in motorsports.
In the 1965 Indianapolis 500, Johns, drove the team car to the No. 82 Lotus Ford of race winner Jim Clark.
Like Clark, Johns had the Wood Brothers servicing his No. 83 Lotus Ford, and the quick work in the pits helped Johns score an Indy-career-best seventh-place finish.
The Woods serviced both cars during the race, a strategy made possible by adjoining pit stalls and the decision to pit the two drivers on different laps. Both drivers made just two stops on the day, with the Woods employing the quick pit stops they’d developed on the NASCAR circuit.
Johns, who is credited with being the first NASCAR driver to turn a competitive lap at Indianapolis, had a second top-10 finish at Indy, in 1969, finishing 10th behind race winner Mario Andretti, who drove a Ford-powered Hawk.
Eddie and Len Wood, the current co-owners of the No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Fusion that Blaney will drive this weekend in the Good Sam 500 at Phoenix International Raceway, were too young to really get to know Johns during his driving days. But they did get to spend time with him last November, when they traveled to Miami to get him to sign their helmet.
“Bobby found out about the helmet on Facebook and told a friend of ours that he relieved Marvin Panch at Bristol in our Dad’s car.” Eddie Wood said. “We called him and asked if he’d sign it. We immediately drove down to Miami, and he was standing outside his tire dealership when we drove up.
We figured we’d probably be there about 15 minutes but wound up staying more than three hours.”
It was a visit that allowed Len and Eddie Wood to hear first-hand stories of a bygone era. “He told stories of his old rivalries with Banjo Matthews and the Allisons racing in South Florida. We heard a lot about the Indy race in 1965 from a driver’s point of view. That was very interesting. He also drove for the Pettys, but most of his cars were owned by his Dad (Shorty Johns).
“We’re so thankful we got to meet Bobby and spend time with him,” Eddie Wood said. “We’ll always cherish that.”