NEW SMYRNA, FL - FEBRUARY 11, 2018 - The New Smyrna 175 for the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East race at New Smyrna Speedway in New Smyrna, Florida.
John Wood has been an integral part of the K&N Pro Series garage juggling his roles as a driver and a car owner. (Scott Hunter/NASCAR)

First step: John Wood providing a different kind of opportunity

John Wood believes very firmly that a ladder doesn’t serve any purpose if someone can’t reach the first step. If you’re standing at ground level next to a skyscraper whose ascent doesn’t begin until the fifth floor, then you have no chance of ever reaching the top.

“The $40,000-50,000 weekend renters are few and far between,” Wood, 54, said of the NASCAR K&N Pro Series, the first logical step for many drivers with aspirations of someday reaching NASCAR’s national series.

“It’s important that people have a way to get into a race car and be able to come to the track and give it a shot. Our target market is the Super Late Model winner at the local track and having a way for him to get his feet wet in the K&N series.”

Wood, of Eagle, Idaho, understands that his model at Patriot Motorsports is unique. Extremely unique. But he is able to rattle off dozens of names – some household, some not – as proof that providing access to NASCAR touring series rides pays off. Former NASCAR K&N Pro Series West champions like Chris Eggleston and Ryan Partridge made their first series starts in Wood’s cars, and four-time NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion Ron Hornaday has also driven for Wood. West regulars past and present, like Ron Norman and Will Rodgers, were once in Wood’s camp. Drive For Diversity participants Phil Dugan and Jay Beasley, as well as A.J. Aujilo – all got their start with Wood.

More are coming, too. A pair of United States olympians – bobsledder Nick Cunningham and swimming gold medalist Tyler Clary, – are working to get approved for K&N racing through Wood.

Most of Wood’s drivers eventually move on. Eggleston won his championship with Bill McAnally Racing, while Partridge became a mainstay for Bob Bruncati Racing. What they did with Wood, though, opened the doors to those opportunities.

They wanted to climb to the top of that skyscraper, and Wood provided a place to start from the first floor.

“How are we going to promote this series, and why are we struggling with getting cars?” Wood asked. “You get the super teams that come in and spend a ton of dough, but it’s not sustainable. Even if they win, in a lot of cases, they’re gone. The second they or their sponsor lose interest, they’re gone.

“We have to promote that you can be a Late Model driver, go and buy just one car, put your family and a crew together, and you can win at this level.”

Look no further than the K&N Pro Series West’s most recent winner, 17-year-old Kody Vanderwal, for proof that Wood’s formula works. Vanderwal swept both ends of the Twin 100s at Tucson Speedway two weeks ago for his first career series wins.

If not for Wood, Vanderwal – who made his series debut last season – has a sneaky suspicion that nobody would have ever heard of him.

“I’d probably still be running for the Pro Truck championship at Colorado National, maybe making a few Super Late Model starts,” Vanderwal said. “Last year, it was not even really a consideration that we’d be where we are now. I don’t think it crossed anybody’s mind. We did well (in the 2017 season opener at Tucson) and throughout the whole season it was, ‘We might as well do the next one.’ John told us that if we wanted it, the car was ours for the season.

“In my opinion that’s the biggest sacrifice on his part.”

Wood values two things above all else: Hard work and a good support system.

If he thinks you’ve got both, then most of the teams in his stable – and he’s fielded as many as nine cars in a single K&N Pro Series race in previous years, though the individual drivers and families were listed as the car owners and they were all painted and lettered independently – are offered a car for free, like it was for Vanderwal and his family, or at a significantly reduced rental rate. Drivers with little or no stock car experience are brought to Idaho to test at Meridian Speedway, which Wood once had ownership stake in, until they can get approval from NASCAR to run in K&N Pro races.

And the K&N Pro Series isn’t where the ride has to end with Wood. Jesse Iwuji, who made his K&N debut in 2015, has run ARCA Racing Series races at Daytona and Talladega already in 2018. He also tested at Charlotte recently in the hopes of running the ARCA race there on May 24.

“We need to get back to the days of the old Southwest tour or the Northwest tour, where you were a local champion and went and hopped into a car at the next level,” Wood said. “Everything is long term. We’ve got to get the Saturday night guys to buy the equipment, and maybe they only run three or four races the first year, but if we all work toward promoting that and they talk about it on TV, that’s how you build car counts.”

Make no mistake, though. Wood isn’t just interested in owning cars for the sake of owning cars. He made his first foray into the K&N Pro Series in 1997, driving for himself. Vanderwal’s wins at Tucson were Wood’s first as a car owner after more than a decade of fielding cars for others.

During the past offseason, Wood committed to fielding fewer cars with an emphasis on producing better on-track results. The theory was simple. The chance to drive for a mid-pack team was less attractive to potential drivers if they could simply spend more money to hop into rides with championship pedigrees.

“I’d heard what people were saying, ‘You can’t win in that car. You can’t get finishes.’ We can get you to the track, but what we can’t get you is a crew. I’ve got 20 motors, and I’ve got 20-plus cars. It’s the same equipment as all those other guys, but we get the stuff they’re not using anymore.

“For the very first time, in a roundabout way, I put my name on Kody’s car this year. I knew he was going to win at some point, so when he won, now I can say to guys, ‘Now do you understand what I’m talking about?'”

Vanderwal, who will try to make it three wins a row this weekend in the Sunrise Ford 150 presented by NAPA Auto Parts at Orange Show Speedway in San Bernardino, California, knows exactly what Wood is selling – an attainable first step up the NASCAR ladder.

“He gives us whatever he can, and there’s hardly any pressure at all,” Vandwerwal said. “Winning (at Tucson) definitely raised my confidence even more. I didn’t doubt we could do it at all, but I think it sent a message to other teams more than it did to us.”

TUCSON, AZ - MAY 05: Kody Vanderwal driver of the #43 car (center right) celebrates with his team after winning the first of two races at the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West Twin 100's at Tucson Raceway Park on May 5, 2018 in Tucson, Arizona. (Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images for NASCAR) *** Local Caption *** Kody Vanderwal | Getty Images
John Wood (third from left) celebrated his first two wins as a car owner with driver Kody Vanderwal in the Port of Tucson Twin 100s at at Tucson (Ariz.) Raceway Park on May 5. (Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

ORANGE SHOW NOTES

TEAMMATES AT THE TOP: Bob Bruncati Racing teammates Derek Thorn and Ryan Partridge, both former K&N Pro Series West champion contenders, lead the point standings through three races. They are the only two drivers to finish in the top five in all three events to date, with Thorn having yet to finish outside the podium places.

They’ve got plenty of company at the top, however.

The top five in the standings are separated by just 11 points. Bill McAnally Racing’s Derek Kraus and Cole Rouse sit third and fourth, respectively. Vanderwal, who had overheated in the season opener at California’s Kern County Raceway Park, is fifth.

NEW FACE: Orange Show Speedway Super Late Model driver Zack St. Onge will make his season debut in the Sunrise Ford 150. St. Onge, 16, competed in two races last season for Patriot Motorsports.

A former Southwest Truck Tour champion from Upland, California, made two starts in 2017. He finished a career-best 18th in at Meridian in September.

HOME TRACKS: Orange Show is the longest continually-operated race track in the United States, having first opened in 1947. Super Late Models, Street Stocks and Mini Stocks are featured divisions at the quarter-mile facility in San Bernardino, California. No driver entered in the Sunrise 150 presented by NAPA Auto Parts has ever won previously at Orange Show.