CORNELIUS, N.C. — When Chris Perley announced last winter that he wouldn’t run the full International Supermodified Ass’n tour in 2010, the door was left open for a new ISMA champion for the first time since 2005.
Two drivers — Mike Lichty and Russ Wood — clearly rose to the occasion and waged the closest championship battle since ’05, which saw Lichty leading going into the finale at Thompson (Conn.) Int’l Speedway only to fall victim to mechanical woes and lose what would have been his first ISMA title.
Wood pounced, driving Jeff Holbrook’s Brian Allegresso chassis to a fourth-place effort at Thompson, capping a consistent season that featured one win, 12 top fives and a 17-point advantage over Lichty.
Wood’s title was his seventh on the ISMA tour and first since 2002. The gap between his latest championships saw Wood take the 2006 and ’07 seasons off after his longtime car owner Paul Dunigan died in late 2004 and Dunigan’s son closed shop on the team after running the ’05 season in honor of his father.
Many onlookers figured Wood was finished, but when Allegresso paired with Holbrook for the 2008 season, Wood saw his opportunity for a return to supermodified competition. Yet few predicted his driving would live up to years past.
“It wasn’t a retirement,” Wood stated in his soft southern New Hampshire accent. “At that stage of my career, I didn’t need to race just to do it. I had been with (crew chief) Brian Allegresso for 10 years and I was spoiled. I had the best and that’s what I wanted.
“Then Brian came back; I waited for a day like that to come and it did. I trust Brian and I wanted to stay with him. With Jeff, I get a great car owner and a well-financed operation. I still thought I was capable, and it’s been nice to be able to prove it with good people around me,” Wood commented.
The ’06 and ’07 seasons weren’t the first years Wood had gone on hiatus. A violent accident at North Carolina’s Orange County Speedway in September 1998 severely burned Wood’s legs.
The accident landed Wood in the hospital for six weeks, numerous skin graphs and months of rehabilitation. Wood never thought of quitting.
“I was always going to go back racing or else [the crash] would haunt me for the rest of my life. It probably slowed me down a little — some sheet time will do that. But I’m fortunate it didn’t affect me long term, and the next year I finished fifth in my first race back, which happened to be at Orange County [N.C.], and then won the next night at Southern National [Speedway, N.C.],” Wood said.
Now 47 years old with a 17-year-old son racing NEMA midgets, Wood admits the decision to return to the seat in 2011 isn’t quite as clear as it was in 1998.
“I have no clue,” Wood said regarding his future. “It’s harder with Russ, Jr. racing. If I wasn’t with such good people and a good car, it’d be a pretty easy decision. I really don’t know, but I do know even though we won the championship this year, I wasn’t really happy with the performance. It was a good year, but we’ve had a lot better. It’s intriguing for me to come back and try to win more races and do better.
“I’ve been hooked on supers for more than 25 years,” he adds. “I didn’t get famous or get on TV or make a lot of money, but I don’t regret a thing. People ask me why I never went to modifieds or stock cars and try to move up, and I always say the same thing: Driving a good-handling super has to be the best thing in racing. I’ve driven some other stuff, and nothing even comes close.”
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