Former American works Suzuki, Kawasaki and Honda racer Wes Cooley passed away October 16 at his home in Twin Falls, Idaho, from complications associated with life-long diabetes. He was 65 and was survived by a long-time partner and two children.
Cooley twice scored the AMA Superbike National crown, in the era of the big, air-cooled, 1025cc twin-shock racers, battling the likes of Eddie Lawson, Freddie Spencer and Wayne Rainey.
He won the Suzuka eight hours twice, helping to establish the event’s major international reputation that the Enduro still enjoys today.
But Cooley was also an icon, with shaggy SoCal surfer good looks, and a deep connection to the legendary 1970s tuning icons Yoshimura. Cooley cut his teeth on the typical ladder of small-bore Production, 250 cc G.P. and featured 750 classes, but also raced monster Kawasaki and Suzuki equipment for ‘Pops’ at a time that established the mythology of the burgeoning Superbike class.
The laid-back Cooley was also very tight with Pops son Fujio and got along well with most of the era’s often unfriendly competitors and shared their love of a good party! At a time when the arrival of serious money for the “Konis and Kerker crowd” street-based bike format caused all kinds of ill will, Cooley avoided much of the controversy.
I met Cooley in 1978 at Daytona, but first spoke with him at length at Mosport that May. His first trip to Canada was an appearance money start, part of a strong group of young American stars hired by the venue to put on a show at the track now known as Canadian Tire Motorsport Park.
Cooley told me about racing in Australia and New Zealand during the winter “off season,” and how that experience had helped his understanding of the challenging two-stroke, four-cylinder Yamaha TZ750. He also raved about the new Arai helmet, a sponsor he picked while up competing “down under.”
The year before Cooley’s Mosport debut, track management had hired famous veteran Americans Gary Nixon and Gene Romero to put on a show. However, that plan didn’t work when motivated former Canadian Champ Jim Allen simply walked away from the field with his privateer TZ750.
So, for 1978, the decision was made to bring up easterners Mike Baldwin and Dale Singleton, along with Californians Harry Klinzmann and Cooley. All four were already recognized as racers to watch and would soon be rated among the very best.
Victoria Day in 1978 turned out not to be the expected demonstration but was in fact an all-out war, with tire choice key on a warm spring day. Mike Baldwin led but suffered a huge crash in Turn 2, lucky not to be hurt.
In the end, Singleton held off Cooley for the win, and both would soon find greater fame – Singleton winning the Daytona 200 nine months later while Cooley nabbed his first Superbike crown in 1979, too.
Baldwin called that May Mosport crash a defining career moment and opted to do the minimum amount of repair to his new TZ for the rest of the season to remind him of his bad judgement.
At the World Championship Formula 750 round at Mosport in September, “king of the privateers” Baldwin took the same battered Yamaha to victory on a cold and damp day over the top guns of the era, including factory aces Kenny Roberts and World Champ Johnny Cecotto.
Pig farmer (seriously!) Singleton, who later died in a light plane crash returning from a stock car race, gave Cooley one of his biggest compliments. After a Superbike demo race dominated by Cooley in support of Imola’s big spring 200 F1 race in Italy, Singleton explained that Cooley had “won it by a lunch break.”
At Mosport ‘78, newcomer Cooley enjoyed the circuit, and was impressed by the knowledgeable fans. He was travelling cross country with his tuner Jeff in the much-desired long tail Dodge van, supplied by his father, and doing his best to keep the doors closed – he didn’t want fans to see the now-legendary Yoshimura Superbike stored within, headed to the next U.S. National!
At that time, Superbike wasn’t yet the Feature class in the States, and Cooley’s role in the Yosh squad included transportation of his “factory” Superbike. At the Loudon AMA race a couple of weeks later, there was a panic to find tuner Suehiro Wantanabe at the Boston airport – Cooley’s sole support for the Superbike.
While “Nobby” would eventually be the Vice Present of Yoshimura in the U.S., at the time he spoke no English. He would work flat out on the high-strung Yoshimura Superbike for 12 or 15 hours at a time, waving off any assistance if at all possible. Every evening, he fell sound asleep during supper.
Cooley’s father, Wester Shadric Cooley, was a big supporter of motorcycle competition as well as his son’s career. An organizer of the initial international road races in the U.S., the elder Cooley was also a Republican congressperson for Oregon. He died in 2015.
At the V.D. Sprints at Mosport in 1979, Cooley was running up front until engine issues sidelined the orange and black Kal Guard TZ750. His father then rushed to the Toronto Airport to head back west but missed his connection in Chicago. That turned out to be very good luck – the plane the senior Cooley was slated to board for L.A. went down right after takeoff, killing 273 people.
In 1980, Cooley was back at Mosport, and working with a bigger budget. This allowed Wes Jr. to field a full-blown F1 class Suzuki 1025cc four-stroke racer, with custom alloy frame straight from Japan. Pre-race publicity centered on the unique, exotic (if actually a little ratty) racer.
This rough looking but rare Suzuki had raced once before, at Daytona, and right after Mosport would head to the National at Elkhart Lake where the sister machine with Cooley again on-board would be the first four-stroke to win an AMA Feature race in ten years – it was the beginning of the end for the long-serving Yamaha TZ750.
Back to Mosport ‘80, where the typically bizarre late May weather had the visiting Americans more than a little jumpy. As well, the race was sanctioned by American group WERA for the first time, since Mosport and the road racer community were not getting along with the CMA (sound familiar?)
Cooley spent the early laps chasing Mosport specialist Steve Gervais, the Canadian on a Castrol-Yamaha TZ750 tuned by Alex Mayes, soon to be on display in Ontario’s Science Centre. Gervais had the edge, but fell in the last turn, lucky not to be hurt after sliding along the very-close guard rail.
Cooley earned a popular victory, further establishing the skinny Superbike hero as a crowd favorite across North America. This would be Cooley’s last start at Mosport, and strangely he never raced an actual Superbike class machine at a track he loved.
“I know these conditions,” started Cooley, referring to his time in Europe and Australia. “You’re never fully comfortable when the track is half-damp – no matter how much experience you have.
“I have the upcoming AMA races to worry about – I need me and the bike in one piece,” explained Cooley post-race. “But we’ve done some testing since the bikes arrived just before Daytona, and riding this machine at Mosport helps, too. I think the four-stroke is easier to handle in slippery conditions, but you really have to pay attention.”
Of course, these first gen bikes had “only” around 140 horsepower, with no electronic aids, and narrow wheels linked to primitive suspension, too.
Cooley continued as a fast guy for a few more years, but left Yoshimura Suzuki after a terrible season with the troublesome Katana Superbike. He then went to Kawasaki as team-mate to Wayne Rainey, and briefly ran as a privateer on fast Honda equipment in 1985.
Unfortunately, early in the 1985 AMA campaign, Cooley had a huge crash at Sears Point’s Turn 1 while battling for the lead against factory Honda’s Fred Merkel.
Cooley broke both femurs, one in three places, as well as his hip, back, neck and suffered a variety of internal injuries.
Lucky to survive, Cooley had a difficult and lengthy rehab. He eventually returned to the track to teach for a Riding School and do some Endurance racing for Team Hammer. Always interested in the medical profession, Cooley was a nurse later in life.