The following article originally appeared in the January 2018 issue of Road racing world and motorcycle technology magazine. To read more articles like this subscribe to Roadracing World.
Where are they now: Wes Cooley
“If I won, that meant I would do my best…”
By Michel Gougis
Copyright 2018, Roadracing World Publishing, Inc.
The list of injuries Wes Cooley suffered in the Sears Point crash that essentially ended his career as an AMA Pro pilot was horrendous: neck broken in two places, two broken thighbones, broken hip, broken back, broken fingers. So little strength in his hands he couldn’t close his own pants.
But what really hurt Cooley, two-time AMA Superbike champion and two-time Suzuka 8 Hours winner, was the realization that he couldn’t perform at the level he had ridden before the 1985 crash, even after s’ be sufficiently recovered. to redo the racing bike.
“I tried to go back, but it was so hard to do. I couldn’t understand that I couldn’t do it at the level that I had done it. For me, sitting down and watching someone else do it, even on TV, was very difficult. It hurts, ”says Cooley. “So I decided that the best way for Wes, to make me feel good again, was that I had to go.”
Now, after decades away from the sport, Cooley is back. He has spent the past 18 months competing in motorcycle races and events, signing autographs, speaking to the public and doing occasional parade laps on the race track.
Today, it’s not about how well Cooley can ride. It is that Cooley, a calm and humble man in recent years, has finally realized that fans remember him, admire what he has done for the sport and want to meet the man who in many ways represents the origin of American Superbike races.
Coming from a family of racers, Cooley broke with Yoshimura, piloting production machines for the company, then switching to the Superbike. He won the Suzuka 8 Hours in 1978 with Mike Baldwin, won the AMA Superbike title in 1979, then both in 1980. His style was wild and spectacular, and he worked tirelessly to meet and greet fans at the end of the race day. His accomplishments, style and accessibility have made him one of the icons of road racing.
Cooley knew that all three were essential to his success as a professional road motorcycle racer.
“Winning is everything. Finishing second is like kissing your sister – that doesn’t count, ”Cooley says. “But in the long run, all runners are promoting a product. If it’s (Marc) Marquez, he’s trying to sell Honda.
“Winning is one way to do it. But for me, another way to do it was to be social. You walked away and said, “Hey, I just spoke to Wes Cooley, he’s driving a Suzuki, I’m going to try one of those bikes, or the helmet he’s using, or whatever.” If they remembered me, they would be more likely to remember the product. And that meant better sponsorship for me.
After this 1985 accident, Cooley tried to run again – Mr. Editor Ulrich was one of those who provided him with a bicycle. But Cooley couldn’t tackle one of the roughed-up Superbikes of the day like he did before. He taught Team Hammer Advanced Riding School for a while, but slowly realized he had to get away from motorcycles altogether. Cooley tried to ride down the street, but it was just more frustration.
“Riding 40 or 50 mph on a motorcycle is not what you are supposed to do. You are supposed to be going 100 mph. I think street riding is great, but it wasn’t for me, ”he says.
A pre-med student before becoming a runner, Cooley returned to school and became a medical assistant and nurse’s aide. He recognized that the price he paid as a road runner gave him a gift he could share with his patients.
“People who come to have their knees replaced, or who had broken their femur or their shoulders, I could say: I can understand! It happened to me ! I know exactly what you are going through. It was my thing, because I had broken a lot of bones! Cooley said. “No one wants to be in the hospital. But I could make them laugh, make them feel like someone understood what they were going through. It was good for them, and it was good for me.
In 2016, Cooley was invited to make an appearance at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca for the World Superbike and MotoAmerica event, but plans fell through. Then he was invited to serve as Grand Marshall for the AMA Vintage Motorcycle Days event at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in July of that year. To sweeten the deal, collector Brian O’Shea offered to bring the 1980 Suzuki that Cooley had taken to the AMA Superbike title to the event and let Cooley drive it. “I’m still not very good with my hands, but I said I’d like to do a few laps,” Cooley said.
The response Cooley got was beyond what he had imagined. Cooley signed autographs. Cooley squeezed his hand. Cooley signed pieces of old Suzuki GS motorcycles that fans brought to the event. Photos of him have garnered thousands of “likes” from enthusiastic Facebook fans. “I didn’t know a lot of people remember who I was. I could not believe it. It just snowballed, ”says Cooley.
He has since returned to Suzuka to present himself at the 40th anniversary of the event; served as the Grand Marshal of an AHRMA event in Willow Springs; and has a series of appearances planned for the future. He’s retired from his medical career and just enjoys getting back into the world of motorcycling and racing and saying ‘yes’ to event invitations:’ I had my helmet. I have my leathers. I have my boots, I have my gloves, I’m ready! Cooley laughs.
“It’s humiliating. I just did something that I was very good at. I just did something very, very nice. Winning a race for me the only thing it meant was that I was the best that day. It was a competition with myself to do my best. If I won, it meant I had done my best that day. When I found out that everyone was calling these blue and white Suzuki GS1000 replicas ‘Wes Cooley’ I was shocked! I was honored! It’s very cool, and I can experience it… ”