Where are they now? Wes Cooley | Columns | Gassit Garage
Wes Cooley was one of the world’s best Superbike riders in the 70s and 80s
My first bike was a Suzuki 50 step-thru. I did a bit of riding in the desert but I never did flat-track, like most young American racers. My dad started the ACA (American Cycle Association), and my first race – 4 August, 1970, was at Willow Springs. My mother was a volunteer running the event, and they only had 23 entries so I thought it would be good to go racing. I was 14, and I was on a 200cc Greeves Silverstone. I did a best lap of 2:20 seconds; some years later my best time on a Kawasaki Superbike was almost a minute faster.
My dad bought me a Yamaha TZ250 when I was a novice, and later on we got a TZ700. Superbikes were the growing thing, and Pops Yoshimura built a bike for Yvon DuHamel from Toronto. I lived in California and Yoshimura’s workshop was in North Hollywood, so I did development riding for the team. Cook Neilson was building his Ducati with Phil Schilling, and BMW was investing a lot of money in its Superbike program. At the first AMA Superbike race at Daytona in 1976, I came fourth on a Yoshi Kawasaki behind the BMWs and Cook’s Ducati.
The Kawasaki was fast but handled poorly. When we went to Goodyear slicks in 1975, it loaded up the chassis even more, so we had to go back to the treads while the opposition ran slicks. The harder I rode it, the worse it got. Buddy Parriot told me something that took me years to work out: “Wes, slow down to go faster.” .
I loved the adrenaline of racing. If they could bottle that stuff, we could put the drug dealers and all the bars out of business! The New Zealand Marlboro Series in 1977-78 sharpened my approach to racing. I had to learn a mix of circuits very quickly, and the competition was hot with Hansford, Willing and Kanaya. I had to step up and concentrate very hard, which I carried to Bathurst. I had my TZ750D and a Yoshimura Superbike, and having the front-wheel come up on that long straight at 175mph was something else! I ran the same lap times as Warren Willing on my 750, so that was pleasing as a Bathurst rookie. I also did the Castrol Six-Hour in 1978 and ‘79. I was astounded how fast the local guys could ride those production machines.
The first Suzuka 8-Hours in 1978 was an eye opener. We did a wheel change late in the race, and broke off part of the stud at the bottom of forks. We sent Mike Baldwin out and Fujio went over to the Honda pit to borrow their grinder to machine the clamp. They agreed, we fitted the modified clamp and won for Suzuki!
I won two AMA Superbike titles with Suzuki against Freddie Spencer and Eddie Lawson in 1979 and 1980, then I returned to Kawasaki as a factory rider in 1983 on a $US500,000 deal. That’s the good part of racing.
In 1985 I was leading Fred Merkel and Scott Gray at Sears Point, and the race was red-flagged after Scott crashed. I was angry because Fred had picked the wrong tyre, and he changed it for the re-start. I ended having a huge crash into an earth bank at 200km/h. I fractured my C-4, C-6 and L2-3-4 vertebrae, broke my left femur, had a compound fracture of my right femur and broke the ball in my hip. I was in a coma for 12 days. Apparently I was calling for Chinese food and Tabasco sauce, and I stood up, broken legs and all! The doctor was amazed that I survived, or wasn’t in a wheelchair.
I tried a comeback in the late 80s, but the mental edge had gone. I dropped out of racing for 30 years, until a fan from Queensland, Brett Teagues, tracked me down last year. I’m now re-connecting with the sport, and I can’t thank Brett enough. Brian O’Shea has my winning 1980 GS1000 Superbike and I rode it at a Vintage event at Mid-Ohio in 2016. I was made Grand Marshall, met lots of fans and loved the whole experience.
If the opportunity ever came to return Down Under, that would be a dream come true.
After I quit racing, I worked as a nurse. I gave it my all for 30 years, and retired last year. My wife Melody and I live a comfortable life in Idaho, and I’m thrilled to be back in the race scene.