The last time Wes Cooley Jr. rode in a professional motorcycle race, he ended up crashing head-first into a dirt wall, breaking his neck, the femur--the large bone in the upper leg that connects the hip and knee--in each leg, five vertebrae and two fingers. He also gave his lungs and kidneys a severe shaking.
It was May 18, 1985, at Sears Point Raceway, in Sonoma County, north of San Francisco. The question at the time was whether Cooley would live, not whether he would ever race again.
This weekend, in the EBC Brakes 24-hour event at Willow Springs Raceway, Cooley will return to professional racing, riding a 150-horsepower Suzuki 1100 for Bruce Hammer's team in the Western Eastern Roadracers Assn. national endurance series.
"I'm addicted, I guess that's all I can say to explain it," Cooley, 31, said by phone from his north San Diego County home in Ramona. "I'm addicted to adrenaline, and so far the only way I can get a rush of the stuff is to get on my bike, go to a race and go fast."
Cooley, who won the American Motorcyclist Assn.'s superbike championship in 1979 and 1980, admits that he is about the only one who wants to see him try a comeback.
"I met with a good deal of resistance from inside the (motorcycle) industry, and from my family, but even though I appreciate their concern, I'm the one who has to live with the guy inside Wes Cooley's body," he said. "And he's addicted to racing. I know that. I've got to give it a try this weekend. Then we'll take another look at the future."
Another spill, two weeks ago, apparently wasn't enough to convince Cooley that he should stay off the race track. In a club race for production bikes at Willow Springs, he ended up in the dirt again after losing control while cresting a hill.
"I had to find out if I was capable of racing," he said. "My times were not so bad. Not sensational, but not bad. I was on an unfamiliar bike that I borrowed at the last minute and when the wheels got out of shape, I didn't make the proper correction. My thinking was screwed up, but I felt comfortable riding at speed."
The major damage was to Cooley's ego. The only physical damage amounted to cuts and bruises.
"It was embarrassing," he said. "But it was nothing like the way I felt all through 1985 and into last year. I was floundering. I needed to get my life going straight again, and I realized that the only sure way was to go racing. Spill and all, that little race at Willow only convinced me even more that I had to get back in it."
Cooley, whose father was a professional racer and motocross promoter in the '70s, was once one of the hottest riders in the country. When he won the superbike series in 1980, the two riders he beat, Eddie Lawson of Ontario and Freddie Spencer of Shreveport, La., went on to win world championships.
When Cooley won the superbike race at Daytona to start the 1981 season, he appeared unbeatable. Then mechanical problems plagued him and the year ended in disaster. While practicing for the season finale in October, Cooley clipped a wet hay bale and although he did not go down, the impact broke his pelvis.
Cooley came back in 1982 but never again challenged for the championship. He finished fourth in 1982, seventh in 1983 and ninth in 1984. His only win was at Sears Point in 1984.
In the Saturday-Sunday 24-hour race, which will start at 1 p.m. Saturday, Cooley will take turns with Team Suzuki teammates Thomas Stevens of Cape Coral, Fla.; Russ Paulk of Nashville, Tenn.; and Jeff James of Rochester, N.Y. Cooley is replacing the team's No. 1 rider, Mike Harth of Roswell, Ga., who broke his leg at a race in Michigan.
"I hate to get a ride because someone got hurt, but when (team manager) John Ulrich offered me the ride, I was so happy to know that someone still believes in me," Cooley said. "The team plan is to use two riders at night and two in the daylight hours. I will probably be one of the night riders. That suits me fine. The biggest problem at night at Willow is watching for rabbits. If you hit one, you've had it, and you never know when they'll come hopping out of the darkness."
Team Suzuki is the defending series champion and has won 6 of 9 races this season, but is second to the Yamaha-mounted Human Race Team in points because it failed to finish one race.
Each riding stint will be approximately an hour and 20 to 30 minutes, depending on fuel consumption. Riders change each time the bike needs to be filled up. The winning team is expected to travel more than 2,000 miles.
By restarting his racing career at Willow Springs, Cooley will be coming full circle. It was there, on the edge of the Mojave desert near Rosamond, that he started racing at age 14--without his father's permission. Wes Sr. was in Europe in 1970 when his son turned up with a bike and entered his first race.