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Returning to Indy, Driver Kevin Cogan Settles Down to a Winning Pace at Life

May 26, 1988|PAUL McLEOD | Times Staff Writer

Kevin Cogan snapped a seat belt over his chest and settled into a spot that is second nature to him--the driver's seat of a high-performance automobile about to negotiate a challenging stretch of road.

This was not Indy. It was not even the streets of Long Beach, where last month the 32-year-old West Torrance High School graduate with the bright blue eyes and youthful looks finished third in that city's Grand Prix.

Cogan was at home, wearing a T-shirt, sweat pants and tennis shoes. He coaxed his Mercedes Benz 300E out of the garage of his cliffside Palos Verdes Estates house and up a steep driveway. The radio softly played music from an easy-listening station.

Cogan drove along Palos Verdes Drive West. The guy who the late actor Steve McQueen once called a "hot foot" seemed surprisingly sedate.

Had this been Indy, where he will start in the fifth row Sunday , Cogan would have gunned the engine, swerved into the turns and pushed the car to its limits. But this was his home turf. He had guests in the car, including his bride of less than a month, Tracy. His mind was as far from the race track as it could be.

The perfect place for it, he said. After all, one can't live for the job all the time.

He Likes Solitude

He loves the solitude of Palos Verdes Estates, an edge of the earth far from the roaring engines and fanatical souvenir seekers of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a race that has been a crossroads in his career time and time again. At the moment, he said with a grin, the old Brickyard seemed a long way off. He was hungry.

Peering through Ray-Ban sunglasses, he caught a glimpse of a threatening sky. The radio played "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head."

"Lots of times it doesn't pay to come home," he said philosophically of the racing season as his car glided down the road. "You don't have enough time between races."

All the more important to make the best of it, he thought out loud. With that, he eased the 300E down a hill toward a favorite pub in Hollywood Riviera to splurge on a hot dog and French fries.

This is not the Kevin Cogan most people know, not the hard-charging young Turk of the early 1980s, the guy with second- and fourth-place finishes at Indy, who narrowly missed out on its Rookie of the Year honor in 1981; a man under contract as "a fashion spokesman" to Playboy magazine; until recently, one of the most eligible bachelors on the CART circuit.

There is a secret about Cogan few people get to know: Away from the television lights, the focus of the media and Indy car racing, Cogan is a regular guy.

"He's normal," his wife said. "My friends warned me to stay away from him, that he was a womanizer. But once I got to know him, I realized he was like anyone else."

Much of what racing fans think of drivers is not true, the Cogans say. Race drivers do not speed around city streets like they do on the track.

"Kevin is more laid-back, more reserved," Tracy Cogan said. "Not that (other drivers) have big egos. Most don't."

Works Out Regularly

People would be surprised to learn that he considers himself a highly trained athlete, Cogan said. He is only 5-feet-11 and 160 pounds, but lifts weights regularly. He does not smoke, as some of his racing opponents do. He seldom drinks.

"I'm one of those guys that can't handle it too well," he said.

And he does not party much while on the road.

"I put on a tie once in a while for the sponsors, when I have to," he said.

His biggest thrill of the Long Beach finish: a spontaneous back yard barbecue with about 25 close friends at his place after the race.

Tracy says he is rather moody before a race. Kevin claims that most people do not realize the amount of mental preparation he needs before a race. His concentration is pushed to the limit each year before Long Beach, he said, because he is home and many of his friends want to see him.

"Some good friends don't understand," he said. "They think you are out partying all the time. They don't understand. You're going to battle. You must mentally prepare."

If he was not one already, his storybook marriage has made him even more the homebody.

Kevin met Tracy at the wedding of a mutual friend about three years ago. Tracy, blonde with brilliant blue eyes that match Kevin's, heeded the warnings of her friends at first. They said he was egotistical and self-centered. He risked his life every Sunday for a few bucks, didn't he? He must be a free spirit.

She kept her distance, but that did not last long.

"I was living in Phoenix at the time," said the former airline flight attendant. "He insisted that he fly over the next weekend to take me out to dinner."

Since then, they have shared the house they remodeled. When Kevin proposed, he gave Tracy his grandmother's wedding ring. Grandmother has been one of the women closest to his heart.

Kevin and Tracy were married March 26 in a ceremony performed in the neatly kept back yard of their home overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Malaga Cove. They expect their first child in September.

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