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MOTOR RACING / SHAV GLICK

Cooper May Put Metal on Pedal for Last Time

July 29, 1993|SHAV GLICK

In 12 years of riding professional motocross, Guy Cooper has won only one national championship and nary a supercross, but he has become one of the most popular riders in the sport.

"Airtime," as the veteran from Stillwater, Okla., is known, may be making his final ride on his Suzuki at the national level Saturday when the American Motorcyclist Assn. closes the 250cc season with a championship motocross at Glen Helen Park in San Bernardino.

He is 31, the oldest competitive rider in the country, and he says it's time to remove all the metal from his legs and hands--souvenirs of his years of racing.

"I've got a rod in my left thigh that is too long, and when I turn a certain way it jams into the muscle and really limits what I can do," he said. "Oddly, I can race by squeezing my leg against the gas tank, which keeps it from twisting, but I can't run, swim or ride my bicycle to keep in shape.

"The doctors said I'd need three or four months off, so I'm going to have another rod in my right leg taken out, along with some screws in my right hand. It's possible I could come back after that, but I have to give up my Suzuki sponsorship and it would be hard to find a new sponsor when I'm 32 or 33, so this may be the final go."

Cooper has been "Airtime" since he was a rookie in 1983, riding for Malcolm Smith. He had it stitched on his leathers.

"Ever since I rode BMX (bicycle motocross), I've been fascinated by aerial jumps, crossups, all the fancy stuff guys do coming off jumps," Cooper said. "When I first started racing, promoters gave a $1,000 bonus for the longest jump. As a privateer, I won about eight of them and lots of times took home more money than I'd make in the race."

It was his flair for jumping that put the metal rod in his right leg. Cooper was celebrating over winning an international supercross in Antwerp, Belgium, in 1989 when he had a surprise.

"There was a steep hill right at the finish line, so I decided to gas it and give the crowd a thrill. I was really up there when I raised one arm in victory and my hand hit the banner--22 feet in the air. It knocked me off my bike, and we came tumbling down together and broke my leg."

Cooper's only national title came in 1990, when he won the national outdoor 125cc title with nine race victories.

Last year at Anaheim, Cooper said his biggest ambition was to win a stadium supercross. He didn't win it, but he has finished second six times.

"There were a couple of times I thought I had it, like at San Jose two years ago when I passed Jeff Matiasevich on the next to last lap for the lead, but when he tried to get back by me on the last lap he took both of us out and Doug Dubach won," Cooper said.

"But look at it this way, six seconds isn't bad."

Another factor in Cooper's popularity is his unorthodox riding style, plus a habit of revving his engine when he's in the air.

"I felt when I started riding professionally, I needed to do something to get noticed," he said. "I didn't have a factory ride, so I wasn't out front a lot, like Ricky Johnson and Jeff Ward and guys like that. So I started revving my bike a lot, and the fans loved it. They knew where I was, even if I was running back in the pack because of my 'Cooper rev.'

"And sometimes, when I was trying to catch the leaders, I'd take a different line. I'd cross over a lot of ruts and zigzag through the bumps. The fans love me because they know I'm either going to do something stupid or something spectacular."

Jeff Stanton, last year's national supercross champion, said after following Cooper at the Astrodome: "He was scaring me. I thought he was going down on several occasions."

After a race, Cooper can be found surrounded by kids, signing autographs.

"I learned how much it means to have someone pay attention to you and how much it hurts when you get snubbed," he said.

"I was 10 or 11 when a friend and I snuck into a track. We were barefooted, and my friend wanted Kent Howerton's autograph because his name was Howerton, too. Howerton told us to get away, that we weren't supposed to be there. On the way out, another rider, Steve Stackable, saw us and said, 'How'd you guys get in here?' He scared us to death, but then he grinned and said, 'Come on over here. I'll sign autographs for you.' I was a big Steve Stackable fan from then on. That day left a big impression on me.

"Years later, I had a bad weekend. It was hot and dusty, and I was not happy when a youngster approached me. I was just about to tell him 'I gotta go,' when he said his name was Cooper and he wanted my autograph. All of a sudden, I felt great and sat down and signed my name for 30 minutes until every kid was gone."

When Cooper isn't racing or signing autographs, he lives with his wife, Jayni, on 80 acres outside of Stillwater. He has a 10,000-square-foot shop to house his 21 motorcycles and a tractor that he uses to build his own motocross tracks.

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