Wes Cooley 1956-2021

At Sears Point (Sonoma) in 1984, Wes Cooley (center) celebrates one of his eight-career AMA Superbike wins alongside Rueben McMurter (left) and Sam McDonald (right). (RiderFiles.com Collection)

Wes Cooley, a two-time AMA Superbike Champion (1979-1980) and Motorcycle Hall of Famer, died Wednesday, Oct. 13 at his home in Twin Falls, Idaho, from diabetes complications according to a report in roadracingworld.com.

He was 65.

In the late 1970s Cooley was a young, hard-charging rider who helped usher in the modern era of AMA Superbike racing. Followers of the era remember Cooley racing with rear tire smoking, front wheel in the air, forcing his will upon bikes that weren’t originally made for the racetrack. He changed the face of the then new Superbike class.

Wester Steven Cooley was born in Los Angeles on June 28, 1956. He came out of Southern California club racing where his father, a former racer, ran a club racing organization. Cooley honed his skills on small Grand Prix bikes before being hired by Yoshimura to compete in Superbike aboard Kawasaki’s KZ1000. Pops Yoshimura built a very fast motor, but the handling of the big KZs were notoriously bad.

The final AMA Superbike race of the 1977 season was on October 2, at Riverside, California. Cooley knew the circuit well, having turned in hundreds of laps club racing there. Cooley rode the Kawasaki to his first victory that day after a good battle with the Ducatis of Cook Neilson and Paul Ritter.

Wes Cooley (right) being interviewed by Brian Drebber at Road Atlanta in 2018. (Larry Lawrence photo)

Yoshimura began working with Suzuki in 1978. The GS1000, while no more powerful than the Kawasaki, was a much better handling motorcycle. Cooley picked up wins at Pocono and Laguna Seca that year. In 1979, Cooley was part of the Suzuki sweep of the Daytona Superbike event. Ron Pierce won, Cooley was second and David Emde was third, all three riding Suzuki GS1000s. Cooley didn’t win a race that season, but finished on the podium at every race and edged out Pierce, and a young new Kawasaki rider named Freddie Spencer, for the title.

The 1980 season turned out to be one of the most hotly contested series and proved to be a turning point in Superbike history. It was a battle between three riders on three different brands. Cooley on Suzuki, Eddie Lawson on Kawasaki and Spencer now on Honda. AMA Superbike was quickly becoming the premier series in AMA road racing.

The battle that year went back and forth between the three riders. After New Zealander Graeme Crosby won at Daytona that year on a Suzuki, then it was Lawson gaining the advantage with a win at Talladega. Cooley came through with a victory in round three at Charlotte. But then Cooley went through a dry spell and watched as Lawson and Spencer traded Superbike wins for the next five races. If Cooley were to win his second title he would have to win the final two rounds, and win he did. Cooley defeated Lawson and Mike Baldwin at Road Atlanta, then closed out the season by besting Spencer at Daytona to win the championship. It was one of the strongest endings to a season in the history AMA racing and raised Cooley to superstar status in American road racing.

Pops Yoshimura and Wes Cooley in 1979. The relationship between the two was certainly one of the closest between team owner and rider in series history. (Photo by Colin Fraser)

In addition to his Superbike exploits Cooley also made history by becoming the first rider to win an AMA Formula One National on a four-stroke. It was at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis. – one of Cooley’s favorite tracks – that he rode a specially built Suzuki GS1000-based F1 bike to a win over the dominant two-stroke GP machines of the era. Cooley would go on to win two more AMA F1 Nationals on big 1000cc four-stoke bikes.

Cooley had a great relationship with Yoshimura Suzuki owner Pops Yoshimura. “Pops was not only amazingly gifted as a tuner, but I don’t think I ever knew anyone in racing that worked as hard as Pops did,” Cooley said. “I felt as happy winning the Superbike championship for Pops as I did for myself.”

Not only had Cooley become a racing icon in America, but his reputation also grew internationally when he and teammate Mike Baldwin rode a Suzuki GS1000 to victory in the inaugural Suzuka 8 Hour Endurance race in 1978. Cooley came back two years later and won the famous race again for Suzuki, this time with New Zealander Graeme Crosby.

Cooley is considered a motorcycle racing legend in Japan for his accomplishments at Suzuka.

In May of 1985, at Sears Point, Cooley sustained life-threatening injuries. He crashed at a high rate of speed into a hillside that rose up on the outside of Turn One. Cooley made a slow, but steady recovery from the horrible accident. He actually came back to race a few more AMA Superbike races in the late-1980s and scored a couple of top-10 finishes, but he never recaptured the speed he had before his accident.

“I think physically I was able to go as fast as I had before,” claimed Cooley. “But I lost that mental edge that it takes to run at the highest level of racing.”

When he retired in 1991, Cooley was ranked eighth on the all-time AMA Superbike wins list with eight victories. He was ranked first all-time in AMA Superbike podiums with 37. He would hold that record all the way until 1995 before Fred Merkel finally eclipsed that mark.

Cooley went on to teach in a popular riding school for a few years, and later earned a nursing degree and when inducted into the Hall of Fame was working as a medical professional in Idaho. He said he decided to work in the medical field during his recovery from the 1985 accident.

An iconic image of Wes Cooley racing the Yoshimura Suzuki GS1000 at Daytona. (Tom Riles photo)

Cooley will always be remembered for changing the face of AMA Superbike racing in its formative years. He was also a fan favorite throughout his racing career. He often took the time after a hard day of racing to sit down and chat with admiring fans. Wes Cooley helped build AMA Superbike racing into one of the premier racing series in all of racing.

Cooley was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2004.

There is a Facebook fan page here: https://www.facebook.com/AMASuperbikeChampWesCooley

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