Wes Cooley and fans

Hanging With Wes Cooley At Vintage Motorcycle Days

Racing legend Wes Cooley climbs aboard the 1980 AMA Superbike title-winning Yoshimura Suzuki.

A few months ago I wrote about this year's Vintage Motorcycle Days event (click here to see 40 Years of Superbike Racing) at Mid-Ohio (which took place July 8-10), and the special Superbike Anniversary theme I was able to piece together with help from Superbike collector Brian O'Shea, the AMA, and Superbike legend Wes Cooley.

To say it went off with a bang wouldn’t do it justice, as the goosebumps and grins generated all weekend long came in such rapid-fire, staccato bursts, you’d think someone was lighting packs of firecrackers off in our tent one by one.

(C'mon…you remember that sound! It wasn't that long ago….)

Wes Cooley at Vintage Motorcycle Days 2016
Mr. Wes Cooley, reunited with the machine he won the 1980 AMA Superbike title aboard. The GS is owned by Superbike collector Brian O’Shea, and runs like a champ. Cooley did laps for the crowds each and every day of VMD 2016, and the fans ate it up.©Motorcyclist

Going in, the idea was to honor Superbike racing’s roots and legacy over the last four decades (Superbike became an official AMA class in 1976) with two primary elements: A display of pedigreed, championship- or race-winning Superbike machines, and having a genuine Superbike legend in attendance, in this case the event’s Grand Marshal, Wes Cooley. We’d display the bikes in a big tent in the infield, decorate it with period, blow-up photography of the bikes featured, have Wes sign autographs, and do Q&A sessions for the fans on the big stage (the AMA had a rock-n-roll band playing on it all weekend long, right next to a beer garden, btw). Best of all, though, would be the demonstration laps Wes would ride on the very machine he won the 1980 Superbike title on—O’Shea’s pristine Yoshimura/Suzuki GS1000.

Wes Cooley
Grand Marshal Wes Cooley did chalk talks and interviews every day during VMD 2016, and went out of his way to thank the fans for remembering him, supporting him, and donating money and blood when he was in the hospital after a horrific crash at Sears Point in 1985.©Motorcyclist

Looking back now, six weeks after the fact, it’s sort of amazing it all happened just as we planned it. (That never happens.) Even better, it ended up being one of the most memorable weekends of my motorcycling life. And in my 44 years of motorcycling, I’ve had some doozies.

I grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland, so I flew to Ohio a few days early and hung out with my childhood buddy Marc Johnson. Marc and I grew up three houses apart, but he now lives in Ravenna, OH, right next door to Ohio International Raceway, a motocross track I used to race on in the mid ’70s as a kid with my Dad. Such amazing memories on that dirt. On Thursday morning I drove south to Mansfield and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and met up with O’Shea (who hails from Connecticut) and the AMA’s James Holter, who helped grease the idea through the AMA’s halls. Wes and his wife Melody (who didn't know him during his racing years) arrived on Thursday as well, after first visiting the AMA’s Hall of Fame museum in Columbus, and we met for dinner that evening at a local tavern near our hotel.

Wes Cooley getting on the Yoshimura/Suzuki racer after 36 years
There wasn’t any knee dragging during Cooley’s three lunchtime sessions at Mid-Ohio, and he did feel a little anxious getting on the Yoshimura/Suzuki racer after 36 years. But by the second day, he felt comfortable, and did an extra lap or two just for fun.©Motorcyclist

I hadn’t seen Wes for many years, the last time in ’88 when we raced against each other at the WERA 24-hour at Willow Springs Raceway. Wes was riding for John Ulrich’s Team Hammer/Suzuki outfit, and I was part of the Vance & Hines endurance team put together by Dennis Smith and Terry Vance for that one race each season. (We won when Jamie James crashed the Team Suzuki GSX-R1100, though I’ll never forget watching Wes drift past me in turn eight going about 130 mph at about 2 a.m.)

Brian O’Shea, owner of the Wes Cooley GS1000
Brian O’Shea owns the GS1000 that Cooley won the 1980 AMA Superbike championship on, and he’s not afraid to get it dirty, either. He actually raced it ten years ago at an AHRMA event at Daytona. Cooley enjoyed jumping back aboard the thing.©Motorcyclist

Wes looked good. Grayer and older like all of us, but healthy, and not limping around nearly as badly as his crashes and broken bones might lead you to believe. (Cooley was nearly killed and spent many weeks in intensive care after a terrible, high-speed crash at Sears Point in ’85.) VMD was Cooley’s first motorcycle event in 25 years (he’s been a practicing nurse at a hospital in Idaho for years), and he was clearly happy to be there, wearing a perma-grin all evening. “Mitch,” he said over dinner, “I’m really glad I came. We’re already having fun.”

It would get much better.

On Friday morning, O’Shea and I helped arrange his four bikes (along with the ex-Cooley Katana brought to Mid-Ohio by Katana collector and Cleveland resident Ken Edgar) in our tent alongside a good amount of blow-up period photography, all shot by Cleveland’s Gary Yasaki. Right away we had plenty of visitors, most of them baby boomers who’d watched Cooley during those glory days of Superbike racing, but also some historically savvy younger fans, who’d read about that period and wanted to meet one of its legends face to face.

Special AMA Superbikes
Thanks to these special machines, the “40 Years of Superbikes!” tent was an amazing, time-capsule sort of place at VMD this year. Left to right are O’Shea’s title-winning KZ1000 (Reg Pridmore, 1978), the ’85 Daytona-winning VF750F (Freddie Spencer) and title-winning VFR750 (Shobert, 1988). In the foreground is Ken Edgar’s ex-Cooley Yoshimura/Suzuki Katana, which Wes rode to fourth overall in 1982.©Motorcyclist

After a couple hours we loaded the GS1000 up for a quick trip to the pits, where we’d get it ready for Wes’s laps in front of the fans. We used O’Shea’s Briggs & Stratton roller-starter to get the rear wheel spinning while on the stand (push-starting the beast was extremely difficult), and the first time it fired I got a face full of half-burned race gas exhaust blow-by. Let’s just say I made sure to move my head several inches to the left for the remainder of the weekend when manning the roller starter.

Wes seemed a little apprehensive climbing back aboard his old race bike for the first time in 36 years, though that seemed entirely understandable. He’d not ridden much at all during that time, and he also acknowledged how valuable and special O’Shea’s GS was. “No worries,” O’Shea told him with a grin as Wes climbed on, “have fun!” O’Shea is no trailer-queen collector; he rides and runs his bikes regardless of how valuable and rare, and felt nothing less than extreme satisfaction seeing Cooley climb aboard this legendary racing machine. “Seeing him on it after all these years,” O’Shea said that afternoon, “was a real kick. Wow.”

Mr. and Mrs. Wes Cooley
Mr. and Mrs. Wes Cooley, obviously marveling at how much fun they’re having at Mid-Ohio. Melody didn’t know Wes during his racing career, but she got a four-day crash course in his career and committed fan following during the VMD event. “I never knew he was this popular!” she joked.©Motorcyclist

Getting Wes outfitted in fresh gear in the weeks leading up to VMD 2016 was interesting, and I remember the amazement in his voice when he called me after the classic black leathers, boots and gloves arrived at his home from the good folks at Cortech/Helmet House. “If I’d had gear like this back in the day,” Wes told me, “I wouldn’t have gotten as busted up as I did.” That’s not a hit on the Bates and Kushitani suits he wore back then, just an affirmation of how much roadracing apparel has progressed over the last two decades.

Watching Wes rip by the pits was amazingly cool, especially with the raw shriek of the un-muffled Yoshimura exhaust bouncing off the garages. I wished I’d been able to watch from the back section of the track, listening and watching the fans react to Wes waving and riding by. “It was so cool,” one told me later that afternoon. “I’d watched Wes race with Freddie and Eddie back in the day, and wow…it was like déjà vu.”

Wes Cooley signing autographs
Cooley signed a lot of stuff over the weekend, including these superb posters created by the AMA and the Wilkinson Brothers studio. He was also asked to sign a load of bike parts … fuel tanks, side panels and tail sections, most of them GS1000S bits.©Motorcyclist

B-B-B-B-B-Bang! There went another pack of firecrackers. That's exactly the response O'Shea and I hoped to generate at VMD, and it was something we'd hear over and over all weekend.

Once back on pit lane, Wes was interviewed on the track’s PA system by Griff Allen about his ride, and his feelings about being back at the racetrack surrounded by friends and fans. Wes seemed genuinely touched by the camaraderie and good wishes that day, and I could see that his early worries about his presence there not being a big deal were long forgotten. When I first approached Wes about coming to Mid-Ohio and being the Grand Marshall eight or 10 weeks earlier, he actually asked me, “Sure, but will anyone care?” He was quickly discovering that they did care, and very much.

Wes Cooley signing gas tanks
Cooley signed a handful of fuel tanks during the weekend, including one on a GS1000S that was ridden to the event (background) and Ken Edgar’s Yoshimura Katana racer. He also signed O’Shea’s GS1000 race bike, entirely apropos given its rich history.©Motorcyclist

Dinner that second night was really special. Everyone seemed particularly jacked up after the day’s goings-on, and Melody, who didn’t know much at all about Wes’s racing life prior to this trip, seemed halfway stunned. “I had no idea he was so popular!” she said with a laugh.

The rest of the weekend was more of the same, with big crowds and long lines for autographs, especially on Saturday. The AMA commissioned a superb Cooley poster and matching t-shirt design by the guys at Wilkinsonbrothers.com, and Wes signed hundreds of them. But folks also brought their own stuff, including GS1000S fuel tanks, side panels and tail sections.

1982-season Yoshimura Katana
Wes got a kick out of jumping aboard his 1982-season Yoshimura Katana, which he said was a bit more challenging to ride than the GS1000-based machine he’s ridden in prior years.©Motorcyclist

Just as he did on Friday, Wes did meet-’n-greets, autographs and lunchtime demo rides for fans on Saturday and Sunday, and our Superbike Anniversary tent, sponsored by Suzuki, was a popular spot, though I have to admit the location of the music stage and beer garden 50 yards away might have had a tiny effect on the crowds. The AMA did a bang-up job with the infield section this year, with the aforementioned attractions, as well as many other club and custom-bike tents. There was food aplenty, and even a pit-bike race on the grassy area above the tents, which was huge fun to watch and attracted several hundred spectators. As always, the swap meet, road racing and motocross/cross-country zones were packed to the gills, and, to my eye at least, this was the biggest VMD crowd I’ve seen in several years. Good weather all weekend helped, but all in all, VMD is a helluva fun event for anyone interested in the vintage/retro scene.

Wes Cooley fans
When a group of Japanese fans gathered along the fence while we were readying the GS for Wes’s laps on Friday, Wes had them come down onto the pit lane for a photo. It made their day. He’s still a fan favorite.©Motorcyclist

By Sunday afternoon, everyone seemed spent—the crowds, the racers, the AMA folks, those of us manning the displays, and for sure the Cooleys. But it was a satisfying fatigue, and everyone seemed to have a smile on their face as they packed up and got ready to head home.

Brian and I said goodbye to Wes and Melody, who headed to their rental car for the drive back to Columbus and a flight the next morning. As they drove by the tent on the way out of the track, they stopped, and I walked up to the open window and stuck my head in. Wes reached out to shake my hand, and said this: "Amazing weekend, Mitch. Thanks so much to you and everyone involved for including me. I can't wait for the next one!"

B-B-B-B-Bang! More firecrackers.

Thanks to you, Wes Cooley, for making the weekend really special.