Sturbin: “Leisure” Not in Jerry Cook’s Vocabulary
By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
Fort Worth, Texas – Looking back at that slice of life in my hometown, it was a time of firsts.
First job. First apartment. First leisure suit.
Would you believe chocolate brown with printed shirt? Have mercy. We’re time-warping here from May 1973 to September 1978 and my tenure as sports writer/editor at The Daily Sentinel in Rome, N.Y. One of my weekly duties involved all things motorsports, and in Rome that meant tracking the barnstorming exploits of Cook and Evans.
Jerry Cook and Richie Evans were Rome’s equivalent of, say, David Pearson and Richard Petty during what arguably can be called the Golden Age of Modified Racing. At least that’s what any native Roman and/or resident of the Copper City back in the day will claim. Between them, Cook (six titles) and Evans (nine) dominated NASCAR’s National Modified Tour from 1971 to 1985 with an intramural rivalry that has left Rome indelibly on the racing map.
Their paths continue to cross in various halls of fame, 27 years after Cook retired and nearly 24 years since Evans’ death at Martinsville Speedway. Cook, 65, accepted what amounts to a lifetime achievement award last Thursday, when he was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame.
“To be here and do this and the press conference, it was big,” Cook said via cell phone from Talladega, Ala. “I stood there once with three TV cameras in my face and I said, ‘Wow! From where we started in Rome, N.Y., it’s a long way down the road.’ To get to this level the way I did it…that’s the best thing. I didn’t do it by the Cup route, I did it through Modified racing. The ceremony was attended by well over 1,000 people and it was beyond great. There were people we wanted to see, but we couldn’t get to them because they wanted to see us.”
Cook’s 2009 classmates on a registry that now lists 132 inductees are NASCAR driver Donnie Allison and team-owner Bud Moore; legendary promoter J.C. Agajanian and stock car pioneer and car-owner Raymond Parks. Cook was introduced by motorsports TV/print journalist Dr. Dick Berggren, a longtime friend.
Cook figured his post-career accolades had peaked in 1998, when he was selected as one of the 50 Greatest Drivers in NASCAR History as part of the sanctioning body’s 50th anniversary. Evans, of course, also made the select list. “There was probably 50 more drivers good enough who could have been included in that,” Cook said. “That was quite impressive, too. But this is beyond that because this is being picked out of the whole world. Not just NASCAR and Modifieds. This is truly international. When you’ve got drivers like Jacky Ickx and Graham Hill in the Hall of Fame and you’re in there, that’s far out.”
Evans was inducted into the IMHOF in 1996, and Cook admitted he had been keeping track of which drivers were annually being selected. “Well yeah…I was on the nominees list for about three years,” Cook said, “and I’m thinking, there’s nobody on that list that doesn’t deserve to be there. How am I ever going to get picked? When they called me last fall and told me, I hung the phone up and called (wife) Sue and said, ‘I’m going to let you buy a new dress.’ I never do that, and she knew something was up.”
Sue Cook has been Jerry’s partner in this journey, literally from its beginning. Gerald Cook was born in Lockport, in Western New York, and his racing schedule brought him to the original paved Utica-Rome Speedway, which still exists as a dirt track in Vernon, N.Y.
“I met Sue at the racetrack and it was no secret that’s (racing) what I did,” Cook said. “We got married, I got involved with (sponsor) Pete Hollebrand with his trucking company, and Rome was closer to all the racing we were doing than Lockport. We bought a home and built a shop and lived there for 25 years. Raised our kids there (son David and daughter Kristi) and had a good time.”
The rivalry between “Cookie” and Evans, “The Rapid Roman,” more or less divided loyalties in Rome, a classic mill town where Rome Free Academy high school football still rules. “When both of us were racing, the National Modified championship stayed in Rome, N.Y. That’s the only way it could be,” Cook said. “There were people that were all me or people who were all him. Through the whole thing, we stayed friends for the most part.”
Back on The Sentinel Sports desk, tracking the nomadic Cook and Evans typically was done via Monday afternoon phone call. At the Cook home/shop on West Thomas Street, Sue Cook normally answered the phone and sent the call “out back” to the garage where Jerry and crew were working on the red-and-white No. 38. A call to Evans’ shop on Calvert Street usually was answered by a crewman, who had to speak over the blaring Rolling Stones music that came to define Evans’ race hard/party harder personality. Suffice it to say that decades before cable news invented the term 24/7, Evans was living it.
In fact, the quickest way to strike up an animated conversation among Rome’s racing fandom was to walk into The Rusty Nail bar on West Dominick Street and slip Cook’s name – or even worse, the Geoff Bodine Fan Club – into the smoke-filled mix. Closing time arrived well before 2 a.m. for many an unsuspecting, and definitely outnumbered, patron.
“We did not lead the same type of lives,” said Cook, referring to Richie. “Only thing we had in common was racing and there were times we didn’t even talk to each other. But we put on a show with it.”
Cook’s IMHOF resume features 342 victories and 1,474 starts over a 20-year period. That means he took the checkered flag approximately once every four times he slid into his hot rod. Cook finished in the top five in 64.7 percent of his starts and rode to top-10 results 85 percent of the time. He logged more than 76,000 racing miles and earned $1,146,220 in prize money. He finished in the top three of the final standings in each season from 1969 to 1982.
Evans is credited with more than 400 feature victories in various orange-and-black No. 61 Modifieds, including an incredible stretch that saw him win eight consecutive national titles from 1978 to 1985. The last of those was awarded posthumously. Evans was 44 when he was killed in a crash during practice at Martinsville on Oct. 24, 1985. He was selected NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver nine times, including six in a row.
“But he didn’t win everything,” said Cook, who like Evans is a member of The Rome Sports Hall of Fame and Museum. “I beat him and other drivers beat him. So it wasn’t like he won every single thing. But he did real well at it, for sure.”
Cook finished third in the Modified standings in 1982, announced his retirement and was immediately recruited by NASCAR. Working out of the Daytona Beach, Fla., headquarters, Cook helped create the modern NASCAR Featherlite Modified Series in 1985 and the NASCAR North Series (now called the East Series) in 1987. He also drafted the first set of rules for the NASCAR Craftsman Truck (now Camping World) Series in the mid-1990s.
Cook currently resides in Mooresville, N.C., where his title is competition administrator. Based in the NASCAR Research & Development Center, his primary duty is publishing rule books. “Fortunately, I’ve been able to surround myself with good people and good help,” said Cook, citing assistant Beth Kreider. “I’m still responsible for six rulebooks printed and sent out each year, along with the car pieces the manufacturers bring to NASCAR. And on Tuesdays, I get to write all the penalties.”
That little post-race dustup involving Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Casey Mears at Phoenix International Raceway? “That (probation ruling) was the last thing I wrote before I left for Talladega,” Cook said with a laugh. “Ultimately, (NASCAR president) Mike Helton signs off on whatever we do. My title hasn’t changed since 1990 but my duties sure have. Life is good. To make it to where we’ve gone to and be happy with what I’m doing, it’s good.”
For the record, my first and second leisure suits have long since disappeared. Sadly, so too have all of Cook’s No. 38 Modifieds. “There’s none,” Cook said. “Every one we had we sold and there’s none in existence. I’ve been trying to get a car we could reproduce into a No. 38 but I ran out of time between the job and the family and the (three) grand kids…and a ‘37 Chevy coupe hot rod that we keep making improvements on and drive.”
Cook’s family is fully immersed in North Carolina’s NASCAR lifestyle. Son David works at Penske Racing South on the interior setup of Sam Hornish Jr.’s No. 77 Dodge. Daughter Kristi is executive assistant to retired Cup championship team-owner Robert Yates, whose corporate plane flew Cook’s family and friends to Talladega for the ceremonies. Kristi’s husband, Derek, is an engineer for KB Racing, the NHRA Pro Stock juggernaut featuring championship teammates Greg Anderson and Jason Line. And eldest grandson Justin, a student at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, is a machinist at Michael Waltrip Racing.
Theoretically, Cook has the wherewithal to recreate a No. 38 in his spare time.
“The problem,” Cook said, “is we don’t have any spare time.”