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NASCAR Welcomes Emotional Cook To ‘Our House’

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, January 26 2016
Jerry Cook was welcomed into the NASCAR Hall of Fame during the NASCAR Hall of Fame induction ceremony on Saturday. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/NASCAR via Getty Images)

Jerry Cook was welcomed into the NASCAR Hall of Fame during Saturday’s induction ceremony. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/NASCAR via Getty Images)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Aided by a walker _ one on wheels, of course _ Jerry Cook carefully strode to the dais to take his place among stock car racing’s elite at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

HOF Finals 4.18.07True to his unassuming personality, Cook termed the moment “overwhelming.”

“For me, it’s always been NASCAR,” said Cook, a six-time Modified champion who joined fellow-Roman and archrival Richie Evans as recipient of the sport’s highest honor. “I’ve spent my entire life in the greatest sport in the world, and to be honored in this way today, to be here and be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame along with all the greatest names in the sport, is the pinnacle of my career.

“NASCAR is family, and this place is our house. Thanks for bringing me to our house. Thank you.”

Saturday’s snowstorm-delayed induction ceremony inside the Crown Ballroom at the Charlotte Convention Center, adjacent to the Hall of Fame, capped Cook’s stellar career as driver, team-owner and NASCAR official. His racing schedule during a career spanning 1963-1982 routinely took Cook, wife Sue and the crew working on various red No. 38 Modifieds to tracks from Maine to Florida, with plenty of stops in the Carolinas.

Cook’s 34-year tenure as a NASCAR administrator included assignments at the sanctioning body’s headquarters in Daytona Beach, Fla., and the organization’s Research and Development Center in Concord, N.C. Still, the Lockport, N.Y., native who met his future wife at the old Utica-Rome Speedway in Vernon in 1964 remains proud of his Central New York roots and those epic championship battles with Evans, “The Rapid Roman.”

“Well, that’s very true. Between me and Richie, we put Rome on the map,” said Cook, alluding to the nine Modified crowns Evans won en route to the NASCAR

Jerry Cook holding up one of many, many trophies he won. (Photo by RacingOne/Getty Images)

Jerry Cook holding up one of many, many trophies he won. (Photo by RacingOne/Getty Images)

HOF in 2012. “Richie lived there, was born there (Westernville, N.Y.), raised there. I moved there when I met my wife, Sue, over at the Utica-Rome Speedway and then we lived there, too. We bought a home and raised our kids (David and Kristi) there for 25 years, and I was racing and running NASCAR, which Utica-Rome was.

“So that’s when it started between the two of us living in the same town, and of course every race counted for points. All the stories you’ve heard are true, even as crazy as they are, where we tried to outfox each other at different races and what have you. He was a tough competitor. He was a winning race car driver, too, you know. We lived two totally different lifestyles, but we were both after the same thing. When I retired, we were tied at six championships each.”

Cook’s pursuit of the NASCAR Modified crown accelerated in 1969 after he joined businessman Pete Hollebrand and Hollebrand Trucking in a partnership that gave Jerry the resources to compete with the division’s best. From 1969 to 1981, “Cookie” finished either first or second in NASCAR championship points each year, punctuated by his Modified titles in 1971-72 and 1974-77. Operating out of a garage next to his home on West Thomas Street, Cook compiled 342 career wins and 26 poles in 1,474 starts. Retiring at the end of the 1982 season, Cook joined NASCAR’s competition department and was instrumental in formation of the current NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour and NASCAR K&N Pro Series East. Cook also helped write the rulebook for what now is the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.

“When I first started racing, I wondered how long I could do this before I had to get a real job,” Cook joked, “but somehow I always had money in my pocket, so I just kept racing. In fact, my mother never thought I had a ‘real job’ until I went to work for NASCAR.”

Cook was working as a NASCAR official when Evans, synonymous with his orange No. 61 Modifieds, suffered fatal injuries in a crash during practice at Martinsville Speedway on Oct. 24, 1985. Evans, 44, was awarded his ninth championship posthumously.

“We had quite a time, and it was a rivalry second-to-none for racing,” Cook said. “I don’t think it’ll ever happen again because of the way things are today, you couldn’t

In this corner in the 'Battle for Rome' was Jerry Cook, left. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

In this corner in the ‘Battle for Rome’ was Jerry Cook, left. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

do that. But it was a lot of fun when I sit there and think about it, and I even said it today _ I don’t know how in the world we ever did that much racing. And on top of that, we just kept going. We never got tired, and we didn’t know the word ‘quit.’^”

That mindset is guiding Cook, 72, through an ongoing health issue. Cook, who attended the post-induction news conference in a wheelchair, said his health began to deteriorate in June after a bizarre incident at his home in Mooresville, N.C.  Cook suffered a deep cut and infected elbow after losing his balance while trying to repair a sprinkler head and brushing-up against a brick wall.

The cut was treated with antibiotics after swelling-up, and Cook was given a medical OK to travel via plane to a family vacation in Albuquerque, N.M. During that flight, Cook started running a fever and became disoriented. He subsequently was taken by ambulance to a hospital, where tests revealed his immune system had been weakened via interaction with his arthritis medication.

Transferred to a rehab facility in Huntersville, N.C., Cook was bed-ridden for four months, a period that jeopardized his presence at the HOF ceremonies.

“Well, I’m recovering,” Cook said. “I wound up with a bacterial blood infection that

Jerry Cook's office. (RacinToday photo by Martha Fairris)

Jerry Cook’s office. (RacinToday photo by Martha Fairris)

literally took over my body. I was in intensive care for quite a few weeks, and of course when you’re that way for that long, it just takes…you’ve got to learn how to do things all over again. I spent a couple months in a rehab, and I’m still working at it with physical training and what-have-you. Got a trainer that’s helping me where I can get back.

“I thought by now I’d be back, but I’m not there yet. But with some more hard work, I’ll get there. I’ll be back on my feet without a walker.”

David Cook said his father’s rehab could take another six months to a year. “He went to a doctor last week for an EKG test and there’s no damage to his heart or any organs, he just needs to get the strength in his muscles back up,” said Cook, an electrical engineer at Stewart-Haas Racing, the Kannapolis, N.C., organization co-owned by three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart. David Cook’s eldest son, Justin, also is employed at SHR as lead-programmer and five-access machinist.  

Like her brother, Kristi Cook graduated from Rome Free Academy, Mohawk Valley Community College and SUNY Utica, earning a degree in business management from the latter. Kristi is employed as business manager at Robert Yates Racing Engines, a Mooresville, N.C., facility owned and operated by the former NASCAR championship-winning team-owner.

Cook, who officially retired from his post as NASCAR Competition Administrator on Dec. 31, was introduced Saturday by Stewart. “Any day, anytime, anywhere and against anyone. That was the attitude that possessed our next inductee, and that’s why I admire him so much,” Stewart said of Cook.

Cook was presented his Hall of Fame ring by fellow-New Yorker Robin Pemberton, a co-worker as former NASCAR senior vice president of competition.  “Jerry, I’ve known you since the 1960s when you used to stop and eat at my parents’ restaurant in Malta, (N.Y.),” Pemberton said. “Through the years you’ve been known as a tough racer and even later on a tougher NASCAR administrator. Let me tell you, no one could collect a NASCAR fine more effectively than you. Trust me, I know.”

Cook was named on 47 percent of the 57 ballots cast by the voting panel last May. Cook was joined in the Hall’s seventh class by speedway builder/promoter O. Bruton Smith of Charlotte; two-time Sprint Cup Series champion Terry Labonte of Corpus Christi, Texas; 1970 Grand National champion Bobby Isaac of Catawba, N.C., and Curtis Turner, the “Babe Ruth of stock car racing” from Roanoke, Va., who partnered with Smith to build Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1960 in-between his off-track escapades.

Cook, Labonte, Issac and Turner all were counted among NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers, a list announced in 1998.

In addition to the five inductees, Harold Brasington, the man who built Darlington Raceway in 1949-50, was honored as second recipient of the Landmark Award for Outstanding Contributions to NASCAR. Prior to the ceremony, longtime NASCAR broadcaster Steve Byrnes was bestowed the fifth Squier-Hall Award for NASCAR Media Excellence.

Cook said he never regretted his decision to retire, especially in light of the job opportunity he was offered by NASCAR’s founding France family. “There’s never been anything in my whole life that had a structured plan to it,” Cook said. “Things just happened and sort of happened for the best for me, and I’m tickled to death about that, especially winding up here like this.”

Cook also is a member of the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, the National Motorsports Press Association Hall of fame, the New York Stock Car Hall of Fame and the Rome Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.

Cook added that his rivalry with Evans _ still recognized as “King of the Modifieds” _ made them both better drivers. “From 1971 to 1985, we claimed all the NASCAR Modified championships,” Cook said. “We’ve now finished-off ‘The Battle of Rome.’ For me and Richie to both be in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, it kind of tops it off.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, January 26 2016
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