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Wednesday, October 01, 2014
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Published: Sunday, 6/15/2014 - Updated: 3 months ago

Father’s influence steered Cooks to life in racing world

Sylvania natives went from local tracks to NASCAR

BY RACHEL LENZI
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

When Jerry Cook needed a part for his stock car or a few extra dollars to plan for a weekend of racing, he and his family always found a way to scrounge up cash.

There were days when Cook didn’t have enough money to race for the weekend. Yet his wife, Lee, knew her husband’s passion. She wasn’t going to keep him from driving. Those times, she dug through her jewelry box and retrieved a pair of earrings or a necklace that could be traded for cash.

She insisted they weren’t heirlooms. In fact, she told her husband that she didn’t really wear those pieces of jewelry anymore.

“Go ahead, take them,” she told her husband. “You need this more than I do.”

Because of that generosity, the thrill of the chase continued. Now a car chief for NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Kyle Busch and Joe Gibbs Racing, the Sylvania native and 1984 Northview graduate jokes that his wife would still take buying new tires over purchasing new cushions for a couch in their North Carolina home.

Cook, 49, has risen through the ranks to become the car chief for Busch, a NASCAR Sprint Cup driver who will be on the grid for today’s Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway. Cook’s younger brother, Terry, is the competition director for Red Horse Racing, whose Camping World Truck Series teams drove Saturday in the Drivin’ For Linemen 200 in Madison, Ill.

“The fact that we’re both racers and we’re both passionate, it’s gotten into our blood and it’s in our genes,” said Terry Cook, a 1986 Northview graduate. “I’m not driving any longer, but I love my job and I love going to work. I love being a part of a race team I can mold and shape, and for my brother, being the No. 2 guy [for Kyle Busch] is a huge honor. He was successful in his driving career, as well, but he never got the opportunity to race professional.”

There are few weekends during racing where their schedules overlap, including next weekend, when the truck series and Sprint Cup series races are at Kentucky Speedway; the Cooks will also be at MIS in August when the Camping World Truck Series’ Careers for Veterans 200 precedes the Pure Michigan 400.

But it begs the question: how do two brothers from Sylvania rise to reach NASCAR’s highest competitive levels of racing?

One local racing executive attributes it to personal evolution in the sport.

“Jerry and Terry did a really nice job of being successful local race car drivers, and went to finding their spot in the sport where they can be successful,” said Ron Drager, the president of the ARCA Racing Series. “That’s not to say Terry wasn’t successful when he drove in [NASCAR] trucks. We have to look at it from a standpoint of where they asked themselves, ‘if we stay in this, what do we do when we grow up?’

“And even as they’ve made that progression, they still are well-respected by people around here.”

Following dad

By the time each of the Cooks was a teenager, they had already gotten a stock-car racing education. Their careers began in a household headed by their father, Harold, a mechanic who was an accomplished stock-car driver. Their father began driving competitively in 1970 and on weekends the Cooks traveled to various tracks across the midwest. Most tracks prohibited anyone younger than 16 working in the pits but they were sneaking into the pits to work under the hood of the family race car before turning 13.

Terry Cook, 46, didn’t gain a desire to be behind the wheel until he was almost out of high school — at that age now, some drivers have years of experience in driving quarter-midget cars, go-carts or micro sprint cars. He had been schooled in the science of building, maintaining and fine-tuning a precision car, not in the art of driving a precision car.

At his first race in 1987 at Flat Rock Speedway, Terry Cook’s hands trembled when he signed for his pit pass. He was the son of one of the region’s most accomplished drivers. He knew he had a lot to live up to.

“They may have put that pressure on themselves,” Drager said. “Their dad wouldn’t have done that. But the Cook brothers built up a network of people their age who wanted to help and work on their team, working on cars and kicking up sponsorship dollars. At that weekly level of racing at Flat Rock and Toledo, you have to have that, the volunteer help who wants you to succeed. Both of those guys were very popular. People liked them and liked being around them.”

The Cooks knew, however, that if they were going to have a future in racing, they had to head south in order to find and build those opportunities.

Jerry Cook began working with SealMaster Racing in Sandusky in 1997 but eight years later, he took a leap. He moved to North Carolina at the advice of Jarrad Egert, an Elmore native who is a engineer for Matt Kenseth, and picked up with Joe Gibbs Racing as part of the FedEx crew. He worked in the shop, preparing the FedEx car for each week’s race under the watch of Greg Zipadelli, who is now the competition director at Stewart-Haas Racing.

A year later, Zipadelli offered Cook the chance to work with Tony Stewart and Cook joined Busch’s team in 2013.

While his brother climbed the administrative ladder, Terry Cook earned his first ride in NASCAR’s truck series in 1995. Less than six months later, he was injured in a race at Toledo Speedway, three months before he had planned to begin driving, which relegated him to working on race cars.

But he went on to have a career behind the wheel, driving in 344 NASCAR events, including 314 races in the truck series.

As his driving career wound down, the sport was changing. Racing and sponsorship took a hit because of the economic downturn, and sponsorship became harder to come by. Instead of finding a driver with talent and building around him or her, team owners wanted drivers who could bring money and, in turn, keep an operation going. Terry Cook struggled to find financial footing as a driver, then decided to go into management. Right around that time, Red Horse Racing owner Tom DeLoach hired him as a drivers coach in 2010. At the end of that season, he became the organization’s competition director.

“September, as a driver, is when you get nervous because you don’t know what you’ll do the following season,” Terry Cook said. “I went through that a lot over the years. It’s frustrating and it’s part of the business. But there was never a point, even as my career as a driver wound down, that I thought, ‘I don’t need the headaches.’ ”

Now, a typical race week for Jerry Cook means working Tuesday and Wednesday in the Huntersville, N.C.-based shop, traveling Thursday to a race location and spending Friday and/​or Saturday either qualifying or doing tech prep and practice, in preparation for a Saturday or Sunday Sprint Cup race.

A typical race week for Terry Cook means overseeing all race-related operations and Red Horse Racing crew chiefs, as well as analyzing results from racing and testing. Even if a new part goes onto a truck, Cook needs to know about it and log it in Red Horse Racing’s records, which go back three years.

The ultimate goal for both is positive results. A good day means there are no failures.

“Any failures, it’s a bad day,” Jerry Cook said. “A collision, it’s a bad day. I enjoy the fact we go to the track with Kyle Busch every day and have a chance every week. But there’s pressure in working with an elite driver. Anything less than finishing fifth is unacceptable.”

Family focus

Throughout their racing careers, one of the constants for the Cooks has been family. Their mother, Laureen, lives in Sylvania and was the one who encouraged both her sons to pursue their dreams.

“She knew she was a part of racing too,” Terry Cook said. “She’s the most supportive mom you could ask for. She would probably drive a car with bald tires if it meant she gave up money to provide us with tires for a race.”

Terry and Jerry Cook live about 30 miles apart in suburban Charlotte, considered to be the cradle of the auto racing industry. Jerry Cook’s son, Taylor, is a 20-year-old college student who is preparing to enroll at the University of North Carolina. He’ll attempt to balance his coursework with the start of his pursuit of becoming a full-time stock-car driver.

“You lose touch with your roots sometimes,” Jerry Cook said. “You’ve got to sit back and reflect upon it. It’s a pretty big deal, and I don’t even think my son realizes how hard it was to get here.

“But it’s a passion. Your friends are out on boats and golfing on the weekend, and you’re traveling and getting ready for the next stop. The only thing we do is race, and there’s sacrifices that are made.”

Contact Rachel Lenzi at: rlenzi@theblade.com, 419-724-6510, or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.



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