Cooper devotes life to speed

Thursday, September 13, 2007
Daryl Cooper has raced his 1979 Chevrolet Camaro since the early 1980s. (Kit Doyle)

The owner of Speed Sport started drag racing in 1966.

The first time Daryl Cooper won a drag race at Sikeston Drag Strip, he cleared -- he figures -- all of $28.

But he remembers it well.

"Back then, there were no starting lights or clocks," Cooper said. "There would be a flagman out there and there would be someone at the end who would say who won."

Back in April 1969, when the Sikeston track was newly opened, Cooper was the one who won in the modified class.

The 56-year-old owner of Speed Sport in Cape Girardeau still is active in drag racing, and he's still winning.

He topped the Super Pro class competition Aug. 18, winning seven rounds in his 1979 Camaro.

"I guess it gets in your blood," Cooper said.

Drag racing has been in his blood for more than 40 years. He started competing in 1966, racing at Ste. Genevieve as a 16-year-old, then also competing at Malden.

He was ready when the Sikeston strip opened in 1969. He and the late John Auer, who Cooper said was on leave from military service at the time, worked to get his 1956 Corvette ready.

"We worked until 4 a.m. on the day we had to run," Cooper said. "We got up at 7 and made a blast down Henderson Street, testing the car. I was still a kid, and we didn't know any better.

"We had to tow the car to Sikeston on a chain. We couldn't drive because we didn't have a license on it and open headers."

Cooper remembers the costs associated: a $5 entry fee, gas for 30 cents per gallon at the Sunoco 260 near Arena Park.

"The tow would probably use 50 cents in gas, so we spent about $7 and probably cleared about $28," Cooper said.

Cooper went on to run in major drag racing circuits -- AHRA, IHRA, NHRA -- winning the AHRA Winter Nationals in 1979 in Tucson and capturing two IHRA events in 1981 in Rockingham, N.C., and Milan, Mich. He had such success in the early 1980s that he was selected in a poll for Car Craft magazine's all-star drag racing team in the modified division in 1982.

"I've won races in four of the last five decades," Cooper said.

He sat out most of the 1990s, taking a break from 1992 to 2005 to focus on running his shop.

"You would be towing all night Thursday to races, and towing all day Sunday back from races and then try to work Monday," he said. "It wore you down. That and taking over this business put it on the side for a while.

"But I just had a notion to get back into it."

His decision proved lucrative. Cooper picked up a $1,000 paycheck for his win in August, and he's trying to stay in the hunt to compete for the $10,000 event in October that will include only the top 12 points winners for the season.

Cooper posted a time of 6.56 seconds on the 1/8th-mile track, averaging 105 mph. But the way drag racing is structured now, raw speed is secondary to reflexes and consistency.

"In this bracket racing, anybody can win at any time," Cooper said. "You have to beat the guy you're racing, but you can't run below your handicapped dial-in time. It's kind of screwed up, but that's the way they run nowadays. Some of the old-timers don't like it.

"It doesn't make a difference how fast your car is. It's important to have good reaction time at the start and watch the dial-in time at the end. It's consistency in those two things."

Cooper noted the differences at the track in its 38 years with regard to technology and other areas -- electronic scoring systems, paved pits instead of sand pits, concrete guard rails for safety, a diamond-cut racing surface.

"Sikeston was closed from 1975 to 1985, and I didn't think they would ever get it up and running," he said. "They've made improvements every year for the last 20 years, and it's one of the nicest tracks anywhere in the country now."

It's no coincidence Cooper's business is cars as well. His clientele ranges from drag and oval racers to owners of high-end street performance cars to those seeking accessories for their trucks.

"There will always be something to sell for cars and trucks," Cooper said.

And it's possible he'll be behind the counter selling them for quite a while longer, unless he's out racing.

"I've been doing these two things all my life," Cooper said. "I guess I'll be doing it until they roll me off in a wheelchair."

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