Gone, sadly, and way too soon…but never forgotten
October 25, 2021
By Mitch Boehm
Motorcycle fans had no idea AMA Hall of Famer and legendary, two-time Superbike champion Wes Cooley passed away on Saturday, October 16 from complications of diabetes. The news broke the following week, last Thursday to be exact, and anyone paying any sort of attention could tell there’d been a major disturbance in the two-wheeled Force.
“I feel something terrible has happened,” said Obi-Wan Kenobi in Episode 4, and in Wes’s case ol’ Obi Wan would have been absolutely right.
As sad and terrible as it is to lose someone of Cooley’s stature, and totally aside from the fact he was one hell of nice guy, I can’t help but think the Man upstairs had a reason for picking Saturday to take him from us. Because on that same Saturday, eight very special folks from our two-wheeled world were being enshrined in the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame at AMA headquarters in Pickerington, Ohio. It’s an honor that was bestowed upon Cooley 17 years ago, and it’s somehow fitting he left us on the day many of us were honoring motorcycling’s best and brightest. And Cooley certainly fit that bill.
I’d read about Cooley’s rise through the fledgling AMA Superbike ranks and his dual championships during the 1970s and early ’80s, but it wasn’t until I joined the industry as a magazine staffer in ’85 that I actually met the man. Of course, that’s the year he had his horrific get-off at Sears Point, and so it wasn’t until a few years later we hooked up again for a story about Yoshimura’s Tornado open-class racebike. The man was smart, friendly and humble, andit was a treat to hang with him at Willow Springs that day and pick his brain about the roots of AMA Superbike racing.
He did some endurance racing (I remember him passing me in Turn 8 at Willow Springs at about 130 mph at 2 a.m. during a WERA 24-hour event in ’88 or ’89) and taught at the Team Suzuki school during the late 1980s, and then sorta vanished from the motorcycle scene altogether after deciding — after his long, post-crash rehab — to become a nurse. He did that for 20-plus years, and from talking to him later, it seemed he thoroughly enjoyed it…and was pretty good at it, too.
“Having been in really bad shape due to my crash in ’85,” he told me a few years ago, “I was able to calm some of the badly injured people I was caring for, as I’d been in their shoes, sometimes with the exact injuries. And that was very satisfying for me.”
Fast forward to late 2015. I was doing some freelance work for the AMA at the time and offered to put together part of a 40 Years of AMA Superbikes theme and display for the upcoming 2016 AMA Vintage Motorcycle Days event at Mid-Ohio. My good buddy (and longtime AMA Superbike collector) Brian O’Shea would provide some of the pedigreed bikes we’d showcase, most specifically the Suzuki GS1000 Wes won the 1980 AMA Superbike title on.
Other O’Shea-owned bikes on the list included Reg Pridmore’s ’78 title-winning Kawasaki KZ1000; the Honda VF750F on which Freddie Spencer won the 1985 Daytona 200; Bubba Shobert’s 1988 title-winning VFR Honda; and Clevelander Ken Edgar’s ’82 Suzuki Katana, which Wes raced that season.
The key to making this all work, of course, would be getting Wes to come to VMD to be Grand Marshal. I didn’t have his contact information, but Yoshimura’s Don Sakakura did, and within a few days Wes and I were scheming away on the logistics of getting him and his longtime partner Melody to Mid-Ohio in July.
The funniest thing about those phone and email conversations was Wes’s attitude about jumping back into the public eye after 25 years away from the action. “Do you think anyone will even care if I’m the Grand Marshal,” he asked? “Will folks actually come if an old guy like me is the main attraction?”
I laughed and told him that was about the last thing he needed to worry about, but he was serious. I honestly believe to this day that he felt very few would even remember him, or care. I promised him they’d care, and come July, boy-oh-boy, did they.
Given the legendary goodies inside that tent, we figured the AMA display would be packed all weekend, and it was, especially when Wes showed up each day to sign autographs. The line would stretch out of the tent for an hour or more, and as I watched Wes talk to folks and tell stories from the old days and sign stuff I was amazed at how surprised and genuinely appreciative he was of the fans, who brought him a constant stream of posters, programs, photos, GS1000S tail sections and side panels — and even a few fuel tanks! — to sign.
“I had no idea folks would be this interested to see and talk to me,” Wes told me sort of incredulously on Saturday afternoon. “It’s really gratifying, and it makes me realize how much I’ve missed all this over the years.”
The plan was for Wes to ride his old GS1000 during each day’s Lap of Honor, so O’Shea and I had to get the bike to the hot pit each day while Wes suited up. Since O’Shea’s GS has massive compression and a flimsy tail-section, pushing wasn’t a good option, so we used his wheeled starter to get the bike running. O’Shea would squirt a little race fuel into the carbs, I’d get the real wheel spinning with the starter, he’d let out the clutch in second gear, and BOOOOM! The thing would light with an explosive bark, the sound from the unbaffled Yoshimura exhaust ricocheting around the paddock and attracting lots attention from fans.
Brian and I got to hang with Wes and Melody all weekend, and from the moment he pulled into Mid-Ohio on Thursday morning in his rental car to the moment we all waved goodbye on Monday, he was a perfect gentleman — and so appreciative of the opportunity to reconnect with the motorcycle community.
I remember our Sunday night dinner like it was yesterday. “Guys,” he said earnestly to Brian and me and a few others, “this has been an amazing weekend, for me and for Melody… Thank you so much for making it all happen!”
That made our weekends.
That VMD experience also jump-started a couple year’s worth of worldwide travel to vintage motorcycle events, some in Europe and others in Japan. Wes would call me and let me know of his latest opportunity, most of which he’d get paid for by promoters in addition to them picking up his tab for travel and lodging. Just as at VMD, but more-so because he was still an international star in those parts of the world, Wes was mobbed by fans — but he had a ton of fun anyway.
Wes Cooley was one of the really good guys in motorcycle racing, and we’re all worse off with his passing. I definitely shed some tears when I heard the news last week. Still, and I know he’d agree with me on this, he’d tell everyone who’s feeling sad about all this to go out and ride and enjoy the sport and the freedom and exhilaration it offers. He loved motorcycling, and it showed.
He’d also ask you to say a prayer for Melody, as she’s obviously dealing with a crushing sadness, and will be for years to come.
Bye for now, Wes. You made the sport of motorcycling, and motorcycle racing in particular, a very special thing for millions, and you will be remembered forever for it. Godspeed.