Rick Cooper - Guess Who?

By Jim Luikens

Quick! Can you name the 35-year-old driver that is competing on the IHRA circuit this year as a rookie in Top Fuel? Wait a minute; I’ll give you a few clues! He has a college degree in city planning, is a fairly accomplished pool player, was trained as a golf pro, is a crack shot with a rifle or a pistol, loves Jazz and Blues concerts and lives in that hotbed of drag racing activity, Boise, Idaho. I know what you’re thinking. That could be anybody! All of you who said that this is probably the story of Rick Cooper take a step forward.

Rick, who was born in Pullman, Oregon, has always loved drag racing in general and nitromethane in particular. As a ten-year old youngster he filled his spare time by drawing pictures of race cars and dreamed of driving a nitro-powered car some day. Even at that young age he knew he was destined to be a driver. He just didn’t know the how, the where or the when of his dream.

As a result he set about obtaining an education and graduated from the University of Arizona with a degree in city planning. Upon graduation he decided to make the other love of his life, golf, his first priority and he became a golf pro. Many of the attributes that make a good golfer, such as focus and concentration, also are applicable to driving a race car.

His first taste of motorsports came when he entered SCCA Solo II events with a Mustang. Solo II events are individually timed runs through what is basically a flat obstacle course that is defined by cones. The person that takes the shortest time to travel the course is the winner. As his experience increased he progressed to faster and faster cars, eventually competing in a Saleen Mustang.

Near the end of 2001 Rick decided to attend the NHRA national event in Las Vegas, Nevada as a spectator. Frank Hawley’s Drag Racing School had an information booth set up at that event and Rick was immediately mesmerized by the possibility of making one of his earliest dreams come true. He decided to stay over after the NHRA event concluded and take the (entry level) Super Comp course. He passed it easily and got his license.

Two months later he was back to take the Alcohol Funny Car course. When his 6 foot, 3 inch, 220-pound frame wouldn’t comfortably fit in the school’s funny car he decided to take the school’s Alcohol Dragster class instead. School instructor Gary Stallone told him that very few alcohol students actually went on to receive their competition license each year. However, Rick displayed his natural ability and licensed fast in the school’s alcohol dragster.

With his new diploma in hand Rick began looking around for an alcohol driving job. He pursued a couple of opportunities but nothing really materialized. Then, in October of last year, he was in a racing chat room when he spotted the handle, TopFuelxxx. Rick’s love of nitro caused him to immediately speak up and ask TopFuelxxx (whose handle was been modified slightly here) if he was involved with a Top Fuel team.

As luck would have it the handle belong to Dave Stevens of the Stevens Family Top Fuel Dragster. At that very moment the Stevens Family were preparing for an all out assault on IHRA Top Fuel in 2004. They already had many things in place but one thing yet to be finalized was the team’s driver. Naturally, this perked up Rick’s ears and his typing fingers.

In addition to being a good driver, the ideal candidate for the job had to be able to promote the car and be adaptable to sponsorship work as well. Naturally, Rick thought he would be the ideal candidate despite the fact that his driving resume was a little light. He pointed out that two of the key ingredients from golf, focus and concentration, would also be assets in racing.

Further conversations eventually led to a deal being struck that put Rick behind the Stevens Family steering wheel for 2004. Rick loves the bigger Top Fuel fields that the IHRA is seeing this year and is not intimidated by the increased level of competition. The Stevens car has qualified for three of the four events that have been run so far this year. Their record would probably be a perfect four for four if they had not encountered a last minute problem at the Richmond event.

After fixing a problem the team did not refire the car in their pit before heading up to the staging lanes for Saturday’s Night of Fire final qualifying session. After overcoming various gremlins throughout the weekend they were hopeful of making the show on their final run. However, the car was idling too high after the burnout and the idle would not come down enough to allow the dragster to be shifted into reverse, which scrubbed the run. Despite that disappointing event, Rick and the team are in fifth place in points after the first four events of the 2004 IHRA season.

This strong of an early showing, especially considering the limited experience that the team and the driver have at this level of competition prior to this season, may be surprising to some. But it would not be surprising to those who know Rick personally. He is a perfectionist who likes to do things well or not at all. Poor results frustrate him and he gives his all to every opportunity.

Before the start of this season Rick and the Stevens Team set their goals for the year. They wanted to finish among the top three in the final 2004 IHRA Top Fuel points and win more than one IHRA national event in their first year as full time competitors on the tour. With only one-third of the season completed to date and a full two thirds yet to be run neither Rick nor the Stevens Team have done anything yet to indicate that these goals are not achievable.