Nobody was more surprised than Lee Cooper after a Facebook post featuring his son was shared more than 700 times on the social networking site.
" I didn’t realize it would blow up on Facebook like it did," Cooper told Speed51. "I told the Hurley family at Laurens County [Speedway], ‘I didn’t know everybody cared so much.’"
The Facebook post showed Lee's son, Luke, kneeling beside a 602 Crate Late Model he will race at the "Darlington of Dirt" in 2019. The only thing out of the ordinary was that Luke is currently ten years old, turning 11 in March.
"I’ve had people reach out to me, all across the United States, it was like 700 shares," said Cooper. "People in Washington state were sending me stuff, people from New York were sending me stuff. I saw a guy from Australia comment on it. This 10, 11 year old kid in South Carolina has had a lot of people talking over the last few days, and I think that’s cool."
Luke plans to race the Crate Late Model in 2019, although a specific timetable has not been set for his first race. Lee describes Luke as someone who was born with racing in his blood - and has already enjoyed plenty of success.
“He’s been driving something since he could hold a steering wheel," said Cooper. "I built him a go-kart and a race track on the back of our property and he probably did thousands of laps at three and four years old. We went go-kart racing the week he turned five. We’ve raced go-karts since then. We haven’t kept up with it, but I know he’s won well over a hundred features and three Tri-State point championships. He’s won the Big Three series several times, he won the Maxxis National Championship this year at Neeses, South Carolina last year and won Daytona year before last. He’s been real fortunate go-kart racing.
“We started doing some Bandolero racing at Charlotte and Atlanta, won races at both of those places," Cooper added. "Never won any points stuff, we didn’t chase points. Running my own business, it’s tough getting to every race for that stuff during the week."
The elder Cooper has worked in racing throughout his life, and his own business keeps him involved in motorsports. That allowed him to make connections and find supporters for his son's racing endeavors.
"We’ve got a sponsor, Jeff Robinson, he owns Buffalo Bar and Grill in Greenwood, South Carolina. I’ve worked with Late Models since I was 15, used to work with Barry Wright. I own Excel Racing Solutions, I do fab work and work on race cars. Working on Dirt Late Models is how I met Jeff.
“He got to know my son, and helped us go-kart racing, Bandolero racing," Cooper added. "I drove this car that Luke is driving about five or six races and I was fixing to give it back to the guy. He had a car sitting there, and wanted me to drive it."
After a handful of races, Cooper was ready to turn the car over to its original owner. Young Luke had another idea.
"I went to give it back, and my little boy standing there said, ‘You ought to let me drive that thing,’" recalled Cooper. "It took off from there. Jeff said, “Your daddy’s still got the car. It’s yours if you want it.”
For now, the family is content giving Luke testing opportunities in the full-sized race car, letting him gain a comfort level with the machine as he transitions from karts and smaller cars.
"We let Luke go to Laurens Speedway at the end of the year, made some laps, he did well," said Cooper. "He didn’t set any land speed records or anything, but he didn’t hit anything. Considering how the race track was, it was slick, it hadn’t been touched in months, it was frozen over, it was really dry slick, but he did good. He knew when the tires spun to not get in it so hard, just roll off the throttle. He was 10 years old, so it was a decent deal. We had more trouble getting it in gear than anything, he couldn’t reach the shifter.
"We talked with Jeff, and he said ‘I think he could be really good, given some time,’" added Cooper. "He wanted to try to drive a race car, that’s been in the plans since day one. I’ve always had a dirt late model background."
While eventually graduating to Dirt Late Models was always the vision for Lee, even he has to admit the development happened faster than he anticipated.
"Honestly, this might be a little bit ahead of schedule from what I had in mind, but we had the opportunity come up," Cooper explained. "I think we can use this season to jump that big hurdle, get the learning deal out of the way. Honestly, by mid-season, I think we’ll be competitive enough to run good. I’m not saying we’re going to win a race or anything, but be right there with them at some of our area race tracks."
With that said, Lee has no desire to rush the matter.
"I don’t have a timetable on it. I really don’t," said Cooper. "If it takes six weeks for him to be capable of racing with a crowd or six months. I realize what his age is. I don’t think it will take long at all. I just know my son. He’s never been the type to overdo things. He’s never just went out there bounced off the fence, torn up a bunch of stuff on his own doing. He’s the most mature ten year old as a race car driver I’ve ever met.
"I’m not throwing him to the wolves right to start with," he added. "We’re going to practice all these open practices. Every open practice, we’re going to try to have him there. When he feels like he’s ready, I’m going to have him race, but he’s going to have to make sure he’s ready. I’m not going to get him hurt or get everybody else’s stuff up. I’ve been in that position where anybody learning racing is in my way, I’m lapping them, and it cost me a race. I don’t want to be that guy.”
The decision has been met with both support and criticism after being shared around the world on Facebook. Lee Cooper defends his decision to put Luke in a full-size car at a young age, as he considers the Crate Late Models an entry-level division.
“I’ve seen everybody fussing at us, telling us to put him in an entry level class," said Cooper. "To me, that is an entry level class. I know guys are stepping back into it, but I don’t have any intention of running hobby stocks and four cylinders. My intention is to get him to bigger steps. To me, the 602 is an entry-level of Late Model racing. With the other stuff, it teaches you bad habits. I didn’t want to jump that hurdle. I know some people are criticizing us about it.
"I had Tyler Dippel in my shop yesterday, on his way to Atlanta, I work on a lot of stuff for Tyler Young Motorsports," Cooper added. "He was on the way to Atlanta and told me, ‘Man, I started running Big-Block Modifieds when I was 11 years old, won track championships at 14, 15 years old.’ That’s what we’re working towards. You’ve got to start somewhere."
Cooper is also able to pull from his personal experience in guiding his son's future. He recalls going through driver development programs in his late teens and early 20s, and already being told he was too late to the party.
"I just know I went through a lot of driver development stuff when I was coming along racing," said Cooper. "I was a little too late, I went around 18-20 and they told me I was a couple of years too late. That’s why we’re trying to start Luke so young. Kids are coming along younger and younger. If you want to make it in racing, you’ve got to try to jump on the same bandwagon. Everybody’s done it, we’re not the first."
Father and son also understand that Luke will be competing against much older adults on the race tracks where they'll compete. Lee is very direct in stating he expects no preferential treatment or 'kid gloves' around his son when the green flag drops.
"I don’t expect anyone to race my 11-year-old kid any different than they would a 40-year-old man," said Cooper. "We don’t expect any kind of special treatment. Yeah, if they yank him out of the car and want to whoop up on him, we’re probably going to have a problem. But that’s not our style and not what we’re there for. I don’t expect him to be raced different. I’ve seen 40-year-olds make mistakes out of immaturity they expect my son to make. I, myself, have done dumb stuff in a race car before. It doesn’t take an 11-year-old to do that."
Cooper knows there will be backlash, and has already heard from some tracks and series that will not be allowing his son to compete until he gets older. Lee is okay with that, respectful of those decisions and opinions but eager to get Luke any track time available to him.
"We’ll catch some backlash," said Cooper. "We’ll have a lot of supporters. I’m glad a lot of the race tracks have reached out with open arms. I’ve had a couple of race tracks and series, ‘You can’t come, he’s too young, the insurance won’t allow it.’ I get it, but I’m not going to beg anyone to let him race, either. We’ll go where we’ll welcome and keep digging."
-Story by: Zach Evans, Speed51.com Southeast Editor - Twitter: @ztevans
-Photo credit: Laurens County Speedway Facebook