For 18-year-old Cookson, the 2021 season couldn’t be off to a better start. In four races, he’s reeled off two wins and a third-place finish. His potent No. 39 machine has been a rocket ship since practice on opening day, and he isn’t showing signs of slowing down any time soon.
18-year-old Max Cookson has two wins already in the 2021 PASS Modified season
What makes this current hot streak so notable is the fact those back-to-back wins on what is quickly becoming one of New England’s most competitive tours were just his eighth and ninth starts in a full-sized race car. Yes, you read that right. The man has less than 10 total starts in PASS Mod competition.
“All the pieces to the puzzle have come together very nicely this year,” Cookson said. “I feel the big part is the people I have around me. Ben Ashline has done a ton for my program, and I talk to guys like Jason Ricker often, people with years of experience and knowledge to share.
“I’m not taking anything for granted here, I’m just very fortunate to be in this situation. The guidance I get from those guys is priceless. What’s driving this hot streak is a combination of skilled people, a good chassis setup and a consistent race car in general. I’m already enjoying this season a great deal.”
Sunday’s win at White Mountain wasn’t without its scary moments for Cookson. As he was charging towards the front at lap 22, he drifted up the track going into Turn 1 and lost several positions. It appeared, at least for a few lap, his chances for victory had slipped from his grasp.
“I was pushing myself pretty hard to get around Spencer (Morse) early on,” Cookson explained. “I knew how good the car was, so I didn’t actually need to push that hard. I scrubbed the wall coming off Turn 4, and it absolutely killed my entry into Turn 1. It washed up the track and I had to lift, big-time.”
If you don’t know much about Cookson’s background in racing, it’s time to pull back the curtain. While he doesn’t have much seat time in a full-sized race car, he has done plenty of racing overall.
“I raced Karts from the time I was four until I turned 11 or 12, then took a few years off. I got pretty heavy into sim racing, and got to where I was pretty skilled in the iRacing leagues.”
Skilled and successful is somewhat of an understatement, when you learn just how far he went in it.
I saw where NASCAR was doing a sanctioned or certified race for 13 to 16-year-old iRacers,” Cookson explained. “There were 200 kids that competed. They narrowed it down to 50 at first, then down to 30, then they held a Tour-type Modified race set at Martinsville that paid $10,000 to win.
Here is where the transition from siting in front of a screen to actually crawling into a real car happens.
“I used that $10,000 and some other money I had stashed and bought a Modified,” Cookson said. “I was 17 years old, I paid cash for the car and my Dad bought the truck and trailer. He helps out a lot, for example he rebuilt the rear end last winter, helps with our rear gears and does basic maintenance.
“But for the most part, things like shocks, springs, that type of thing, I take care of myself. He makes sure we have what we need to race so I can focus on making the car go fast. That’s my responsibility.
In 2020, Cookson and his father took that mighty Modified to five PASS races to get their feet wet.
“The first race at Oxford, I went from 17th up to sixth, and was running in fifth at one point,” cookson explained. “The next race was at White Mountain, and we came from deep in the field to finish second. We went over to Thunder Road, and drove from 11th to third under green in eight laps.
“At lap 13, I made slight contact with leader Zach Bowie and turned him around. It was just a racing deal, but we had the best car in the field by a long-shot. That was just an unfortunate situation there.”
Cookson is rising above his PASS Modified rivals in 2021, and there are lots of them. From familiar names like Morse, Durgin and Sanborn, to newcomers like Day and Beyea, the competition is stiff.
“It is a diverse field of talented driver in our series,” Cookson said. “Tyler (King) and Spencer have both won races at the Super Late Model level. There are some, like me, who are still rookies at this, but you also have guys with years of experience. The bottom line is that it’s really stiff competition now.”
When the No. 39 machine rolls out onto the speedway, people take notice. It’s a fine-looking entry, and Cookson says he’s proud of the horse that carried him to victory on two occasions already this spring.
“I’m not sure exactly what year it was built, but my car is a Dale Shaw chassis,” Cookson said. “It was Gary Shackford’s backup car, he raced it a handful of times. Jon McCarron, of JM Builders, a big part of my race team, bought it from Gary and raced it a couple of times, then I bought it from Jon.
“Ben Ashline has done a lot to help me find speed in this car. Our shops are very close to each other, so he can be here in a few minutes. Ben is a huge part of why we’re doing so well this season.”
Along with his immense natural talent behind the wheel, Cookson also has a few key people working behind the scenes to keep his program successful.
“As I mentioned, I’m fortunate to have some very good people around me,” he said. “I need to thank my Dad, Chris Cookson; along with Mathew Bourgoine, Jon McCarron, Ben Ashline and Jason Ricker. I wouldn’t be doing this or running so well without them.
“I also have some great sponsors on board to thank, including JM Builders, C&C Properties, B.R Newhouse Construction, Ben Ashline Race Cars and The Cleaning Crew. I couldn’t do this without their support.”
As summer arrives here in northern New England and racing season hits full throttle, Cookson and his team have some very clear goals in mind. The young man has made the transition from SIM to real-world racing in amazing fashion. Now, that laser-sharp focus is pointed towards more learning.
“We want to go out and keep winning races like we have been,” Cookson concluded. “We’ll keep an eye on the points but won’t obsess over them. I’ve been able to pick up on how to drive a good car fast. The biggest thing I feel I need to work on now is race craft, or strategy. I just need more seat time.”
Story by: Phil Whipple, Speed51.com Northeast Correspondent
Photo credit: Norm Marx/PASS