This article was originally printed in our September 2018 issue of TransWorld Motocross.
Introducing Justin Cooper
With a "speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far" mindset, little-known rookie racer Justin Cooper is quietly creeping his way toward becoming the biggest American motocross rookie sensation in years.
At the 2018 Glen Helen National, Cooper yanked off his boots and sought out a pair of shorts and laced up his training shoes, though he still kept his jersey on. He then walked out from beneath the Monster Energy/Yamalube/Star Racing Yamaha awning to take a place along the fence for the first 450 National moto. All of this took place just moments after earning fourth place in the opening moto of the day. Even with the Cooper 62 jersey on his back, nobody--from fans to industry members--even took notice of the first year AMA 250MX racer standing there among the crowd.
"I think he's a little bit different in the fact that he's in the shadows, so to speak," Monster Energy/Yamaha Factory Racing chief Keith McCarty said of Cooper. "You don't really think about him until all of a sudden he's there and it's like, 'Holy cow! Who is that guy?!' I think that's what's impressive about him. All the greats have something in common and they're a little different. I think he probably falls into that category."
Ryan Villopoto, who now works for Yamaha, has also been front and center early on for Cooper's first full professional outdoor season. In addition to sharing ties through Yamaha, he too was a rookie rider who entered the professional ranks back in 2006 to a modest amount of fanfare. "Justin came out last year at the last couple of Nationals swinging, so you knew that he had the speed and was able to race," Villopoto said, referring to the three-race run Cooper went on in the 2017 AMA Amateur National Motocross Championship. "Racing is a whole different story. You can be fast, but if you can't race, you're not going to go very far. He's a racer and he's a gamer and I see him doing well."
It seems as though motocross stars don't come screaming out of the blue these days, as the sport and its culture have now grown to be much too sophisticated. The tried-and-true path to the shop doors of a factory-backed or factory-supported race team is well worn and as straight and narrow as it gets. Simply put, surprises in the sport are hard to come by. In this modern era, the sport always seems to find its stars early on, and an anomalous talent or personality the likes of legendary working-class racers such as Jeff Stanton and Doug Henry don't really exist anymore.
Or, perhaps, they still do? Justin Cooper may just be proof that these sorts of racers still come around in this modern age.
The Gate Drops
Cooper grew up in Cold Springs Harbor, New York, a small town of 5,070 inhabitants on the North Shore of Long Island. Far removed from any sort of thriving or vibrant motocross community, for Cooper and his working class family, attending the bigger regional or even national amateur events was something of a luxury. Nonetheless, the family did whatever they possibly could do to keep him progressing in racing. And progress he did. At the 36th Annual Rocky Mountain ATV/MC AMA Amateur National Motocross Championship, Cooper not only dominated the Open Pro Sport class, 250 A class, and set the fastest lap time of the entire event, he was also the recipient of the Nicky Hayden AMA Horizon Award.
One week after collecting accolades at Loretta Lynn's, Cooper was on the starting gate for the very first AMA Pro Racing event of his career. At a rain-lashed day at the Unadilla Valley Sports Complex in his home state of New York, in the second moto, Cooper ran extremely well up front and crossed the finish line a mere 04.892 seconds behind the race winner, Jeremy Martin. Contracted to the Monster Energy/Yamalube/Star Racing Yamaha for the 2018 racing season, Cooper made his West Coast 250 Supercross Championship debut at the 2018 Monster Energy Supercross Series opening round at Angel Stadium. Nerves and all, Cooper placed a spirited ninth overall. "This is what I've been dreaming of since I was a little kid," Cooper said that Saturday in January. "It's crazy to finally be here." Seven days later, however, Cooper pitched it away in the whoops during practice at Houston and was on the injury list with nine broken ribs and a wicked concussion.
Out of action for an indefinite amount of time, McCarty and the entire Star Racing team made a collective decision to pull Cooper off the 250SX title chase to allow him to get into fighting shape for the opening round of the 2018 Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship set for the Hangtown Motocross Classic in Rancho Cordova, California.
"I only had four professional races heading into the outdoors this season, so I kind of fell off the radar and knew I was an underdog coming into this season," said Cooper, who went out and rode to highly competitive 5-9 moto scores at Hangtown, the highlight of the day being the first four laps he led in the opening moto of the season. "It was cool to get out front in the first moto and lead at Hangtown for a little bit. People were like, 'Who is this kid?' That put me right back on the map and I got a lot of press out of it.”
"It was a great start to the season," Cooper said. "I got fifth overall. It was a good start to the season and it was something to build off of. I felt comfortable, but just not comfortable with the experience and being out front and all that. That was all new to me. I think leading that race helped me a lot in just seeing what I have to do to stay up front and all that. That was really for me. It's really just an all-out sprint at this point. There were definitely a lot of positives to take from that weekend. I mean, to be on top you have to be going hard the whole time. You can't drop off the pace at all and you have to keep your lap times up. I need to work on the intensity and just keeping it up for the 35 minutes."
Round two of the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship shook out at Glen Helen Raceway in Southern California with Cooper running to very competitive, confidence-inspiring 4-7 moto finishes. "I'm definitely confident," Cooper said as the Memorial Day Weekend sun started to set behind the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains. "Coming into this season I was comparing myself to some of the guys, but now I know I'm definitely one of the fastest guys out there. I know that. I believe in myself and I want to carry that over to the racing. I'm not going to take any BS from any riders, and I just want to put myself out front where I belong. I think I'm a top-five guy, for sure. I proved that at Hangtown. I want to keep building and I want to get on that podium and I'm not going to settle until I do. I want to be up front winning these motos."
An individual who has been profoundly helpful during the opening phase of Justin Cooper's professional career has been Star Racing assistant manager Wil Hahn. A veteran of nine professional seasons as well as the 2013 250SX East Region Champion, Hahn is now roommates with Cooper, the two working together as master and understudy.
"I moved in with my team manager, Wil Hahn, so he's kind of just led the way for me and he's obviously been through it all, so he just leads the way for me and I can look up to him to make sure I'm going in the right direction," Cooper said. "He helps me with a little bit of everything. He even helps me away from the racing. He's the guy I look forward to hearing from after I go out on the track. He's a pleasure to be around."
"Obviously, I had been racing a long time. I don't race anymore, but I think that by being around I can help him," Hahn said. "He's pretty young and away from home, so I think it's nice to have some comfort around you. Hopefully I can help him bypass some of those rookie errors by telling him the right way to go.
"He's here to win and that's what he told us he wanted to do," Hahn added. "He told us, 'I want to go win races and that's my goal. From what we've seen preseason leading up to this, he's totally capable of that. For us, the end result we want is podiums, to get some wins, and to keep getting experience. I definitely see him winning some races, and I think once he gets that first win done, I think being on the podium and all that will be an every-weekend thing. You know, he reminds me a bit of Cooper Webb. I was really close with Cooper when he was really young. Justin reminds me a lot of him. He's very focused, and when he's out there on the track he's out there for one goal and that's to win."
A few hours after the running of the Glen Helen round of the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship, and long after the dusty and calamitous parking lots had cleared of the 20,000 fans who had attended the event to celebrate Memorial Day Weekend, McCarty watched on as his race teams tore everything down to load up for the long-haul trek to Thunder Valley in Colorado.
"Justin is really a talent," McCarty said. "It's great when guys understand the opportunities that they have, and Justin is on a great team with a great pedigree. He wants to make his mark and that's exactly what we want to see. We want him to continue to grow until he can be a contender in every one of the motos. He's really good in the outdoors and there are a lot of really good guys in the class and he's definitely in the mix of it, so it would great to see him win a moto along the way."
Seven days later and 967 miles to the east in Lakewood, Colorado, Justin Cooper won his very first AMA Pro Racing 250MX moto. After a confident and determined race that saw him cross the finish line just over four seconds ahead of runner-up Martin, he scored an eighth-place result in the second moto. Scores combined, Cooper found himself up on the podium for the first time in his professional career.
Now the racers and race teams that make up the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship will head back east for the remainder of the series, aside from Washougal. Naturally, the New Yorker is thrilled to get back to a section of this nation he is much more familiar with.
"I love the East Coast," Cooper said. "It's where I grew up and it's what I know the best. After these rounds out here in California and Colorado, we'll start moving east pretty quickly, and I'm pretty familiar with all those tracks over there in that area. I can't wait to get over there and see what I can do there now that I've warmed up after these West Coast rounds.
"I really do think I can keep winning," Cooper said. "I had to do it the hard way coming through the amateurs and all that, so I think I have what it takes and just have to keep the same mindset week in and week out and not let anything get in my head or defeat me mentally. I just need to believe in myself."
Follow Justin on Instagram: @justincooper62_