Forty-five. That’s Guy Cooper’s age. It’s also roughly the number of his bones he has broken. Most of those mishaps were just “fluke things,” the Stillwater man decides as he looks back over his years of high-flying. Like the one that happened at an altitude of 22 feet over Belgium, about right for a guy who came to be known as “Airtime.”
Cooper had just won a major supercross race and was hot-dogging for the crowd on his tweaked Honda 250 two-stroker dirt bike. A rut on a jump caused Cooper to alter his flight path, and he clipped the finish-line banner, which was 22 feet in the air, causing him to crash. He suffered a compound fracture of one leg.
“I took big chances all my career,” Cooper said. “I could ride that edge.”
Riding high is in his blood. His grandmother was a “motormaid,” as some female bikers were known in the 1940s. His mother was a Harley rider until converting to the Indian motorcycles Cooper’s father sold at a shop in Stillwater. Two of Guy Cooper’s brothers also raced professionally, and the third competed as a top amateur in mountain biking, jet skiing and motocross competitions. And a nephew, “Cowboy” Kenny Bartram of Stillwater, is a motocross freestyle jumping phenom.
But Cooper’s unusual style of high-flying on a supercross track was why fans couldn’t get enough Airtime. Cooper was famous for nailing all the triple jumps. Eventually, however, the wisdom that comes with age, not to mention the pounding, had him backing off a bit, to the dismay of the crowds.
“They expected me to jump every big jump on the track,” he said. “That doesn’t come every lap. Sometimes, you really ought to back out of it, yet the fans wanted to see it.”
Fans weren’t the only demanding ones. A major sponsor wouldn’t give him time off to get metal rods in both legs and screws in one hand removed and to recuperate. So in 1993, Cooper ended his professional supercross racing career. He went on to four years of professional long-distance off-road racing, including a couple of grueling six-day, 1,100-mile off-road endurance races in Europe, winning gold in each. He also was asked to ride in a rally race in South Africa, and was tempted, but that wisdom-of-age thing kicked in.
While motocross (longer, outdoor closed-circuit dirt racing) and supercross (typically indoors, heavy on the jumps) are radical rides, top speeds are “only” around 55 mph. Off-road rally racing is extreme, too, but includes extreme distances and speeds almost double that.
“I don’t like speed,” Cooper said.
Especially when Cooper hears tales from rally riding buddies, such as the guy who was winning his stage. He was scorching across the desert at 100 mph, the TV helicopter following him as he gobbled dunes and soared out of sand “whoops.”
“It makes you feel like you’re Superman,” Cooper said.
But after eight hours on a bike, Cooper said, “you almost get delirious,” and when the sun hits a certain angle, shadows defining the terrain can disappear. Cooper’s friend never saw it coming: a dip 5 feet deep and 100 feet across. He flew into space and tumbled, landing in a heap, his femur shoved through his pelvis. Fortunately, the helicopter crew was watching and immediately called for paramedics, “the only thing that kept him alive,” Cooper said.
Speeds were half that in Nevada when Cooper was competing in a race to qualify for a six-day endurance race. But the big rocks got bigger at one point, throwing Cooper into an “endo” in which he tumbled over his handlebars.
“Next thing I know, there was oil dripping on me,” he said. “Speed and me just never have connected well.”
These days, Cooper shows few signs of all the impacts his body has absorbed. “It’s amazing that I feel good because I have been banged up some.”
In 2001, Cooper sold the 160-acre Cooperland Raceway, the motocross track he built and ran south of Stillwater. But Cooper still has 160 acres of his own outside of Stillwater to knock around on, and he’s right down the dirt road from a 500-acre public off-road area. These days, when Cooper spins knobbies on the single-track, it’s just for fun. After a few laps, he’s ready for a break.
“I’m losing that edge now,” Cooper said. “I fully understand that at 45 years old and out of the daily training, I shouldn’t be out there for long amounts of time.”
It has taken some doing, but Cooper has managed to throttle back his competitive nature. The other day when he took the 19-year-old nephew of a friend out for a spin, Cooper didn’t even fight for the lead. “I was completely OK with him going around me,” Cooper said.
His “semi-retirement” business now is promoting and selling “pit bikes,” tiny motorcycles that made their mark as the favored mode of transportation in pit areas at racing venues. Cooper said he was the first in America to import pit bikes made in China.
He hosts pit bike races in a country bar in Stillwater, where the dirt track wends through the bar, outside and back in.
Cooper has a new focus these days — Kaitlin, the child he and his wife, Wanda, adopted two years ago as an infant. “It has been pretty life-changing. It’s awesome,” he said. Kaitlin likes Daddy’s toys, squealing “Jeep, Jeep,” whenever a ride down rugged backroads is imminent.
Cooper still keeps his hand in off-road sports and on about any throttle he can find. His garage is crowded with all manner of trail-pounding, dirt-chomping off-road vehicles, from motorcycles and ATVs to four-wheelers and fat-tire Segways. Airtime still grabs some.
“If it’s got wheels and it’s made for the dirt, I’m about it,” Cooper said. “I like wheels.”
You don’t say.