When Ralph Cooke stepped into his Hudson Hornet for his first-ever stock car race on a dirt track in the Los Angeles suburb of Gardena, John F. Kennedy was president.
Gasoline cost 27 cents a gallon, the average American worker earned $5,300 per year and a new house cost about $12,500.
It was 1961, the year the Soviet Union jumped out to the early lead in the space race and East Germany began construction of the Berlin Wall. A.J. Foyt won the first of his four Indy 500s, Ned Jarrett won the NASCAR championship and the fledgling stock car racing association began getting some television exposure on ABC's Wide World of Sports.
As a teenager, Cooke was attracted to the speed and thrill of auto racing. He wanted to race, but could not afford it then. He drove a 1951 Hornet, which was coincidentally one of the dominant auto racing stock cars of the era. Following his service in the Air Force, Cooke returned home and learned that his Hornet was no longer street worthy. It couldn't be driven on the streets, but it certainly could do a little dirt track racing.
"It had set too long. (I) stripped it out and made a race car out of it," recalls Cooke.
At 27, he was off and racing, first at the Western Speedway, then at the famed Ascot Park.
A father of two, he ran low-budget operations. "I never let the racing interfere with the family or the standard of living," he said.
Fifty one years later, Cooke, 78, is still racing. And racing well. He competes in the Hobby Stock class, one of the upper divisions at Bakersfield Speedway and one of the most competitive in the west.
This is not some old guy trying to relive past glory, taking up space and getting in the way. Heading into this past Saturday's race, he was eighth in points among the 63 drivers in the division. His 78 car -- which coincides with his age, he has driven the 78 his whole career -- is a legitimate force on the clay track.
Cooke has been racing, mostly on Southern California's dirt tracks, for most of the past half century. In addition to Bakersfield Speedway, where he ran from 1988 to 1998 and returned this season, he has run at Perris and Victorville, and even did a few stints on asphalt, at Irwindale and Saugus.
He was especially prominent at Victorville Raceway Park, where he ran most of the past decade and won the track championship in 2002, at age 68.
Cooke moved to Bakersfield in 1980 to work as a technical director for a small oil service company. A chemical engineer, he still works, running his own oil service company, Enhanced Petroleum Technology.
"I enjoy that challenge," Cooke says. "It keeps me productive, it keeps me busy, and the racing provides the excitement."
In years past, his son worked on his crew and his daughter helped work on his car.
But nowadays, Cooke is both racer and crew, occasionally having a friend come out to help him. He had help for his Aug. 4 race, but on Aug. 11 and Aug. 25, he flew solo. There is little doubt that there would be plenty of help from other crew members should Cooke need it -- that's the nature of racing -- but Cooke seems firmly in control of preparing his car for the night's activities. In fact, it was Cooke who was doing the helping, walking the pits and giving advice, loaning his air compressor to another driver, helping another whose car was having an overheating issue.
Ask the division's other drivers, and there is nothing but respect for the veteran Cooke. "Ralph is fun to race with, he's a gentleman's racer," says Jimmy Irwin, 48, the current Hobby Stock points leader. "He rubs you no more than you rub him. He will not take you out. He's a really good guy."
Chad Johnson, 30, has known Cooke for his entire racing career. "From the time I really remember starting racing, when I was about 13 (or) 14 years old, Ralph Cooke was out here racing," says Johnson, third in the point standings going into last
Saturday's race. In Victorville, "he was always willing to come over and talk, give us some tips and hints about the track. Having him race with us now in Bakersfield, he's competitive. It's hard to believe how competitive he is. I wish I can be like that when I'm that old, you know? I hope to make it that old, actually."
On Aug. 4, Cooke and Aaron Stewart waged a side-by-side battle for position throughout the race. Stewart finished fifth, Cooke seventh. Afterward, Stewart, 27, who says Cooke treats him "like a complete gentleman out on the race track," visited Cooke's pit, and the two excitedly discussed their battle on the track. "That was a hell of a race," said Stewart, fifth in points heading into last Saturday's race. "It was," replied Cooke, "I just needed to get around those guys in front of me and get going."
Words like "gentleman, great guy and clean racer" do not diminish Cooke's intense, competitive desire. Following the Aug. 25 Hobby Stock main, where he ran out front for the first quarter of the race before falling back and finishing 10th with a bent left front ball joint, Cooke was openly disappointed. "Look at that tire, see how it's turned in? It's not supposed to be that way. When the track began to dry out, it became tough to handle," Cooke explained, noting that he had four races left to get it fixed and dialed in.
"I'm the type of guy that, even if I do well, come from the back of the pack, get into the top five or six in the 22-car field, I'm so frustrated unless I win."
In fact, Cooke considers this season a "dialing in" period for his car. "I'm being a little careful these first few races," he says of the 1978 Chevy Camaro he had built to be competitive with the high caliber of racers at the Speedway, "and we'll make a run next season for the championship, get as far as I can."
Remarkably fit and agile at 78, Cooke plans to race at least two more seasons, maybe more. He attributes his good health to a combination of "a good heredity background and never smoking. I'm proof that if you avoid some of the pitfalls, you can enjoy life and do whatever you want to, within reason, regardless of your age."
He says he will hang it up if he is no longer relevant on the track, if his reflexes and coordination no longer allow him to run safely. And that might not be anytime soon.
Ralph Cooke plans to keep racing as long as he can "run well and go to the front."