SportsCar Feature: The Accidental Racer

This article first appeared in the June, 2016 edition of SportsCar Magazine. SCCA members can read the current and past editions of SportCar digitally here after logging into their account; To become an SCCA member and get SportsCar mailed to your home address monthly in addition to the digital editions, click here.

Combining talent and hard work scores Michael Cooper a coveted – and surprising – factory ride with Cadillac

Newest factory Cadillac driver, Michael Cooper, did not expect to see the SCCA Pro Racing-sanctioned Pirelli World Challenge podium in his first race with Cadillac Racing. But after the first two rounds of the 2016 World Challenge season, Cooper found himself leading the GT Drivers’ Championship on the strength of three podium finishes. He has a funny habit of underestimating himself. He might be the only one.

Cooper doesn’t come from a dynasty of racers, he didn’t start racing karts when he was 5, and he’s working on his second degree just in case this whole racing thing doesn’t work out, but it’s pretty clear Cooper was born to be behind the wheel. His natural ability in a car combined with a knack for quick learning has gotten him noticed by all the right people.

Cooper didn’t delve into racing until a friend convinced him to take a Skip Barber school at Lime Rock Park. In his late teens at the time, Cooper didn’t sign up with a plan to become a professional driver. In fact, after doing two Skippy schools, he tried the race series and didn’t really like it.

He didn’t pursue racing any further until a phone call from Cadillac in 2010. Apparently, he’d signed up for the Bob Lutz Cadillac CTS-V Challenge, where former GM Vice Chairman challenged drivers to beat him at a racetrack in their car versus his CTS-V. “I hadn’t heard about the Cadillac Challenge at all,” Cooper laughs. “My brother saw it on a car site, and he signed me up for it in my dad’s four-door M3 unbeknownst to me! I still lived at home and I just walked over to my brother’s room and asked if he knew what it was about and he filled me in while they were talking.”

Cooper was the quickest amateur on a damp Monticello Motor Club, and although he wasn’t able to beat ace-in-the-hole drivers John Heinricy or Johnny O’Connell, he did beat Lutz and a slew of automotive journalists who each got their chance in the CTS-V.

The challenge was filmed for Speedvision. Cooper got to be on camera with O’Connell, who praised the young kid from Long Island.

“I didn’t read too much into it,” Cooper says. “I thought he was just being a good TV personality and being nice for the camera. Afterward, when they shut the cameras off, he continued telling me that he was serious and I should pursue racing.”

“He blew me away with how quick he was going,” O’Connell recalls about Cooper’s performance. “He was very smooth. It’s rare to see a young guy do that well, and when I heard how little experience he had, I remember going up to his dad and saying, ‘Your kid has really great natural ability.’”

Cooper reckoned that maybe sedan racing was more his style and gave Skip Barber another go, this time in its MX-5 series. Pretty soon he was urged to move up to the SCCA Pro Racing-sanctioned MX-5 Cup.

“They told me to e-mail some teams in MX-5 Cup,” Cooper says. “I e-mailed every team, and Jason Hoover at Atlanta Motorsports Group [AMG] was the only one who responded to my e-mail! I still laugh about that to this day.”

The jump from Skip Barber to MX-5 Cup in 2010 was a big one – and Cooper’s first real test as a race driver. He now had a team of engineers and mechanics to set the car up to his liking, he had data, and he had real competition tires.

“The street tire at Skip Barber had no magic window in qualifying,” Cooper explains. “In MX-5 Cup, we practiced on scuffed tires, then threw on new tires for qualifying and, all of a sudden, I was a second off the guys I was right with in practice. That was one of the biggest things that stands out to me that I had to learn in that first year.”

Cooper got the hang of it, and toward the end of his debut season began to appear on the podium, even winning a race. It was clear he needed to return for another shot at MX-5-Cup. He spent the off-season fine-tuning his driving. He could always see in the data what he needed to do to be faster, but to change his muscle memory took more than the few track sessions an MX-5 Cup weekend afforded. Many hours were spent on the simulator re-learning how to drive.

It worked. The following year he was the MX-5 Cup champion and recipient of a Mazda prize fund that paved the way to a ride in the World Challenge Touring Car Championship. Cooper insisted on taking AMG with him.

“The prize goes to the driver, but I wanted to stay with Atlanta Motorsports Group, because I felt they were very capable of running a Touring Car in the next step up,” Cooper says. “I’m really glad we did it, because I had a good team and a good engineer who understood those kinds of cars, and it helped minimize the learning curve.”

That learning curve included going from a rear-wheel-drive MX-5 to a turbocharged, front-wheel-drive Mazdaspeed3. Not to mention racing alongside different cars and different classes. Once again, a lesson in tires was in the curriculum.

“The second round was at Miller Motorsports Park,” Cooper shares. “I think 10 laps into the race at Miller, the tires were down to the cords and there was still 20 minutes left. It felt like an eternity! Learning tire management was a big thing.”

But Cooper was a quick learner. In his rookie World Challenge season, he became the Touring Car Champion – something he never expected.

“I’ve never expected to win a championship,” Cooper says. “Even going into the MX-5 Cup season the second year. It was the same thing in World Challenge. I thought the competition would be really tough and it’d be a learning process like my first year of MX-5 Cup. It was, but we won the first two races our first weekend.”

If Cooper could ever be accused of being over confident, it happened after that 2012 World Challenge season. He had every right to be confident in his driving, but he placed too much confidence in the idea that with a winning record, he’d keep getting rides. Fresh off of his World Challenge Touring Car championship, Cooper was without a team in 2013. It was a gut check, but again, Cooper showed he was a quick learner.

“I think that I was taught a lesson at the end of 2012,” Cooper explains. “Even though I’d won a championship and spent the whole off-season thinking I had a ride, things can change really quickly. I think there’s no reason that couldn’t happen again. You can’t predict the future, so in my book it’s better to be prepared for anything.”

To prepare for “Plan B,” Cooper went back to school to pursue a nutrition degree to add to his business administration degree. He was able to put a few rides together with AMG that netted him four Touring Car wins, but his big break came when he got the opportunity to drive CRP Racing’s Corvette in the GT class at Mid-Ohio. His performance got people’s attention – including Cadillac, which gave him a test in the CTS-V.

A one-off race at the end of 2014 parlayed into a full-season GTS ride with Blackdog Speed Shop in 2015 at the wheel of a Camaro Z28. It was another big step up for Cooper, but once again he showed he was a quick learner, scoring four wins en route to the GTS Championship.

“It was nice to see Cooper advancing and knowing that it was his skill making the difference,” O’Connell says. “I saw what he did in the Camaro last year and it shows that guys with a lot of talent can rise up.”

They can even rise up to be O’Connell’s teammate, which is where Cooper is this year in the No. 8 Cadillac ATS-V.R. GT3. “I’m not too sure where the ability came from, but I’ve definitely done a lot of work addressing my driving to get it to this point,” Cooper says. “I don’t want people to think, ‘He did that so quickly, I could probably do that too.’ There’s a lot of work that went in behind the scenes.”

Not a big checkbook, a fancy social media plan, or a famous name; just a natural gift for racing and a lot of hard work.

Words by Erin Cechal
Image by Richard Prince

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