It all began with an old pickup truck.
At 16, Saanich-born Dave Cooper won the first car race he entered with his father’s pickup truck.
“A lot of my buddies said that I grew horns when I got behind a wheel,” says Cooper, on the eve of his 98th birthday, Oct. 16.
“From that moment on, I never looked back. It was a natural progression. All my worries would go away the moment the race flag dropped.”
Cooper is a legend in the Western Speedway community. As a local Victorian, he started driving “street stocks” such as a 1936 Chrysler and later turned to the simpler Sprint cars. He was the track champion at Western five years in a row. He’s been inducted into the Greater Victoria Sports Hall of Fame and Victoria Auto Racing Hall of Fame.
Cooper and a group of drivers and builders started the new Western Speedway back in 1953. A plumber by day, Cooper did all the plumbing work for the Speedway.
He was known as the ‘Flying Plumber’. In the first season, he won both the sprint car and ‘big car’ points race. His overall win total was more than 200 races at the new track.
The 98-year-old never thought he’d end up in racing. At the age of 5, he got polio, which affected his mobility while growing up. In high school, his stiff right ankle from polio pulled him back from most sports.
“It was so bad that when I would play baseball, I would hit the ball and have someone else run for me,” he recalls.
For more than 40 years, racing was his beloved hobby. He never owned the cars, he just drove them. By the time he reached his 50s, he was competing in the super stock division and working on his cars at any spare moment. Sometimes he would race for NASCAR in California.
“He would go out and work on his car all night and the next morning run off to a race,” says Barb, his wife. “I was worried about him falling asleep at the wheel.”
Cooper says in all his years of racing, the only time he feared for his life was during a competition in Roseburg, Ore. During a race, a car spun out and on the next lap in, with Cooper in the lead, the driver backed up right into Cooper’s car.
“My car flew into the air with the nose straight up and I somehow came out of that alive,” he says. “My car was wrecked and the car radiator burst and burnt my legs.”
He was rushed to a hospital and taken care of, but he says he still has some scars. On the way back to Victoria, his friend fell asleep at the wheel and nearly drove them into a gas station. “That was the biggest scare of my life,” says Cooper.
When asked the secret to winning races, Cooper says you have to study the competition and make tight turns. “The car and you have to be one. That’s all it takes.”
In 1974, he retired. His race days may be behind him, but his time on the road isn’t.
Cooper still has a driver’s licence and regularly goes on errands around town. He and his wife, Barb, have three children, six grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.
‘The Flying Plumber’ and his friends celebrate his 98th birthday at the Six Mile Pub on Saturday night, Oct. 19.