Interview: Paul Cooper – reflects on his GP career and British titles

It’s not easy making the move from South Africa to try and make it in the Motocross world but Paul Cooper had a good career for himself. Not only was he a solid GP rider but he also has British Championships to his name which he can look back to with fund memories.

We recently caught up with Cooper to discuss his career and much more.

Gatedrop: Since hanging up the Motocross boots, what sort of things have you been up to?

Cooper: Immediately after retiring from the world and British circuit, I returned to SA with the aim of becoming a commercial helicopter pilot. Whilst doing my PPL I had the opportunity to race for some really good friends of mine in SA, the Russell Campbell Racing team. Unfortunately I was badly hurt and missed most of the season. I did manage to recover and get back to full speed with the help of Stephan Nuesser, my long time trainer and friend. My GP mechanic Steve Payne actually helped me with my bike settings in SA which also helped me to get back after the injury. After my 2nd retirement, I formed a property company with one of my best friends and we still have that going. The past few years I had another opportunity to work with great friends and sponsors of mine, in the motor trade, Alan Boddington (Corporate Cars) and Sean & Trever Avery (Multitek Vehicle solutions) – So anyone needing to Lease a brand new car, call ME!

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Gatedrop: Let’s go way back, when did you first get on a bike and how did you get into the sport?

Cooper: I started riding when I was 9 years old and this was thanks to my dad who used to race speedway and must have transferred the love of bikes to me! My late parents and my sister were incredibly supportive of me for which I am still grateful now.

Gatedrop: Do you remember at what age the penny dropped and you thought you’d have a chance of having a career in the sport?

Cooper: From the age of 12 I decided it was what I wanted. But to be honest, having a career always seemed elusive until I guess my 125cc British Championship in 1993.

Gatedrop: Coming from South Africa to race the World and British Championships, at that time was it tough being away from your home country?

Cooper: Yes, it was tough to create a ‘home’ foundation here for the first several years. Emotionally missing my best mate Dean and our surfing trips! Also the lack of funds made it difficult and I did not start to feel really at home here in the UK until about the 5th year.

Gatedrop: How hard is it trying to make it in the Motocross world as a young rider?

Cooper: The hardest part of it I would say was being able to secure good sponsorship’s. Having good sponsorship to allow you to focus purely on racing and training allows you to get good results but you need the results to get the sponsors! I have a list of people that made a difference to me, from first leaving SA: Russell Campbell Racing, Richi Goddard, Rob Andrews, Johnny Towers, Ron Herring, Pro Racing, Roger Harvey, the late Julian Gadget Branson. Times may have changed now, I am not sure as I am not in the sport at all but I’ve heard it can be even tougher now as most rides are based on money that a rider can bring to the team? Is this true?

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Gatedrop: In 2002, you had a pretty good year finishing eleventh in the MX2 World Championship. What races stick out and can you talk me through them? Where you happy with eleventh or a bit frustrated to miss out on a top ten!

Cooper: Yes 2002 was interesting. It was not my best GP season by a long way but there were some good races along the way. A couple stand out to me, one being the first GP in Bellpuig, Spain. With only about 3 turns left to go, I was in 4th place and going around a hairpin before the ‘steps’ going up, the rider in front of me (can’t remember, I think a Kawasaki rider) stalled. I could not get out the rut to go around him and instead of me getting a podium I dropped to 6th, I was gutted. I had a few top 6 results and then came down with a liver virus which affected my race stamina, then I also tore my adductor muscle so I had to have 6 weeks off the bike. It meant missing several GP’s but I was very fortunate to not miss any British Championship races so I still managed to win that overall again.

Cooper in action at Desertmartin. Pic: Nigel McKinstry

Gatedrop: You raced with the likes of Pichon, Copping and Beirer to name just a few that year. Looking back how would you describe the level that year?

Cooper: I was very fortunate to have a long career so I raced with many amazing riders. As far back as the late Donny Schmidt, Alex Puzar, Bobby Moore, Billy Liles and then of course Albee, Stefan Everts (How many world titles?!! – ten!), Bolley and Tortelli, Dobby, Maler and Gordon GC Crockard. Robbie Herring was one of the greatest talents ever and it was great riding with him after I used to follow his progress when I was still at school.

Gatedrop: When you look back at your career what races stick out the most and why?

Cooper: Brazilian GP 2000 – I had been riding better each week that year and in Belo Horizonte, I was going well. Moving up from a mid-pack start I found myself in 2nd position behind Pichon and after a few laps I was closing the gap to him. I think I got as close as 2 seconds behind him with less than 10 mins of the race left, I was feeling great. Then the sky just opened up and dumped a serious amount of rain in a flash storm. The track became so greasy and I did not deal with it well at all, I tightened up for fear of making a stupid mistake and dropped to 4th. I was very upset with myself as it could have been my best result ever.

Gatedrop: Of course you were British Championship, that must be nice to look back on?

Cooper: Yes it really was great to win British Championships. It has always been a very competitive championship.

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Gatedrop: You also raced the Motocross Des Nations, what’s your memories from that event?

Cooper: I raced the MXDN in 1993,1995,2000,2003 and in 2004.
1993 Austria, my greatest memory is Billy Liles telling me how slow my 125 was in the following way “your bike is so SLOW we were counting the spokes as you were coming out the turns!” (with his southern drawl it was hilarious).
1995 Sverepec was remembered because I had a factory Honda 500 from Dave Thorpe and it was stolen from my mech’s house before I even saw or rode it! Oh and I also remember him shouting at me for holding up our lift from the track to the airport because I was trying to chat up one of the trophy girls.
2000 was great, I rode very well on the Motorex Husqvarna and we did well as a team in St Jean d’Angely. It was 35deg with a huge crowd turnout. A little story from this race. I holeshot Moto1 and about 4 turns later, I dropped into the very inside rut thinking I had covered any chance of being passed there. A certain Ricky Carmichael had other ideas and literally just rode straight into me and bounced me out the rut. I was so angry in the moment, he had hit my bad knee full speed too. So in my head I was like ‘’right, that’s it I am nailing you the very next turn I possibly can!’’ Well, the truth is that half a lap later I literally smiled inside my helmet at myself because I could not even get within a 100 metres of him he was going so fast.
2003 my most vivid memory is just how rough the track was on race day. We had done a full day of racing on the Saturday for qualifying, then practise on Sunday morning so by the time we went out for the sighting lap before the main race the track was destroyed. I remember riding up onto a tabletop, stopping to check the best place to land and I literally could not see a single line that did NOT have huge ruts and ugly kicker bumps that would throw you over the bars. Once back in the Parc Ferme I said to Steve, ‘’I am actually freaked out, I literally do not know what line to take ANYwhere!’’. The only thing that made me feel comforted was that RC was parked next to me, looked at me and said ‘’this is the roughest track I have ever seen in my life’’. He and I were the only guys on 2-strokes. He smoked us all again of course. I got a 7th which I was fairly happy with.
2004 in Lierop was disappointing as I rode terribly. (Sorry team England!)

Gatedrop: When you look at MXGP now, what’s your thoughts on the level and everything Infront are trying to implement?

Cooper: I will have to be perfectly honest here – since retiring I have not watched a single mx race, either in person or on TV.

Gatedrop: The British Championship paddock now isn’t quite as stacked as it was in your day, what do you think could be done to improve it?

Cooper: Again, I am totally out of the sport now so I could not really comment.

Gatedrop: Where’s home for you now? Back in South Africa or are you in the UK?

Cooper: I am back living in the UK now after spending 10 years back in South Africa.

Another little anecdote, I know sometimes people like to know behind the scenes goings on. 2005 British Championship at Desertmartin, I am sitting on the start line, the 30sec board is up and I am frantically kicking my 450 to get it started to no avail, panic is setting in as there are only a few seconds left before the gate is going to drop and my good buddy, Nev Bradshaw leans over and goes “Hey Coops, your FUEL tap is off dude!!” Just in the nick of time I got it going. Thanks Nev.

Interview: Andy McKinstry

Pics Nigel McKinstry