March 30, 2012 10:11:47 AM
Promoters at the Columbus Speedway have refurbished the facility hoping to pump life into an aging masterpiece.
Now, the drivers are ready to do their part in re-energizing "The Baddest Bullring in the South."
After the season-opening James King Memorial two weeks ago, racing returns to the speedway Saturday for the first of several weekly races scheduled for 2012. Among the competitors in the late model racing series will be Fulton's Eric Cooley.
"I have always enjoyed racing in Columbus," Cooley said. "We are trying our best to bring big-time racing back to that track. They have done some work to really help the facility out a lot. They have re-done the bleachers and the grandstand. Fans can now sit back and enjoy the races a lot better."
The 21-year-old Cooper's love for racing began about 15 years ago when he started racing go-karts. His father was a racing sponsor, so his love for being around the track and the revving engines grew from an early age.
"I was pretty much hooked from the first couple of times I went to the race track," Cooley said. "It was always something I wanted to do. I liked being able to drive fast. As I grew older, I got to get to know other racers and built relationships. The competition is what makes it fun. You live for race nights."
For Cooley, the race influence doesn't stop with his father. Josh Jenkins, Cooley's brother-in-law, may be his biggest supporter. Jenkins serves as crew chief and makes sure everything is in working order for the Cooley Transport, Inc., No. 33.
"I would not have the Features wins or championships if it was not for Josh," Cooley said. "He keeps the car in top working order and keeps the wheels going around. Each year, I race in seven or eight states throughout the southeast. It is usually about 60 races per year. I travel a lot more than some of the other guys, who race.
"Fortunately, I have several people who help me get where I need to go. I hope to one day turn racing into my full-time job. Right now, it is just a really big hobby. The support I get makes all of this possible."
Now in his seventh year of competitive racing, the championships have followed. In 2009, at the age of 18, Cooley became the youngest champion of the NeSmith Dirt Late Model Series in Cartersville, Ga. A year later, Cooley defended that championship.
In 2007, Cooley was named Columbus Speedway track champion. A year ago, Cooley took championship honors in the PRO Dirt Car Super Late Model Series. Last season included 35 Feature starts, with 10 top-five finishes and 20 top-10 finishes.
"This is my second year in the Super Late Model series," Cooley said. "Winning the NeSmith championship at such a young age was an incredible experience. The competition gets better each year. With the technology in cars today, you have to work harder and harder to stay on top. Everything is bigger and better."
Cooley, who owns a towing and recovery unit, runs about 10 races per year at the Columbus Speedway. On Saturday night, the weekly series will include Super Late Models, NeSmith Weekly Racing Series Late Models, Street Stocks, Mini Stocks, and Pure Stocks.
The program also serve as a tune-up for the Southern Showdown on April 7, which will pay $2,000-to-win for Street Stocks. On Saturday, it will be $400-to-win for Street Stocks.
"The race promoters have put some new dirt down on the track," Cooley said. "They have really pumped a lot of life back into that track. There should be some good competition. Hopefully, we can compete, put on a good show, and get a Feature win."
On Saturday, grandstand admission is $10 for adults, with kids 11-18 years-of age and seniors/active military just $5. Children 10 and under are free. Pit admission is $25 with new discounted student pit pass pricing. Students 7-18 years of age admitted for only $10, and children 6 and under free.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter