Born in Nebraska in 1886, Earl Cooper was one of the early superstars of auto racing. He started racing on the West Coast and won virtually everywhere but Indy, where he always was fast but never first.
Cooper's illustrious racing career, which included three national championships (1913, 1915 and 1917) and 11 top 10 points finishes, started in 1904 at the same time his occupation as a mechanic at a Maxwell dealership ended.
The owner of the dealership where he worked refused to give him a company car to drive in a San Francisco race because the boss himself was driving in the same contest. He convinced an older woman to let him race her new Maxwell. Cooper beat the dealer and his employment was terminated.
Without looking back, Cooper's driving career continued through 1927. After retiring from the cockpit, he spent several years as a team manager. During this time, he and his loyal mechanic, Reeves Dutton, built three front-drive Cooper race cars, one of which competed at Indianapolis into the 1940s.
He joined the Stutz team in 1912 and the next year won the national championship with 2,610 points. It was all Cooper – except at Indianapolis – that year as he won five of the eight major road races and finished second in the other one.
Perhaps his crowning achievement was the 1915 championship. He won the first race of the year at Point Loma (CA) then fell ill for much of the early part of the season. He scored points at Indy with a fourth. Then he took fourth in a 500-miler at Maywood, IL, and a pair of seconds at Tacoma, WA. He finished second in a 50-lap invitational on the Chicago board track. He followed that with a win in one of two events at Elgin, IL, and at a 500-mile race on the cement speedway at Fort Snelling, MN, outside Minneapolis. He also won three 100-mile non-points-awarding races in the West to close the season.
Cooper's last major victory was at Rockingham, the board track speedway in Salem, NH. He won that 200-miler with a front-drive Miller in 1926.
It's been said that Mario Andretti has been the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's most hard-luck driver. At least Andretti won the race in 1969 before a string of bad racing luck kept him from repeating.
Earl Cooper may have been the Brickyard's first hard-luck driver. A spin took him out of contention in 1913, and his car suffered broken wheels in 1914 and 1915. Valve trouble plagued him in 1919. Tire problems hit him in 1923. He had two tire failures in 1924, but still managed a second-place finish. He encountered the wall while leading in 1925 and made a brief 73-lap appearance in the 1926 race after starting from the pole with a four-lap qualifying average of 111.735 mph.
On May 26, 1925, Cooper became the first driver to exceed 110 mph at the famed speedway in Indianapolis when he drove his Junior 8 to 110.728 mph in an official qualification lap. The record didn't last long. He was eclipsed later in the day by Harry Hartz with a speed of 112.994 mph and again the same day by Peter DePaolo at 114.285 mph in a Duesenberg.
He also set a four-lap qualifying record at 110.487 mph in 1925, but was topped by Hartz, DePaolo and eventual pole sitter Leon Duray in a Miller at 113.196 mph.
Earl Cooper died on Oct. 22, 1965 in Atwater, CA, at the age of 79.