Coo Coo ran this car in the early 60s. He turned his first laps when his older broth
Check out Coo Coos Late Model Chevrolet, with a 427 Mystery Engine. He raced the car
Coo Coo celebrates another victory at Nashville with his brother, Jack.
A corner of Coo Coos living room holds many memories of those early wins.
Sterling Marlin knew from the beginning he wanted to race like his father.
Some of his earliest experiences were made changing the right-front tire on Coo Coos
A late-race black flag once cost Coo Coo a chance at victory in the Daytona 500.
Coo Coo has been along to offer advice to son Sterling as he developed as a Winston Cup dr
Nowadays, Coo Coo climbs behind the wheel of a tractor to work his Tennessee farm.
Hohenwald. Say it with a fast Southern drawl and it might sound like hole in the wall. Actually its a small town about 33 miles west of Columbia, Tennessee. Thats 13 miles closer to Columbia than the big city of Nashville, which is 46 miles north. And it might be the reason a 15-year-old Columbia farm boy named Clifton Burton Marlin found himself sitting in the grandstand of the Hohenwald Speedway in 1948.
Marlin went there with his older brother, Jack, and it didnt take much to convince both of them that they could do that. Jack went first but, in no time flat, little brother Clifton was out of the stands and on the track kicking up the dirt with the big boys. Of course Cliftons parents didnt know about it. But boys will be boys, wont they?
Clifton doesnt exactly sound like a name for a fledgling race car driver, but probably none of the boys racing with him back then knew him by that name. Even Marlin had trouble with it. I couldnt say Clifton right and when I was around 4, I gave myself the name Coo Coo and it stuck.
Thats the story behind one of the most colorful driver names in history. And it marked the beginning of a lifetime of racing that has since moved to Coo Coos son, Sterling, who drives the Coors Light Dodge in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series.
Ill Drive It
One night brother Jack didnt show up to drive so Coo Coo said, Ill drive it. He showed everyone his first cousins license and got in the car. Whether it was talent, beginners luck or just his competitors giving him a wide berth, Coo Coos confidence in that first race had to be bolstered by the outcome. He finished third.
I would like to think it might of been a combination of all the above and a good helping of a natural feel for the earth, as any real farm boy would have to have. Some of the best dirt drivers I have known, came from a real job that connected them to it, Coo Coo says.
Though hes long retired from racing on the dirt, and asphalt, Coo Coo Marlin is still well grounded with the earth as he was some 54 years ago when he first plowed dirt with four tires. As he approaches 70 years of age, he still actively runs his cattle farm in the Carters Creek area of Columbia.
Hes lived in the same modest, but comfortable farmhouse for more than 45 years. Just across the road is what you might call a mansion on the hill. It shows the sharp contrast between what racing is like today and what it was back then. Racing people live there, too. The mansions residents are son Sterling and his family, including grandson Steadman, now the third Marlin generation to leave a mark on the track.
Though it would be some 18 years before he would enter the major leagues of stock car racing on a fairly regular basis, Coo Coo remembers the first big-time race he entered, an event held around 1950.
I drove up to Nashville and got me a Hudson Hornet, he says. We put straight exhausts on it and a seatbelt in it. Then I drove it south to Decatur, Alabama, taped up the headlights and raced it. I think I got third there. After the race, we untaped the lights and drove to a curb service place for something to eat, then drove it on home.
For most of the 50s, Coo Coo ran the short-track circuits in Tennessee and Alabama. By the late 50s he was becoming a regular at the Tennessee Fairgrounds and running against some strong competitors: The Allisons, Red Farmer, Bob Reuther to name a few.
In 1959 Coo Coo won his first driving title at the fairgrounds, driving a 34 Ford Flathead for Carl Wood. He repeated the accomplishment in 1962 and then again in 66 and 67. That record of four track championships will stand forever as the Nashville Fairgrounds track finishes its last year of operation.
During his era of dominance at the fairgrounds, Coo Coo had battles both on and off the track with bunches of them. His most affectionate ones, though, were with entertainer Marty Robbins, who ran there on many a Saturday night when he wasnt on the road singing. On nights he worked the Grand Old Opry, Robbins would ask to be put on last so he could get some racing in.
One night I was running up front and Marty spun me out in the first few laps. Well, down in the infield I went, Coo Coo says. When I got the car re-fired, I was back around 27th, and I went hunting for him. I was really making some speed, and I think I lapped the field, but I couldnt find Robbins. Finally the crew gives me the sign Slow Down ... Martys gone to the Grand Old Opry.
Another time he blocked me for the whole race. Id get up to his door, but he kept me from getting by. The last thing I wanted to do was touch him, cause them stands were pretty full and his fans would of all come down out of them and killed me. But all and all Marty was my buddy. We would pit next to each other at all the big tracks.
The big tracks came calling for Coo Coo in the late 60s and through the 70s. Basically self sponsored, he got some help from a Tennessee car dealer named H.B. Cunningham.
He gave me a wrecker and some motor parts, but I pretty much supported it myself, Coo Coo says. We never could afford to run the whole season, so I ran around 12 to 20 races.
For a low buck operation, he made a good showing. He won a Daytona 125 in 1973 and had several Top-5 finishes in the Daytona 500. Daytona and Talladega were his two favorite tracks.
We would run in a pack of 23 cars at Talladega, clocking around 210 to 215mph in the draft on old-style tires. Of course the tires were only good for 10 or 15 laps, he says.
How did that speed feel? Well, after you get above 175 or so you cant tell the difference if youre going 190 or 210. I loved it. Had a lot of fun, too. During the early 70s, 14-year-old Sterling started working as a right-front tire changer on the pit crew.
A Simple Life
Coo Coo is a fairly quiet man. He basically listens to you, and if he has something to add to it he might. Then again, he might just say, well, then trail off, and thats all you get. There is no doubt, though, if you spend a little time with him you will learn something.
One day this past spring, when Coo Coo was about to get back to farm work, he told one little story. He doesnt recall the exact year, but it was sometime in the 70s. It was the Daytona 500 and it seemed like it was going to be Coo Coos day.
We made our last pit stop and I was leading it with 15 laps to go, Coo Coo says. Well, they waved the black flag at me. I ignored it. They waved it again. I still ignored it. When they give it to you the third time, if you dont come in, youre out. So I came in. They said I had a loose lug nut. There was nothing wrong, nothing loose. The NASCAR inspector said, OK, you can go. Well. Hell. By the end of the 70s, Coo Coo was rapidly becoming the oldest active driver in Winston Cup. He was also having high blood pressure problems and was very tired from running the farm and trying to make as many races as he could. Sterling was coming on strong and had some Grand National experience. He had driven a few relief races for his father.
So Coo Coo ran his last race at Talladega in 1980. In 1987 he, along with driver Bullet Bob Reuther and promoter Bill Donoho, became the first three inductees in the Tennessee Motor Sports Hall of Fame. It was a proud day for all the Marlins.
These days, Coo Coo can be seen at some of his favorite tracks like Daytona and Talladega, keeping a close watch on Sterling. Can you imagine how this man felt when Sterlings first win came at the same place he was denied one? He was with grandson Steadman, too, when he got his first win.
Its a good thing Sterling and Steadman are race drivers, Coo Coo says, cause they dont know nothing about farming.