With the white flag waving, Ben Cooper was feeling great. Providing his kart with just the slightest input, he hit all the right marks. There was little question he was going to earn a podium finish, perhaps even a win. But he didn't make it to the checkered flag.
Instead, he learned a valuable lesson that changed his life.
On that life-altering day, Cooper -- who was 11-years old at the time -- carefully carved his way around the Whilton Mill circuit located just northwest of Northhampton in the United Kingdom. He wasn't worried about anything except winning that race.
Before we get to what happened next, there is something you should know. Ben's parents, Ben (also known as Papa Ben) and Sharon, taught their son the importance of schoolwork. If you're going to race, you're going to do your homework they told him.
On this particular weekend, young Ben had put off his schoolwork. The first night, his parents nudged him with a gentle reminder but he quickly responded, "I'll do it tomorrow night," and promptly went off to play with his friends and mess around out on the racetrack. The next night, he replied the same way. "Tomorrow, Dad.", he said, and quickly ran off to play football with his pals.
The third day was race day and Cooper was running inside the top-three with one-lap remaining. Papa Ben was out on the track serving as a "pusher" for the cadets. Cooper noticed his dad waving his hands, trying to get him to pull off track. Cooper refused. The kart was great, he was running well, why would he pull off now? The next lap his dad was still waving him in. Confused, he finally caved and pulled in on the final lap. He leaped out of his kart and screamed, "What's wrong? What's wrong?"
His dad simply replied, "Go do your homework," and walked away to watch the end of the race. From that point on, schoolwork always came first for Cooper and set the framework for his current work ethic and success.
"Although it seems really harsh," Cooper says, "I never forgot to do my homework again."
Born at the racetrack (almost)
Schoolwork took precedence over racing in the Cooper household, but that's not to say racing wasn't important. Sharon went into labor with Ben while watching Ben Sr. race in the National Hot Rod series at Arena Essex Raceway. Literally, Ben Cooper was nearly born at the racetrack. Sharon had just watched her husband win a heat race and was waiting patiently for the final to start. Instead of racing to the checkered flag, Ben Sr., found himself racing to the hospital to see his son's birth.
"I was brought up watching [my dad] race every weekend for seven years, until I was old enough to start karting," Cooper recalls. "So, I had the racing bug."
On his seventh birthday, Ben Sr. and Sharon purchased a SOLO chassis with a 4-stroke Honda GX160 engine for Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â£750. Cooper spent the year honing his skills and testing. "I wasn't the most gifted of drivers and the practice was good for me," he says. At first Ben Sr. let his son adapt to the kart and have fun, but soon he helped him narrow his focus. While testing at Bayford Meadows, Ben Sr. would walk around the track and help his son fine-tune his driving line. His method? Duct tape. Focusing individually on each corner, he would carefully mark the entry point, the apex, and the exit with tape for his son. When Cooper mastered the line, they would advance to the next turn.
"My first race win was a heat race at Lydd International Raceway in the Formula 6 Series," Cooper recalls. "I remember my friends waving me on and signaling how much of a gap I had."
After learning the proper racing line, Cooper began to develop his car control. He would drive lap-after-lap, dancing the kart on the edge of control in rainy conditions on slick tires. "I remember the rain started falling during one of our many practice days at Bayford Meadows," he recalls. "Slowly everyone started to come in and put wets on. I stayed out on track as I was having fun slipping and sliding around. My dad tried to call me in and actually brought the wet tires over to the side of the track and tried to convince me to come in. I shook my head and kept going around."
It took a few years of development, but it was obvious early on that Cooper was fast. In his fourth year of racing, he received a free LRG kart with sponsorship from ASM Racing. Not long after he drove for HRS Racing aboard a CRG chassis and won his first World and European Championship. His success led to a fully-funded ride with the Tony Kart junior team. He advanced to KF2 and won the WSK International Series, with a round to spare, in 2009.
"At the start of the year in 2009 [racing in KF], I was asked by another English driver 'What are you doing here? You're just a Rotax driver, you're not good enough to be racing KF,'" Cooper recalls. The doubt from other drivers and teams only fueled Cooper's desire to win. In 12 rounds, he finished inside the top-five in every prefinal and final (including a win).
In 2011, he found himself piloting a KMS Racing Birel -- the team he currently drives and coaches for. He went on to claim his second Euro title in Rotax, edging Danish driver Kasper H. Jensen by one point. The title fight came down to the final race with Cooper and Jensen starting side-by-side on the front row. Cooper would earn the crown with 262 points to Jensen's 261. Later that season, Cooper claimed the Rotax Grand Finals title with Australia's David Sera and Japan's Hirotaka Sasaka rounding out the podium, respectively.
He would go on to repeat his success in 2012, winning the Grand Finals in DD2 after claiming the Florida Winter Tour Rotax Senior title. A crash in the DD2 final during the 2013 World Finals would prevent a third-consecutive title, but Cooper rebounded by winning DD2 in the SKUSA SuperNats XVII against several of the world's top drivers. Bas Lammers, Danny Formal, Paolo de Conto, and Robert Wickens completed the top-five. The victory in Vegas secured Cooper another trip to the Grand Finals where he will seek his fourth world title.
In late 2011, not long after his world title in Dubai, Cooper traveled to the PRI show from his home in the United Kingdom and raced in the Red Bull Kart Fight. Against some of the top drivers in karting and other motorsports, he quickly advanced from 16th to 3rd on a short circuit. The track, which took 14-seconds to navigate, was seemingly designed to prevent passing. Cooper made passes and people took notice. Michel Boisclair, owner of Canada's SRA Karting (which is now KMS), was enamored by the young driver's talent and invited him to join the team in the FWT and to help coach at the Jim Russell Academy.
Cooper aspired to be full-time professional kart racer and liked what he saw in North American racing. Despite offers to race KZ1 in Europe, he elected the move to Canada and was named chief instructor at the Jim Russell Academy in Mont Tremblant. The move to North America offered him the chance to race and to help others race and improve their skills.
Not only does Cooper work as a coach for the Jim Russell Academy, he's also a coach for KMS North America. Peter Kalman, of Hungary, serves as the KMS North America team manager with Cooper serving as the squad's coach. The duo worked together previously during the World Finals and with Kalman's success in Europe, the two wanted to help give North American drivers the opportunity to race overseas.
"The idea of KMS North America came about at the World Finals in 2012," Cooper says. "The idea was to give North American drivers an easy route to race in Europe as KMS Europe and KMS North America are essentially the same team. We are also trying to grow Birel in North America with the support of the Birel factory."
While both KMS North America and the Jim Russell Academy are based in Mont Tremblant, Cooper wants to be clear that he's willing to work with any drivers interested in improving their driving. "I'm available to work with anyone," he says. "A lot of people in the sport tend to think that because I am a Birel driver and work with KMS that I only help drivers involved with the team or on a Birel. It's actually the opposite. During my race weekends I am a Birel driver and a coach to drivers on the team, but the rest of the time, I am a coach first and a driver second."
Outside of driving and coaching, Cooper, now 23, stays in shape by mountain biking, playing tennis, and running around the Mont Tremblant track each morning before his day starts. He is a busy young man who seems to get better each time he gets into his kart and drops his visor. But his success didn't come easy. He works hard to be successful -- a trait he learned early on at a go-kart track, thanks to his father pulling him into the pits prior to the checkered flag and reminding him to do his homework. This time, Cooper plans to go after the win. His homework is done.