Coo Coo, Sterling & Steadman Marlin
Once upon a time, you didn't need sponsors and mountains of money to go racing. Used parts, ingenuity, tenacity, pride and Marlin as a last name could get you by.
Hohenwald. Say it with a fast Southern drawl and it might sound like "hole in the wall." Actually it's a small town about 33 miles west of Columbia, Tennessee. That's 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 didn't 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 Clifton's parents didn't know about it. But boys will be boys, won't they?
Clifton doesn't 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 couldn't say Clifton right and when I was around 4, I gave myself the name 'Coo Coo' and it stuck." That's 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 Coo's son, Sterling, who drives the Coor's Light Dodge in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series.
One night brother Jack didn't show up to drive so Coo Coo said, "I'll drive it." He showed everyone his first cousin's license and got in the car. Whether it was talent, beginners luck or just his competitors giving him a wide berth, Coo Coo's 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 drivers 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 he's 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.
He's 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 mansion's 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 wasn't 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 couldn't find Robbins. Finally the crew gives me the sign 'Slow Down ... Marty's gone to the Grand Old Opry.' Another time he blocked me for the whole race. I'd 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 drivers 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 drivers for 10 or 15 laps," he says.
How did that speed feel? "Well, after you get above 175 or so you can't tell the difference if you're 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. 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 that's 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 doesn't 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 Coo's 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 don't come in, you're 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 Sterling's first win came at the same place he was denied one? He was with grandson Steadman, too, when he got his first win. "It's a drivers thing Sterling and Steadman are race drivers," Coo Coo says, "'cause they don't know nothing about farming."
He's the same man who still lives in the same modest farmhouse on the outskirts of Columbia, Tenn. The same man who still thinks herding cattle is as important as harnessing horsepower. And Coo Coo Marlin is still the happiest soul in the South every time his son, Sterling, chases down another victory in another NASCAR race weekend. "My dad's pretty special," Sterling Marlin recently said. "I still remember the day he told my mother I was gonna race at NASCAR's fastest speedway . . . Daddy was spearing a piece of meat at dinner. Looking away from her he said, 'Pass the potatoes, Eula Faye. Sterling's running at Talladega (Alabama) this weekend.'"
That's Coo Coo. Never coy. But forever a part of NASCAR's long bloodline of racing families. One of stock-car racing's stars from the 1960s and 1970s - before major TV networks and major-league money - Coo Coo never left any doubt he was one of the sport's most colorful characters, even if he never won in 15 years of big-time competition.
But the passion for stock-car racing that he passed to his son would lead to the family's name being engraved on the trophy that symbolized victory in NASCAR's greatest race, the Daytona 500: Sterling won twice. "We're a proud bunch, us Marlins," said Sterling. "And most of that comes from dad."
Coo Coo would enter his first big-time event in 1950 after driving 45 miles (70 kilometres) to Nashville, Tenn., buying a Hudson Hornet and taping headlights to the front, an exhaust to the back and tying a seatbelt to the front seat. "I think I got third there," Coo Coo said. "After the race, we untaped the lights and drove to a curb service place for something to eat and then drove it back home."
Marlin died in his hometown of Columbia, Tennessee on August 14, 2005 at the age of 73. Shortly after his death, his son Sterling was in negotiations with MB2 Motorsports to drive the team's second car for 2006. The team was unable to retain the #10 (which was to be used by Evernham Motorsports for 2006), so MB2 was looking for a new number. A still-grieving Sterling found the #14 available and had MB2 request the #14, which was granted.
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