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Coo Coo started the Marlin racing tradition

January 25, 2004|by JASON STEIN/Wheelbase Communications

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.

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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 had to end up a race driver. How could you grow up in Hohenwald, Tenn., and not spend a little time in the Hohenwald Speedway?

It's where Cliffton Burton Marlin first found himself one night in 1948. Nicknamed Coo Coo because that's how he said his name at age 4, he went to Hohenwald with his older brother, Jack, and immediately fell in love with the sound of the dirt track kicking up under four tires.

One night, when Jack didn't show up to drive, Coo Coo was the first to offer up his help. After flashing his cousin's license, Coo Coo climbed in the car and proceeded to finish third in his first race.

Following that, the open road was his own, but not without a little patience and time.

Coo Coo would enter his first big-time event in 1950 after driving 45 miles 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."

He began racing full-time three years later. Coo Coo would run the short circuits in Tennessee and Alabama for the better part of 18 years, racing regularly at fairgrounds and small events before finally making it to the big tracks in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

With a junk wreck of a car and some used motor parts, he couldn't afford to run the whole NASCAR schedule every season, but he made a good showing. He won a Daytona 125 race in 1973 (a preview race to the Daytona 500) and eventually had several top-five finishes in the 500 itself.

During the early 1970s, Sterling would also get involved, working in the pits as the right-front tire changer on Coo Coo's pit crew. And when Coo Coo suffered a broken shoulder before the Nashville Winston Cup race on May 8, 1976, he didn't have far to turn. Eighteen-year-old Sterling filled in, making his first start at Coo Coo's home track.

Unfortunately, Coo Coo would never take home the checkered flag. In 165 NASCAR races, he won $307,142 but never finished higher than third (three times). The closest he came was in the early 1970s when NASCAR stopped him while he was leading the Daytona 500 with 15 laps to go.

"They waved the black flag at me. I ignored it," he said. "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."

And that was that - Coo Coo's last Daytona chance sealed.

By the end of the decade, Coo Coo was suffering from problems with high-blood pressure and was tired of the grind. His last race came at Talladega in 1980, his favorite track in his favorite part of the country.

But more Marlins were on the way.

Sterling's first win would come at the one place that had denied Coo Coo for so long: Daytona. But only after 18 more years of trying.

"The greatest day of my life," Coo Coo would say that day in 1994.

And Sterling would win Daytona again in 1995, starting a string of impressive seasons.

These days Coo Coo is still out plowing that earth. Now 70-plus, he still works on his 700-acre cattle farm in the Carters Creek area of Columbia, Tenn., and he still lives across the street from Sterling and Sterling's son, Steadman, the third Marlin generation to race cars.

He might never have won a NASCAR race, but Coo Coo couldn't be more proud.

Jason Stein is a feature writer and the editor of Wheelbase Communications' RaceWEEK racing page. He can be reached at jstein@wheelbase.ws.

© 2004, Wheelbase Communications

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