As GTS champion teams with 4-time GT champ Johnny O’Connell in Cadillac Racing
AUSTIN, Texas – Michael Cooper is just as busy off the race track with his studies as he is on it. And Cooper is a factory Cadillac Racing driver too.
The 26-year-old champion driver from Syosset, N.Y., is currently finishing up his second college degree while competing in the top division (GT) in the Pirelli World Challenge professional road racing series. It’s flat out in both directions for Cooper as he prepares for the 2016 PWC season opener on March 3-6 at the Circuit of the Americas.
“I never thought I would be a professional racing driver so I wanted to get my education and prepare for the future if the racing side didn’t pan out,” said Cooper, the 2015 GTS class driving champion for famed Black Dog Racing in a Chevrolet Z-28. “I got my first degree in business management at NYIT (New York Institute of Technology). Then I thought I wanted to get into nutrition and I felt I needed a degree in that field. So I’m studying at Long Island University now. It’s a busy schedule to study and race. I make some deals with the professors sometime to get to out of class to go racing.”
And racing has been good to the personable young racer too.
He took the Skip Barber racing school at age 19, rather late for most drivers. But Cooper made an impact.
I’m sure is going to impress a lot of people, is a great young talent and is getting on great with the team
“Back in 2009 (new Cadillac teammate) Johnny (O’Connell) saw me drive at the CTS-V Challenge where, then GM president Bob Lutz, challenged civilians to try and beat the CTS-V around a race track,” explains Cooper. “After seeing my effort, Johnny said ’this is a type of kid you hope pursues racing.’ I didn’t know that I might be able to do this professionally but my dad remembered Johnny’s words.”
‘I remember clearly the first time I saw Cooper drive. I was impressed enough to let his father know the kid has very good skills,” said O’Connell. “To have watched him progress through the ranks, observe his speed and race craft, speaks volumes to the fact that you still make to the top based on talent. I am confident he’ll be a great addition to Cadillac Racing, and I look forward to working with him.”
And Cooper began his climb to the top of road racing competition, as he won the Playboy Mazda MX-5 Cup in 2011 with five wins and six poles. Cooper returned the following year to dominate the Pirelli World Challenge Touring Car championship with six wins, seven poles and another title.
Then Cooper was not able to secure full time rides in 2013 and 2014 and a second college degree was on his mind.
“I really thought that my racing career was sliding away and it was time to prepare for the future without racing,” he admits. “So I wanted the nutrition degree to move into the next phase of my life.”
But some advice from his future teammate O’Connell kept him focus on his racing career.
“The Black Dog team wanted someone to test the new Z-28 late in 2014 as Lawson (Aschenbach) was running for the GTS championship,” said Cooper. “I think Johnny mentioned me to the GM guys and I was able to test the car in two races. I scored one top five and the next thing I was able to test in the off-season and I got the ride for 2015.”
And Cooper didn’t disappoint last year, scoring another PWC class championship with four victories and nine top-five finishes. It marked the third consecutive GTS title for the Black Dog Racing and Chevrolet.
In 43 PWC starts, Cooper, the college student still protecting his future away from the race track, has 14 wins, 28 top-five placings and two titles.
“I was still in school but I was gaining a confidence level in my racing,” Cooper said. “Johnny gave me advise along the way too. Every year I stepped up into a new division. But I didn’t know where really to settle in with my racing. I never have been able to defend my championship the next year. Same in 2015, I won the GTS class but I’m in the GT category in 2016. Hey, I’m not complaining. It’s a thrill and an honor to race with Johnny in Cadillac Racing.”
And O’Connell believes the youngster he saw that day in 2009 will be a fierce competitor in 2016 in Pirelli World Challenge.
“Michael, who I’m sure is going to impress a lot of people, is a great young talent and is getting on great with the team,” said O’Connell. “You must keep an eye on him this year.”
That’s a great testament from a four-time Pirelli World Challenge GT champion.
Now Cooper will have to put the books down for a few days and concentrate on the racing lines and his Cadillac ATS-V.R. as the PWC season opener approaches at the Circuit of the Americas on March 3-6.
The Pirelli World Challenge season kickoffs at the state-of-the-art Circuit of the Americas on March 3-6 with all seven classes (including the popular GT division) in action on the 3.427-mile, 20-turn track.