The late AMA Superbike racer, as captured by Geoff Nickless
Geoff Nickless is a legend in motorcycle racing photography. Snapping flat track, motocross and road racing since the 1970s, Geoff has captured the greats of the sport, and has a museum-worthy collection of extraordinary photos from the golden age of American motorcycle racing that is unrivaled. He’s shared some of his favorites here before, and when we learned of retired racer Wes Cooley’s passing last month, we reached out to Geoff for his favorite Cooley photos over the years. He wholeheartedly obliged.
The 1979 and 1980 AMA Superbike champion and winner of the coveted Suzuka 8-Hours Endurance Road Race in both 1978 and 1980, Wes Cooley truly epitomized the full throttle approach to racing and life of the era. Cooley raced in the age when race motorcycles evolved from highly modified street bikes to purpose-built, professionally engineered machines, and he adapted year to year, bike to bike, even race to race. A fan and paddock favorite, Wes always had an affable demeanor off the track, as much as he had an aggressive demeanor on.
Ultimately, injuries would push him from the sport later in the 80s, and Wes found purpose in another endeavor, that of nursing. In 2004 Wes Cooley was inducted into the AMA Hall of Fame, a much deserved honor that he cherished. Cooley passed away October 16, 2021 at his home in Twin Falls, Idaho from diabetes complications. He was 65 years old.
Geoff Nickless was a well-known race photographer of the time, and captured Wes in action from 1975-1984. In these photos, shared exclusively with Road Dirt, Geoff gives context and perspective with each shot, and tells a story in film of the late great racer.
So here is Wes Cooley at the peak of his prowess, through the lens of Geoff Nickless.
1975 Laguna Seca, #25 Wes Cooley (KAW) (Cooley, Panic) leads #31 Bob Endicott (KAW) (Action Fours) through Turn 9, in the Open Production class, predecessor to the Superbike class.
1977 Sears Point, #33 Wes Cooley (YAM) (Father) leads #122 Dale Singleton (YAM) (Taylor White) and #186 Mike Baldwin (YAM) (Self) through Turn 4 in the 750 Experts class.
1977 Riverside, #33 Wes Cooley (YAM) (Father) heavily backlit, through Turn 9 in the Formula 750 class. Wes is wearing his Yoshimura R&D (KAW) leathers.
1978 Laguna Seca, #34 Wes Cooley (SUZ) (Yoshimura R&D) exits Turn 8. He is on his Yoshimura Suzuki GS1000, on his way to victory over #96 Paul Ritter (DUC) (Aero- Union/Eurosport) and #83 Steve McLaughlin (KAW).
1978 Laguna Seca, #34 Wes Cooley (SUZ) (Yoshimura R&D) 1st, having a friendly rivalry with #96 Paul Ritter (DUC) (Aero-Union/Eurosport) 2nd on the Podium, after the Superbike Production race. Paul Ritter won the Superbike race at Sears Point earlier in 1978. “Pops” Hideo Yoshimura is cheering with hands raised, in the lower right corner of the photo.
1981 Laguna Seca, #34 Wes Cooley hard on the brakes of his (U.S. Suzuki/Yoshimura R&D) Suzuki XR69 (1000cc 4 stroke) Formula 1 bike, approaching Turn 9. Wes was 2nd, with 2-2 finishes, behind #7 Randy Mamola 1st, with 1-1 finishes, on his RG500 Grand Prix machine.
1982 Laguna Seca, #34 Wes Cooley on his (U.S. Suzuki/Yoshimura R&D) GSX1000S Katana Superbike in Turn 9. Wes finished 3rd behind Eddie Lawson 1st (KAW) (Kawasaki Motors Corp./Kerker) and Mike Baldwin 2nd (HON) (American Honda Motor Co.).
1982 Laguna Seca, #34 Wes Cooley on his (U.S. Suzuki/Yoshimura R&D) GSX1000S Katana Superbike wheelies up the front straight, in pursuit of Eddie Lawson and Mike Baldwin.
1984 Laguna Seca, #34 Wes Cooley on his (Wes Cooley & Associates/Arai/Moto-X Fox/ND/Silkolene) Honda RS500 in Turn 9. Wes was 6th, with 6-6 finishes.
1984 Laguna Seca, #34 Wes Cooley (Wes Cooley & Associates/Arai/Moto-X Fox/ND/Silkolene/Yoshimura R&D) sitting on the pit wall. Wes is having some quiet time waiting for his Yoshimura Suzuki GS1000 to be pushed to the grid, prior to the Superbike race. He finished 2nd, but was DQ’d for weighing in at 387 lbs,, 3 pounds lighter than the 390 lbs. minimum weight limit.
These photos range from the first time Geoff witnessed Wes race in 1975 at Laguna Seca, through the 1984 Laguna Seca race round. Wes suffered a life-threatening crash the very next season, which he eventually recovered enough from to resume racing, yet he never fully recovered his form nor his winning ways. So Geoff’s photos truly capture Cooley at the peak of his powers on-track.
Thank you Geoff and Barb Nickless for sharing these “windows in time” of an outstanding racer, during a wonderful period in American motorcycle racing. For more of Geoff’s photos across the decades, find them here: