50 Greatest Modified Drivers – Jerry Cook
“He Got No Respect”
If they ever name a ‘Rodney Dangerfield’ of NASCAR Modified racing at Stafford, it would be Jerry Cook. From 1968 through 1982 he won only two features at Stafford, but it was during this period that he garnered six NASCAR Modified titles. Cook was a full time racer who ran to finish. Cook would out travel the competition taking in 60-70 events a year. Cook teamed up with New York State Trucking Company owner Peter Hollebrand who provided backing that would stay with Cook until the fall of 1982 when he would retire. Their first year together produced an eleventh in the final standings. Bugsy Stevens had taken the title.
In 1969, Cook started off the year with a 500-lap win at Martinsville. Pole sitters, Bugsy Stevens and Ray Hendrick, wrecked on the 19th lap. Fred DeSarro led from lap 20 through lap 492 when his battery shorted out. Cook, who was running second, two laps down, assumed the lead and took the win. Cook would battle Stevens for the title throughout the year only to lose it to the popular ‘Bug-man’ when he lost an engine at Thompson during the final show of the year. Not one to quit, Cook would go at it with DeSarro in 1970.
DeSarro, who worked for Stanley-Bostich, raced four or five nights a week. DeSarro ran to win, taking 24 wins for the season and Cook again was left in the bridesmaid role.
Cook ended three years of frustration in 1971 when he finally beat Stevens and DeSarro for the national title. For the season he started 64 events and won three, all from his home track, the Utica-Rome Speedway in Vernon, NY. Sonny Koszela, who owned the Stevens mount, became so frustrated with Cook’s driving that he placed a dartboard with Cook’s picture on it in his office and threw darts at it!
Cook was clearly the favorite son at Utica-Rome. On one occasion DeSarro became so frustrated with Cook’s blocking, that he literally pushed him down the front stretch at high speed. The next lap, the U-R starter pointed a clenched black flag at DeSarro, giving him the message that if it happened again, he would be thrown out.
Cook also raised the ire of the Stafford management in the early 1970’s. During the late stages of an extra distance championship event, Cook’s car was leaking oil and was black flagged by starter Frank Sgambato Sr. Cook ignored the black flag and was penalized with a low finish. Cook contended that he was running in a tight pack and couldn’t determine if the black flag was for him. After a lengthy appeal through NASCAR, Cook had his finishing position restored.
Stafford owner Jack Arute was extremely upset over this turn of events. Arute ordered a large digital sign to be installed in the first turn which would indicate who was black-flagged. Arute christened the sign the ‘Jerry Cook Light’ and vowed this situation would never happen again.
In addition to 1971, Cook won point titles in 1972, 1974, 1975, 1976 and 1977. Richie Evens took it away in 1973 and did so again for good in 1978 through 1985. Cook’s last year of active competition was 1982. At the season’s end, he found himself in the third spot behind Evans and George Kent.
NASCAR hired Cook as the Northeast Regional Director. As the Northeast Director he over-saw all of the events in that region ran under the NASCAR banner. When the Modified tour was formed in 1985, he became the tour director. Cook has since advanced up the NASCAR management ladder and currently holds a front office position at the sanctioning body and is seldom seen at events in the northeast.
Jerry Cook was voted to be honored as one of the ‘Fifty Greatest Modified Drivers of All-time’ as voted on by the public.
By: Phil Smith