Saved By Two Wheels, Again

Motorcycles and mentors can have a transformational impact on your life. Here’s one good example.

Note: Motorcycles have affected every facet of my life, and I bet yours too. But few lives have been as altered as much by motorcycles as my friend Don Cook’s. He told me his story over lunch one day and I had to include it in Ienatsch Tuesday. If you know a “young Don,” I hope this story helps you make a difference in his life.

Don Cook on his 50cc

Don Cook 50cc.

A moment gathered around an idling BSA with his father and brother put this thought in Don Cook’s brain: I want to be a motorcycle rider.Don Cook
Don Cook with bike and car.

Don Cook with bike and car.

As you can see, his first bike (top photo) was quite a departure from what he rides now.Nick Ienatsch

"Be resolute and disciplined in all that you endeavor. Providence may reward your efforts with unexpected and unlikely mentors pushing you toward an unknown destiny."

It was nearly 50 years ago but I know the exact moment it happened. I was eight years old, driving down the road in a 1962 Volkswagen Beetle with my father and brother when the car stopped abruptly. The three of us jumped out and stood slack-jawed at the sight of a brand new BSA 650 Thunderbolt (the single carb cousin of the dual carb BSA 650 Lightning). A 20-year-old neighbor had just brought it home. He was waxing the chrome tank while it idled on the center stand. I've never forgotten the life-like pulsations of the front wheel at idle. There was clearly meaningful life to be found here. At that moment, a part of my brain that previously lay dormant sparked to life with a flood of neuronal activity. Clearly, some of those neurons connected directly to the pleasure centers of my brain. I was going to have a motorcycle, someday. A part of my brain I'll call the "motorcycle cortex" had been awakened.

I started delivering newspapers on my bicycle in 1968. My customers were few and far apart. I had to peddle up both sides of the valley we lived in six days a week to deliver papers. I made $2 a week by peddling 42 miles. By 1970, at the age of 12, I had saved $100 and became the proud owner of a step-through 50cc Honda C100. I was not the only one who caught the fever. My older brother had a Moto Beta 80 and my father had a Bultaco Metralla.

In 1971, my father shocked us all by announcing that we were opening a Suzuki dealership! At 13, I was living a dream life. I worked after school, weekends, and summers in the motorcycle shop. I started racing motocross with immediate success. I was 14 when I first saw my picture in Cycle Sport magazine racing a motorcycle!

Don Cook Marysville newspaper article

Don Cook, Marysville, PA 1971.

Great times—racing pics in magazines, dad buys a Suzuki dealership. But the future turned bleak because the adults in Don Cook’s life changed direction.Don Cook

Unfortunately, all great dreams end too soon. My parents got divorced, the business got sold, and I no longer had a job or any way to get to the races. More importantly, the fabric of family life was torn to shreds. Things unraveled quickly and became just plain ugly.

That’s when providence decided to provide me a most unlikely mentor. Some 30-year-old guy who had previously come to the store and complained to my mother that I “tried to kill him” on a motorcycle offered to give me a job and take me racing on Sundays. I really did not try to kill him but I guess I can see from his perspective that it looked a little suspicious.

Here's what happened: I was minding my own business one day riding in a local sand pit I could access by traveling the roads underneath power lines from home. I was only 14 and wouldn't get a license until I was 17. This old dude comes in with a brand-new Harley 350 Sprint enduro and starts telling me how great a rider he is. Well, no one who knew anything would have bought that Harley. I had a little lesson in mind for him. (Bad things happen when a 14-year-old assumes the role of teacher on motorcycles that can go 80 mph.) I led him to the rocky, gnarly, power line roads that I rode, flat-out, every day. I played cat and mouse with him and gradually upped the pace. There was one blind corner where it looked like the road went straight, but really the road took a sharp left. Just before that corner I gapped him so he missed me locking the brakes and sliding around the corner. I went another 100 yards, stopped, and shut off my bike.

Wonder of wonders, he never came! I went back and found him and the Sprint crashed in a pile of rocks. The Sprint was destroyed. He was bleeding and battered but still coherent. I thought my “lesson plan” had come off quite swimmingly! Wisdom does not come cheap when provided by a 14-year-old. So, naturally, when he heard my racing career was over due to family problems, he gave me a job and took me racing every Sunday. Thankfully, providence operates in ways we can never understand.

My racing career was back on track when I started high school. Family life, however, was a complete disaster. Freshman year began and I was told to report to my guidance counselor. I walked in and he briefly glanced up before going back to his paperwork. He said, “Keep your nose clean until you are 16, and then you can drop-out of school like your older sister and brother did.” He dismissed me without another word. My “guidance counselor” had in one sentence trampled my self-esteem and diminished me as a person.

Don Cook USC Sept 1985 news article

Don Cook, USC Sept 1985.

Cook’s high-school guidance counselor counseled him to hang in there until he was 16 and then he could drop out. Or: Give a kid a reason to excel and perhaps he or she will be doing surgery at USC someday.Don Cook

For a while, it looked like I might fulfill his prophecy. I protected myself by deciding that I didn’t care what any of these people thought about me. I cut school frequently and did nothing when I attended.

Providence could see things were not going well. Another mentor was drafted from my motorcycle acquaintances. I had met the vice principal at my new high school when he was a customer at the motorcycle shop. He rode a 350 Honda and realized I was a reliable resource for any and all motorcycle problems and questions. I remember the gleeful expression on one teacher's face when the vice principal came and pulled me out of class. He was sure I was getting reprimanded for ill deeds. Not so; we discussed gear ratios. He thanked me and sent me back to class.

I had an opportunity to race the AMA Florida Winter Motocross series my sophomore year of high school. Only problem was that I would need to take five weeks off from school. I told the vice principal what I wanted to do. I had never been more than a straight C student. He told me that if I got straight A’s the next quarter he would take care of my five-week absence from school. (I suspect he’d be arrested for doing this today.) So, for the first time in high school, I went to class. I took notes, and I studied. I got all A’s.

Don Cook on a Husqvarna 1976

Don Cook on a Husqvarna 1976.

“Gettin’ it” on a Husky. Despite the high-school “counselor’s” advice, a young Mr. Cook was saved by the motorcycle-riding high school vice principal. One person can make all the difference for a kid.Don Cook

I spent five glorious winter weeks racing motorcycles in sunny Florida and had a great tan when I showed up in Chemistry class five weeks into a nine-week quarter. The teacher was in complete disbelief when I told him I had been off with friends in Florida racing. He assured me there was no way I would pass his class. I left class and came back with the vice principal. It was agreed that I would be graded only on work from that day on. I got four A’s and four B’s including my A in Chemistry that quarter.

Motorcycles, and the relationships they provided, gave me a great awakening. I realized I had great potential as a student. My last professional motocross race was at Unadilla, New York, in 1976. In practice, Roger DeCoster shot by me going up a muddy hill just before the start/finish line like I was standing still. It’s a memory I still cherish. I left motorcycle racing and devoted myself to getting an education. I am in great debt to the motorcycle community for guiding me through difficult times and providing motivation when nothing else could.

Don Cook riding a Yamaha R1

Don Cook on an R1.

When you’re riding well, the new Yamaha R1 is a joy. Cook’s motocross background gives him a natural comfort at speed.Nick Ienatsch

*So where does the “Again” part of our headline come in? It’s been almost 40 years since I washed off the mud at Unadilla and headed to Boston College. From there it was on to Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. Then, seven years of Urology residency and fellowship training in Los Angeles at the University of Southern California led me to a very rewarding 25-year career as a urologist in Texas. Great mentors led me through every step of the journey. Once again, the motorcycle cortex is flourishing. My latest mentors are the great teachers at the Yamaha Champions Riding School. I’m having way too much fun riding track days on my Panigale 899. Who knows? After 40 years, I just might be ready to start racing again!

Don Cook on a stock Duc

Don Cook on a stock Duc.

The passion rekindled: Doctor Cook brought his stock Ducati to YCRS and then had Ducati Austin race-prep it for a track day at Circuit of The AmericasNick Ienatsch

Nick’s Note: The Rocky Mountain Racing Series is a grassroots series held at Pueblo Motorsports Park in Colorado, just a short 12-hour drive for Dr. Cook. And he just might make that drive for the July 18/19 event. The low-key RMRS is a great place to get your racing career started…or reignited.

More Next Tuesday