Cody Cooper will race for Team Care-DonJoy-Honda in the 125cc World Championship from 2002, replacing Antti Pyrhonen who jumped to the 500cc class with the same team.

Natural talent is a wonderful thing, but a rarity in racing. Few possess it and most that do are unchallenged by racing alone and drift away. New Zealand's Cody Cooper has bucked that trend. For him, doing the business out on the track comes easily but getting to the gates has seen him overcome some incredible obstacles during his life.

Midway through December 2001, 18-year-old Cooper backed up his performance at the NZ Motocross Nationals held two weeks earlier with a 1-1-1 effort against some of Australia's fastest motocross pilots at the Oceania Motocross Championship. Of course, to a certain extent, he had home ground advantage, but there is no denying that the way in which he raced in Wellington was of another realm. This kid is fast and looks set to lead the next generation of Australasian world beaters.

Opotiki isn't the sort of place where you'd expect a world class racer to emerge from, but then neither is Josh Coppins' Motueka home, Daryl Hurley's Hawera home, or the King brothers' Taranaki birthplace. Opotiki itself is a coastal village on the north side of the East Cape where horses are the preferred mode of transport - not dirt bikes and certainly not the CRF. Even Cooper himself admits to having started out on a four legged all terrain model.

''When I was little I did ride horses but then I got into motorbikes and I loved that more,'' laughed Cooper.

From that first ride on, Cooper became familiar with what it took to cross the finish line first and spurred on, like most Juniors, by a supportive father, he didn't look back.

''In Juniors, I was up the top and winning most of my races but then I quit racing,'' admitted Cooper, ''My dad died when I was 13 and I went downhill after that. I stopped winning races and just gave up altogether.''

Cooper's dad ran the Eastern Bay Jetboat Tours and supplemented his income as a deer shooter. He had been out working deer recovery in the bush about ten minutes from Gisborne when the helicopter he was in crashed. Cooper's world fell apart as he tried to deal with the tragedy that everyone dreads.

''It was a difficult time for me - my dad had helped me heaps with motocross and I just couldn't do it without him,'' shared Cooper, ''As you know, it costs a lot of money to race and prepare bikes and my bike just got run down. I just couldn't focus on racing during that time.''

The next three years of Cooper's life were extremely difficult. His racing career dried up completely as he learned to deal with his tragic loss. Then, out of the blue, Cooper got a call ...

''Some friends of mine, Peter Pimm and his son, Mark just rang me up one day and asked whether I wanted to ride the Woodville GP? I went and borrowed one of Honda's bikes and won five out of five races in the 15-16 Years Junior 125cc class. I only rode for two days before that event after a three year break.''

The Woodville Motocross GP is one of the biggest stand alone motocross events on the New Zealand calendar.

Cooper's solid performance after such a long time away from the racing circuit turned heads and one of those heads belonged to Blue Wing Honda's [Honda New Zealand] Dave Borlase.

''After Woodville, Dave Borlase picked me up and I've been with them ever since,'' Cooper related, ''Dave was awesome. He knew my situation with my dad and he knew I couldn't afford to race so he worked out a deal where they gave me everything I needed to race - all the parts I needed and everything. You know, if I hadn't gone to Woodville that weekend I don't reckon I'd be riding now.''

Under the Honda wing, Cooper began to explore the sport more fully and started complementing his motocross with other events. The infamous Hawkes Bay Six-Hour cross-country was quick to make an impression on the young rider.

''I really love doing the Six-Hour,'' he smiled, ''It's a lot of fun and you get to do it with a team-mate. You get a lot more time out on the bike and you have to get to know the track really quickly - it makes you think more. And all the skills you learn out there carry over to the motocross track as well.

''Both years I've done it though, we've had a bit of bad luck. The first year I teamed up with Stacey Oldeman and we were winning it on a 125 and then they black-flagged us because they thought we went into the pits with our petrol cap off. It was someone else - we were leading it so we were at the start, they'd made a mistake and got the wrong team. Later on they came up and said sorry and gave us our five minutes back, but in the meantime we'd lost all our focus.

''At the next Six-Hour I rode with Ben Harding on a CR250 but we did a big-end. We were coming second at the time, because when I hopped on my first lap I didn't know there was a filter skin on and the bike was bogging really hard so I rode the lap in first gear. Then I came in and pulled it off and we were starting to reel in the leader when we blew the big-end. So maybe this year we'll do it!''

With the new Honda Red Rider team growing to a full five-man team and developing a solid presence on the New Zealand motocross scene, Cooper started to pick up the pace in outdoor motocross. Results were starting to come thick and fast, but the real test would be at the New Zealand Nationals where he would come bar-to-bar with Boost Yamaha's Darryll King and Axo
Silkolene Suzuki's Daryl Hurley - two of New Zealand's finest international racers who lifted the bar for everyone at that event. Cooper was first in line and ready to take the acid test.

''I raced with Darryll King in one race only, really,'' he said, ''It was like I tried harder in that one or perhaps I just didn't fall off in that one! I did expect to be racing with those guys but not as much as I did.

''With guys like DK and Hurley, I know they've achieved a lot in their career and I respect them for that, but when I'm riding I don't think about that - they're just another rider out there.''

Cooper was able to string together a rack of third placings and one second at the event - a crash in one moto costing him what should have been another second. He settled for third behind DK and 'Hurls' at the 'four seasons in one day' event that challenged everybody.

''I really liked the mud at the first round, but I think they made the right decision to can the second day - it would have been chaos, '' Cooper admitted, ''The mud at Nelson was pretty cool as well - it wasn't really mud - it was sticky enough to still go quite hard.''

The Nationals were Cooper's first outing on the CRF450 a bike that he, more than anybody, has been able to come to grips with and turn into race results.

''I was going well at the Nationals on the CRF450 and then I didn't ride it again until the day before Oceania and I went really well there,'' he said, ''It was strange - I just felt faster. The 450 is such a good bike. For me it is just like riding the CR125 - you can throw it around really easily and I find it really easy to ride smoothly.''

Saying that he went really well at Oceania is an understatement, but Cooper is not the sort of rider to overstate any of his achievements. In the grand scheme of things he knows he has a lot to learn, but his back-to-back wins at Oceania were a great start amongst a field of stars.

''I thought I'd be about third or fourth at the end of the day, but I ended up winning all my races and I was racing guys like Craig Anderson, Shane Metcalfe and Cheyne Boyd,'' he said, ''My mate had told me how good they were so I didn't expect to do so well against them, but when I lined up next to them in Wellington that just made me want to win even more.

''I holeshot the first moto and won by about 15 seconds. Ando chased me pretty hard for the first five laps, but then he got arm pump and never came back. In the second one I gated badly and was about tenth in the first corner, and had to get past all of them. I ended up winning that by about five seconds. Then in the last one I was about fourth at the start and I won that one by about ten seconds.''

The chance to race with some of Australia's greatest talent was a highlight for Cooper, who was quick to acknowledge the different racing styles splitting the Tasman.

''The Australian riders are way different to New Zealand riders,'' he explained, ''Like when you try to pass them they don't back off at all - they're real aggressive and hold it on. So I had to hold it on a bit more and do a bit of crazy passing.

''It was pretty one-lined so you had to do your passing wherever you could. I'd come up behind them quite easily and then I just sat behind them and tried to pressure them into a mistake. I never really battled with anyone and the whole time I was just thinking, what's going on here?

''The Aussie riders were an awesome crew - really, really friendly and cool. I reckon there should be more racing between Australia and New Zealand. Obviously, it is good for the Kiwis to race with the Aussies, but it'd work the other way as well, to give the Aussie guys some experience with different riders. I mean, where does an Australian rider go after climbing to the top in Australia?

America would be their next step and learning to race with different riders in NZ would help that a lot. It's sort of happening now, I guess, with the Kiwis going to Aussie, and the Oceania event was awesome.''

So what does the future hold for the kid from Opotiki?

''I want to go to Australia next year, but we're not sure yet what's going to happen,'' he revealed, ''My goal is to get some good results in Australia and build up to all the races - supercross, motocross and thumpers. I'd probably do what Hurls, DK and Niki [Urwin] do and just fly over for the races rather than live over there. Train in New Zealand.

''My long-long-term goal is to go to America and race over there in the Outdoors and supercross. Like what Chad Reed is doing now. I reckon he'll carve them up this year, he'll probably even carve Ricky Carmichael up! Imagine if Ricky Carmichael got beaten by Chad Reed! That'd be awesome.''

One thing is certain, we'll all be hearing a lot more from this Cody Cooper kid and, with any luck, we'll have a new contender on the gates for season 2002.

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