News & Media

Spotlight: As time goes by, Cope still dealing ... and wheeling

October 26, 2011, Mark Aumann,

The Nationwide Series is teeming with young drivers just starting out in their racing careers. Points leader Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Steve Wallace were born in 1987. Justin Allgaier, Reed Sorenson and Michael Annett were born in 1986. Aric Almirola, born in 1984, is the old man of the group.

And not a single one of them was alive when 23-year-old Derrike Cope made his Cup Series debut in 1982 at Riverside International Raceway. Want another perspective? Cope's biggest win -- the 1990 Daytona 500 -- came a year before this year's Daytona 500 champion, Trevor Bayne, was born.

"I felt like there were a number of occasions where we were 'best in class' in contrast to the higher-echelon teams. ... I've been really pleased with what we've been able to accomplish."


Three decades later, Cope is still out there every week, competing against kids half his age. Now he's the veteran guy to whom many of the sport's future stars turn when they need advice.

"I remember my first Cup race at Riverside in 1982 -- the shock technology, the geometry, the way they're using the platform aerodynamically now -- it's so different," Cope said. "The cars have changed immensely. The amount of rear spring they're running in the back of these cars. The whole premise and idea has changed so drastically.

"The cars now are so pitch-sensitive. We didn't know anything about that then, when we had those big whole bumpers and secondary air dams back in those days, and spoilers laid back. It really has been quite a change over the course of the years."

Even though he's the son of a prominent West Coast engine builder and raced as a teenager, Cope seemed destined for a baseball career. However, he suffered a knee injury while catching in college, curtailing any aspirations of making a living on the diamond. With that door closed, Cope concentrated all of his attention on NASCAR -- something that continues to this day.

"I really don't pay a great deal of attention to [baseball] any more," Cope said. "I certainly have a team that I'll pull for and I'll watch the playoffs with some enjoyment. But right now, I have so many irons in the fire and stay so busy that I don't have the time or interest to pay attention to it.

"I want to watch the Cup races and keep up with it, and the Chase is so exciting. I'm just really all about NASCAR and not much into any other sports, other than golf. I enjoy that as a little mellower approach when I get on the couch."

Cope was born in San Diego, but moved to Spanaway, Wash., when he was 6. He eventually landed a full-time ride in Cup in 1988, and two years later, pulled off one of the greatest upsets in Daytona 500 history when he took advantage of Dale Earnhardt's cut tire on the final lap. Cope eventually wound up in the broadcast booth for a bit and, by 2002, began teaming with Jay Robinson in what is now the Nationwide Series.

He ran the entire 2004 season, finishing 27th in the points, and continued to race sporadically with Robinson for the next four years before forming his own operation in '09. But with the downturn in the economy, Cope realized he needed help to continue, and turned to Robinson.

"Being friends with him, the opportunity came with the new car for us to pool our resources," Cope said. "I took my car and engines, and he had two cars and engines, and we just tried to start the year off and try to see what the complexion would be like, and see if we could get one car to race full time."

And with the exception of missing the Iowa race after blowing an engine at Dover, that's been the case for the driver currently sitting 19th in points.

"I've always had a desire to be in the seat full time," Cope said. "Whether it was Nationwide, Truck or the Cup series. I just haven't had the opportunity or the ability to procure the funding necessary to make it happen."

* Career results: Nationwide | Truck | Cup

Even with Maxelence on board as sponsor, Cope admits money has sometimes been tight. And his experience is relied on in those moments.

"For us, it really is a situation where we don't have a great deal of funding," Cope said. "Sometimes when we don't really have the amount of tires we need, I can go out and put a minimal number of laps in, five or six laps of practice, and really try to save our tires for the race.

"And still I'm able to go out and qualify proficiently and have a feel for what I need in the race, to at least go out and be semi-competitive. That experience is a lot easier to give them the feedback necessary -- it at least gives us a decent starting place with a minimal amount of time and effort."

Cope's best finish this season was a 17th at Elkhart Lake, which may not seem all that impressive. But he said you have to look at it realistically.

"I felt like there were a number of occasions where we were 'best in class' in contrast to the higher-echelon teams," Cope said. "It's just the process and what you're dealt, but overall I've been really pleased with what we've been able to accomplish.

"We've finished a lot of races with minimal damage. I think we've only had two races that we had major damage. For that, it's been a pretty good year for us."

So what does the future hold?

"I think it's too early to tell," Cope said. "We're still dealing with Maxelence. They want to come back next year, spend some money and do some things. I'm sure we'll find a way to be there.

"Right now, we don't have definitive plans on anything at this juncture. The motivation is there to get through the winter and be there at Daytona."

And when he looks around and sees so many fresh, young faces, Cope remembers what it was like when he was just starting out, and how different the sport is now from when he climbed into a Cup ride for the first time.

"I feel very fortunate to have lived through all of those things," Cope said. "I raced with some of the great race car drivers, and still to be having the opportunity to go out week to week and have fun and enjoy the sport that I love, it's been a blessing."