Bradley Cooper's story

As told exclusively to

Bradley Cooper, whose father is UK hot rodding and drag racing pioneer Ken Cooper, was born into a drag racing environment. Ken's slingshot was stored in the garage at home and Bradley's first permanent job was at Automatic Transmission Products run by former drag racer Tony Whitehouse. Ken took Bradley to Shakespeare County Raceway on his 21st birthday, Ken's first time at the strip for over 15 years. Ken was warmly welcomed back by many fellow racers and as a result Bradley acquired a deep interest in the sport. Ken built a new slingshot flathead engined dragster and in 2012, Bradley made his driving debut. Since then he has been a regular racer in Wild Bunch lifestyle events and an established part of the UK drag scene in his own right.

I was born 1st May 1978. A little interesting thing about my name Bradley, I’m actually named after a famous Ford Flathead drag racer called John Bradley who was one of dad’s idols in the States. As my dad was an absolute Flathead nut and Mr Flathead himself, I guess there was no finer a name than to call his son Bradley. I went to Norton Canes High School down the road here, first going to the infant school there, then the comprehensive school just over the back of the house. Dad was always a motor mechanic in the garage so I was also in the garage with dad helping out bleeding brakes and stuff. My earliest recollections of the dragster in the garage were that I didn’t really know it was a dragster or that it was dad’s. It was just this thing in the garage, then it just went, it disappeared. This was Blast from the Past.

Dad promised my Mum when they had children, he would stop drag racing but when I came along dad did another couple of years. It wasn’t until my brother was born that dad stopped racing but still campaigned the car with Pete Hollingsworth doing the driving. I didn’t do very well at school and didn’t take my exams for this reason and left school early but had to take a YT course. I did work for the Forestry commission for Cannock council which I enjoyed but there was no placement for me at the end of it. I went to the job centre and got a couple of driving jobs delivering car parts which I enjoyed.

Then a job came up at ATP, Automatic Transmissions Products where Tony Whitehouse was one of the managers there, a very long-time friend of dads. I got the job working with Uncle Tony as we called him and started by cleaning and washing transmissions off. Then started to build them and am still there today 20 years later in Norton Canes where dad lives but the company is now called VMTP Midlands Ltd, still building transmissions and also building them for a number of racers.

People obviously assume having a famous dad involved in drag racing that I should be born and bred into drag racing but that’s not the case really. I went through my childhood not really knowing. I knew that he went drag racing but didn’t realise he was a pioneer and one of the founding fathers of it and especially with the hot rodding as well.

It was my 21st birthday and dad said as a surprise I’m going to take you out for the day. Excited, I was going out with my dad, not having a clue where we're going or what we're going to do. The only thing that was a bit weird on this day, a lovely hot summer day in May, was my dad had a pair of sunglasses on and a baseball cap and knowing my dad he didn't wear that sort of stuff.

So off we go in the car and we end up at Avon Park which is Shakespeare County Raceway and it’s drag racing. Working with cars I thought that’s great dad’s taken me drag racing. What a great surprise and I couldn’t wait to get in. This of course was my first time and I didn’t know anybody. So, as we were walking around, we first bump into Jerry Cookson and he greets dad. As we continue on, I heard over the Tannoy, we’d just like to welcome Ken Cooper to Avon Park, which was a bit weird. Walking round the pits seeing the dragsters was just great for me.

We then sat in the stands to watch the racing at the top of the grandstand. At the bottom of the grandstand there were about four or five people just kept walking up and down looking and pointing. They get to where we are and one man points as he recognizes dad. This row of men all came up to dad shaking hands, it's so good to see you, can't believe your back out after all these years. There was Tony Whitehouse, Martin Canto, Dave Hartshaw and Nick Pettitt. This was such a surprise to me. Tony I’d know as he was in and out of the house for many years.

Martin Canto sat with us and he and dad talked away about the old days. Martin was running a Top Methanol car at the time with Andy Frost driving. Martin said what you are doing next weekend, come over to Daventry, have a look at the car and give us a hand to work on the car and crew with us. It was a great day and driving home I said to dad you’ve got something to tell me haven't you. He said I’ll show you when we get home.

So back home he disappears into the loft and brings boxes down with black and white pictures, trophies, plaques and other stuff. Then dad started to tell me his involvement in hot rodding and drag racing, it just knocked me off my feet you know. Then when you find out your dad’s one of the pillars, a corner stone and this word pioneer. I was just so shocked and really emotional that this man I’d known all these bloody years and didn't know was a famous hot rodder and drag racer.

That was it then I was off the next weekend over to Daventry and saw this back motor car and Martin Canto started to fill me in more about who my dad was. It just blew me away and I just wanted to know more. I helped Martin, Andy and Pete Knight for a couple of years and I really loved it. But really deep down I wanted to have a go myself after dad explained what it was really like to drive a slingshot.

I thought I’ll spend a couple of years trying to find one of dad’s old cars and maybe restore it and celebrate dad’s life. I’d realised there was no real nostalgia drag racing going as such. There was the Wild Bunch, but nobody else was doing anything really with the history back then. If we could find one of dad’s cars it would be brilliant, especially Blast from the Past, the last car that he built. But I just couldn’t find anything.

I remember it was a Wednesday night, we were sitting where we are now and dad said if you can't find one of the cars then we'll build you another one. I couldn’t believe it; he was 74 by then but we both really wanted to do it. Within a couple of weeks he had the tubing in the garage and gave me a hacksaw and said I’ll teach you how to build a car. We're going to use a Flathead and we’re going to do it how I used to and how it was done back then. It was great to work with dad building the car without any plans and to realise how much more he knew and how much more of the history he told me about along the way.

Back from the Past takes shape

We went to Avon Park, more to look at the cars, rules and regulations and what we can and can't do, meeting more people from the past. Then Nick Pettitt did a Time Travel Video using dad’s old cine films and photos and he interviewed dad to get more info before putting the narration on the video so I learnt more for myself about dad from that. Then Brian Taylor interviewed dad for the Crazy Horses book he wrote. We got invited to Santa Pod for book signings and met many other racers from the old days. At the Dragstalgia events the fans were saying we love your dad.

We did a book signing at Long Marston and the Haynes Motor Museum. Nobby Hills and Norm Wheeldon were there so I got to meet these racers. Dad and Nobby hadn’t seen each other for so long and they gave each other such an embrace. I was very privileged to meet so many racers that dad knew and had hung out with back in the early days of drag racing.

This gave me even more enthusiasm alongside building our own car. I’m wondering if in the back of dad’s mind he’s thinking, I hope he likes it, having not driven a dragster before. And I'm thinking as it’s getting nearer, I hope I do like it and don’t put my foot in it after dad took two to three years building it, spending a lot of money.

Dad finished building the car in 2012 with some help from me but it was all his work. We took it to Avon Park and put a tarpaulin over the car, right up at the top of the pits out of the way of everybody. Some people hung around as they knew it was Ken and realised he’s here with a dragster after 30 years. They just waited until we uncovered the car. We got some really nice welcomes from people who we didn’t know but they knew dad and I. It was really something special for us. From then on until today it’s just been amazing the amount of people I’ve now met and the experiences I’ve had in drag racing.

A new driver would usually do observed runs by himself but at Avon Park there was none of that. I went straight to the start line alongside another car. I guess they just naturally assumed, well it’s Ken’s son he should be able to drive a dragster and I just went straight to the start line for my first run alongside another car. I think I had a few perks gifted to me. Dad said just take it to about 60 mph, chuck the steering from side to side to see how quickly it reacts, try the brakes don’t go mad just try it out. When I got to the top end I didn’t know where the turn off was.

Dad though I went pretty quick and when he went to pick me up, he wondered what my face was going to look like. Was I going to say I don’t like this; he’d waited three years for this. My wife Denise was with dad and she was saying the same. Thank God, I loved it. From the eighth mile to the shut off area I couldn't stop screaming and smiling, it was just unbelievable. When they got to me, I was all smiles standing in the cockpit.

Back from the Past at Avon Park

This was 2012 at the Nostalgia Nationals, Dad started to build it in 2009. I was such an incredibly shy person I didn’t want to meet people, just turn up, go racing and sit in the caravan just doing our own thing. But this whole experience of Dad’s story, building and then racing the car made me. There were so many people that wanted to see Dad after so many years and they also wanted to meet me, take photos and do interviews, Dad said you're going to have to get used to it, this is what is going to happen and I did, it worked out for the best because now I'm really enjoying it. All made possible by Dad from having been involved from the start.

We’ve been to all but one Dragstalgia event. We were all loaded ready to go and that morning my wife's father passed away and that’s the one we missed. We also go to the Hot Rod Drags and the Nostalgia Nationals. The car is not MSA legal. I try to race as Dad did with the same mindset and technology. The thing is if we spent the money to get it MSA, SFI approved we're not competitive therefore a waste of time and money.

Back from the Past at Santa Pod

Then other things stared to happen, Dad gets inducted in the British Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 2015 which was just unbelievable with the awards ceremony. I’d never dreamed I’d be privy to things like that. He was really ill with cancer at the time. Then to meet Don and Donna Garlits and really get on with Donna, she was shouting at me and bossing me around, like this is Donna Garlits, get the trophy, get your dad on the stage it was brilliant. Such a nice lady and family and she knew dad was ill. We took along the first letter dad had received from Don in the early 60s. Donna showed it to Don saying this fan from England had still got the letter and he burst into tears he couldn’t believe he had kept it. It’s now been photocopied and put into Don’s Museum with a bit of a story to go with it.

Then the Wild Bunch and the Vintage Hot Rod Association made him member number 1. Since we’ve had the car and Dad’s been back out, drag racing has just been an incredible experience for me and has become part of my life with all my friends being other drag racers and becoming a great social life, like a brotherhood the same as when Dad started.

The highlight of my career so far has been, and it’s not driving the dragster or anything like that, I was standing at Santa Pod on the start line in the left-hand lane with my dad in our dragster, on the right is Harold Bull in their dragster and Stu Bradbury with the original start flags that were used by George Wells at the Drag Festivals and the American Commandos visits at Santa Pod. I had tears in my eyes. It was just like 1966 with these three pioneers together on the start line. In my wildest dreams I never thought I’d do that. The idea was for Harold to drive Stripduster to celebrate the 50th Anniversary. I think it was Harold’s son and daughter Simon and Jane who said wouldn’t it be nice if you could get someone else to go alongside Harold.

I asked Dad, he said yes then I spoke to Claire Meadows and said what we wanted to do and to have Stu do a flag start. She organized this with Stu who was only too pleased to do it and also had the original flags. I went to the control tower and spoke to Keith Bartlett and James Forster who were both fine with us doing this. But everybody in the grandstands thought it was going to be me and Simon driving the cars. The commentary was all about this celebration run with the two sons driving. Next minute and once on the line Simon and I come walking in front of the cars and then the penny drops to everybody who’s driving the cars. It's dad and Harold. They were both asked to hold back with their drive by Ian Marshall but neither did.

Harold couldn’t hold the clutch disengaged long enough. Before Harold got in, they said could you hold the pedal down for about 30, 40 seconds, which it seemed as if he could but it obviously took longer and he de-clutched it ever so quick. They were only supposed to go about 40, 50mph which dad wanted to do because he wanted to look at the crowd and take it all in and wave. But Harold let the clutch in and he went. Dad wasn’t using the trans brake, he thought he’d just drive it off the brake, bring the revs up and it will just pull off the brake and go but it didn’t, the brake held it. By then Harold had got 40 yards on dad.

Dad thought right I’ve got to catch him up, and Harold wasn’t slowing down, he went faster and faster. At the top end dad was doing just over 5000 rpm which is about 100 mph. Poor old Harold, he couldn’t depress the clutch and was going too fast to turn off, continuing to the far end where he clipped the radius arms on the barrier. It was a fantastic experience seeing Dad run alongside Harold, just like he’d done many times in the 60s and 70s.

Autograph session at Santa Pod 2016

Ken adds... We built the car as we said, to be a close copy of a 60s USA rail. Not just the looks but 60s tech, i.e. magneto ignition, pressure fuel tank, carbs instead of injection, recap slicks, copper plug leads with Rajah terminals. I'm not going to mention the 90-year-old, (yes 90) power plant, as favoured by Clyde Barrow and John Dillinger for fast getaways.

In that guise it did run 11.18 but Bradley now wants the car to reach its potential. Gear ratio was the first move and for the 2022 Dragstalgia a pair of modern slicks. A checkout pass on Friday netted 11.09 (pb) then first run Saturday morning 10.83 plus a little wheelie! He desperately wants to beat the UK Flathead record of 10.68 set in 1972 which now looks feasible. If he does, it means that I’ve built the two quickest unblown flathead dragsters in the UK. (I’ve already ordered a bigger hat)

"I'd rather be dead than run valve-in-head." Ken Cooper 2022.

Youtube video links

Ken Cooper v Harold Bull
Flathead fire-up
Ken and Bradley interview

Gallery: click on any thumbnail for a large image.

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