It was October 1974 when Robert Cooper was driving in West Des Moines and saw it.
The burgundy 1965 Pontiac GTO was just like the one he had bought new that same year, down to the color. He’d sold it in 1969 because he needed a car with better gas mileage for his trips down to Louisiana. That’s where Cooper’s fiancée — now wife of more than 40 years, Margaret —was stationed as an Army nurse.
He called his wife to ask if he could buy the car. She gave him her blessing. In 1975, Cooper began taking it drag racing.
Fast forward to 2012, and on a recent Friday morning Cooper is in his garage, prepping the car for a drag race in Cordova, Ill.
In nearly four decades, the car has seen its share of tweaks and changes. It has been repainted a Pearl Corvette Blue, with turquoise and pinkish-blue details. The car has gone through more engines than Cooper can remember. Now it’s running just the way he wants it, with much improved race times.
“It takes a lot of experimenting,” he explains. “My wife doesn’t want me to go any faster. It’s a handful right now.”
Last year he ran his fastest time on a one-eighth mile track: 5.99 seconds at 113 mph. His time on the one-quarter mile right now is 9.50 seconds at 138.50 mph.
Cooper began drag racing in 1960 after giving it a try on a whim at the drag strip in Des Moines, he says. “I won a trophy, and that hooked me. I’ve been doing it on and off since,” he says.
He began racing in Eddyville in 1972 and considers it his “home track.” He tries to race on weekends with “points races,” which have cash prizes, Cooper explains.
He’s continued with the longtime hobby because it’s fun, he can make some money and has helped him make close friends.
“It’s the thrill, the power and the people you meet,” Cooper says of why he enjoys racing. “You meet a lot of nice people at the track. It’s family-oriented.”
It’s a sport Cooper introduced to his own two sons, Kenneth and Brian. All three race Pontiacs and have competed against each other.
The 72-year-old Cooper has no intentions of quitting anytime soon.
“(I’ll keep doing it) as long as I can,” he says. “It keeps me feeling young.”