Motor Racing: Cooper dances to a different tune

A new form of motor racing, Legends cars, is catching on in Britain after its US successes
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PHIL COOPER knew it was time to give up the day job with Island Records. In his own words, the music business is no place for fiftysomethings. A ponytail was never an option.

You don't spend 24 years in the company of recording legends like Bob Marley, U2 and Robert Palmer, however, without developing an appetite for excitement and life on the edge.

Which explains why Cooper has now found himself a new collection of Legends. And this time his sound of music is the squeal of tyres and the roar of a Yamaha engine.

Cooper, international director of Island Records until four years ago, is one of the driving forces behind Legends Racing Europe, giving spectators on this side of the pond a chance to enjoy a brand of spectacular wheel- to-wheel motor sport that attracts a huge following in the United States.

The cars are scaled-down versions of the classic "Bugsy Malone" American coupes and sedans of the 1930s, powered by a 1200cc Yamaha engine that produces speeds of up to 125mph.

And the venues for the 16-race circuit season feature some of Britain's most famous motor racing homes. Brands Hatch, Donington, Oulton Park, Mallory Park and Knockhill are on the 1999 calendar and there is also a 21-race series on Indianapolis-style oval tracks.

"I was with Island Records from the start back in 1964 and then I spent 24 years travelling the world," says Cooper. "So when I left it behind, I needed something that would give me the same buzz. This is it.

"I've always been a motor racing fan and on one of my trips to the States I took the chance to watch Legends cars in action. I was hooked. The racing is exciting, spectacular and above all tremendous fun for everyone involved.

"It's a throwback to what I call the good old days when motor racing had a smile on its face and people were happy to help one another. If someone breaks down in Legends, the other teams don't look the other way; they rally round and help. Isn't that what sport is supposed to be all about? In a way, I suppose, staging a race is a bit like cutting a disc or doing a concert. The driver is the artist, someone who wants a share of the limelight, enjoys signing autographs and likes to be up there on centre stage.

"The mechanics are the musicians, the circuit is the venue and the fans have come along for a good time because that's what the entertainment business is supposed to be about. I'm there to pull all the strings together."

Yet, while the bodywork on the lookalike Buicks, Dodges, Chevvys and Fords comes straight out of the Prohibition era, there is nothing too prohibitive about the economics.

For Cooper and co-director Fraser Kennedy believe they have come up with a package that gives aspirant racing drivers a chance to find a way into the sport without breaking the bank manager's heart.

All the Legends cars, five-eighths replicas of the real thing, start at $9,995 (pounds 6,200) and have identical specifications, putting a premium on driving ability and set-up rather than the size of the bankroll providing go-faster tweaks.

And Cooper insists that to compete in the six-race circuit season will cost a maximum of $7,500, including entry fees, transport, accommodation and the inevitable breakages.

"What other form of motor sport gives you a chance to race at places like Brands and Donington for that kind of money?" asks Cooper, who has 21 cars on the grid for the circuit series, which started at Mallory Park last weekend, and 12 for the ovals.

This year's field includes, among others, a female City investment banker, identical twin landscape gardeners, a plumber and a family trio of father, son and nephew, confirmation of Legends' catholic appeal.

Each round of the championship consists of three races. Grid places for the first heat are drawn out of a hat and the grid is reversed for the second heat.

In the final, the fastest cars from the two heats start from the back of the grid. Get the picture? Close racing and overtaking is guaranteed. Races, which will support this season's Eurocar Championship events, last no longer than about 10 minutes.

"After seeing the cars in action at the Charlotte circuit in North Carolina I knew straight away how popular Legends could be over in Britain with both the drivers and the fans," says Cooper.

"It was a struggle for the first couple of years because we needed a few pioneers and everybody knows that pioneers have sometimes ended up with arrows in their backsides.

"Understandably, people had to be convinced that they weren't wasting their money, that we were here to stay. By increasing the size of the grid from six to more than 20 in three seasons, we've demonstrated that we are."