Commentary

Stenhouse next Mississippi great?

Updated: September 19, 2012, 7:41 PM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

Where a driver is from doesn't seem to matter much anymore. Hometowns are seldom mentioned on television, or even in my own columns here.

This is about an exception -- why it matters to me that Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is from Olive Branch, Miss. This is about a long-lost legacy he carries. He knows a little of it, but not all of it.

As you know, we from Mississippi don't get a whole helluva lot to crow about -- witness the latest football score out of there: Texas 66, Ole Miss 31.

[+] EnlargeIval Cooper
Courtesy MissChicken.comIval Cooper cut his competitive teeth racing log trucks in the Mississippi backwoods.

And so it goes, in what my late friend Willie Morris, the Rhodes scholar and celebrated writer out of Yazoo City via New York City, used to call "poor old, whupped-down Mis'ippi."

The racing legacy there is so long gone that as Stenhouse rises through the ranks of NASCAR, hurtling toward a second straight Nationwide championship and into Cup next year as Jack Roush's replacement for Matt Kenseth … well … I might as well be telling the homefolks we've got a potential Olympic curling champion in the bud.

Such is the mass amnesia and apathy there, except for a precious few, about a realm of motor racing that once flourished but has long since withered and almost vanished.

This story runs back to what we called "log roads." Do you know what they looked like? Not so much roads as wide ruts worn by logging trucks through underbrush in backwoods.

Imagine not just racing on them, but racing in fully laden log trucks, the big trailers sideways in the dirt, in a monstrous sort of motocross, slapping down saplings as they went.

That's how the best race driver in my memory mastered car control, as a youth.

Think about that. Dale Earnhardt had nothing remotely like that on his résumé. Nor did A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Ayrton Senna or Michael Schumacher -- all drivers I covered and admired …

But not the way I admired Ival Cooper.

I know. You've never heard of him.

But somehow I sense Cooper -- who died in 1984, three years before Stenhouse was born -- riding with Stenhouse now. It was eerie, listening to ESPN analyst Dale Jarrett on Saturday as Stenhouse drove so well at Chicagoland Speedway, on the way to a fifth win this season.

"I love to watch this guy drive," D.J. said of Stenhouse. "When he gets back into the throttle he just has no fear that he's not going to be able to hold his car wide open, all the way off the corners."

[+] EnlargeJack Roush, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Randy Sartin/US PresswireRising star Ricky Stenhouse Jr., right, will drive the No. 17 Ford for Jack Roush beginning next season.

Then, clear as a bell, from so many years ago, as a kid in the pits at the Laurel (Miss.) Fairgrounds Speedway, I could hear Cooper saying the same thing, so much more simply: "Down there is where you do all your stoppin'," the little curly-haired man from Jackson said, gesturing toward Turn 1. "From there, you get on it."

No sense following conventional machismo and driving too deep into the corner. Give up just a little on entry -- that's Stenhouse today. Then hold that throttle wide open, with no fear, all the way "up off," as drivers call exit nowadays.

Cooper did his log-truck racing -- "loaded or not," he told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger in a 1982 interview -- in his youth in Arkansas, just across the Mississippi River from where Stenhouse grew up. Circa 1950, Cooper crossed the big river for keeps on the advice of his brother, who'd found better opportunity in Mississippi.

Think about that: better opportunity in Mississippi. Gives you an idea that maybe Ival Cooper didn't come up easy.

He heard about a dirt track near the capital of Jackson, went to have a look and decided it was all pretty laid-back and timid, compared to racing log trucks.

He became Mississippi's first great driver. There haven't, of course, been many. Bet you didn't know there were any.

Racing there was mostly open-wheel in those days, and if ever a man deserved a shot at the Indianapolis 500, it was Cooper.

But he never got a chance at the big time.

I didn't cheer for Cooper much growing up. He was the archrival of -- and the only one who could beat -- my childhood hero, a Mississippi Delta planter named Ellis Palasini, who raced for pleasure. Palasini could afford to race out of his own pocket.

Cooper was always at the mercy of whatever rides he could pick up; some good, some god-awful, but all graceful as ballerinas in his hands. I can see the beauty of it now, in DVDs made from old 8-mm film sent to me by the handful of homefolks still interested in motor racing there.

Palasini remains an icon to that little group, and occasionally brings out his storied "Black Widow" supermodified car for exhibitions.

Cooper died down the backstretch of a half-mile track near Mobile, Ala., in 1984 -- of a heart attack, witnesses believed. He was not quite 56.

[+] EnlargeLake Speed
Racing Photo Archives/Getty ImagesMississippi driver Lake Speed won a NASCAR race at Darlington in 1988, but he never had the quality ride that Ricky Stenhouse will inherit in 2013.

A couple of years ago, before Stenhouse really arrived, our researchers at ESPN set out to compile a list of best NASCAR drivers by state, found few names from Mississippi, and asked for my opinions. I told them the two best drivers ever from Mississippi were Ival Cooper and Ellis Palasini. No one else was even close.

But neither driver qualified for the list, because neither ever got to NASCAR. Of the handful of Mississippi drivers who did -- Joe Caspolich of Gulfport, H.T. "Pappy" Crane of Long Beach and Lake Speed of Jackson -- only Speed won a race, at Darlington in 1988.

Speed arrived in, and struggled at, NASCAR a bit by accident. He probably was better suited to Formula One. In 1978 he'd become the first American to win the world karting championship, beating, among others, a teenaged Brazilian named Ayrton Senna.

But Speed just never caught the good rides in NASCAR. Nothing like the shot that Stenhouse has, next year and beyond, in the Roush Fenway No. 17 that Kenseth of Wisconsin established so well.

So you'll pardon an old Mississippi boy, long gone, for pointing out where Stenhouse is from, and how much he drives like the best you've never heard of.

Stenhouse grew up fairly privileged, more like Speed. Olive Branch essentially is a bedroom community for Memphis. Stenhouse has no drawl -- his accent is more akin to that of Californian Jimmie Johnson.

But the instincts are straight off the log roads along the Mississippi River. Do your stopping earlier than most. From there you get on it and stay on it.

"Ricky," Roush told reporters at Chicagoland after Stenhouse had won Saturday, "does a really great job of finding a part of the racetrack that will work for whatever setup he is given."

It's as if Ival Cooper, who always drove whatever he could get, finally gets his chance.