23 February 2008 started out as just a normal Saturday at Charles Sturt University. I was chilling in my dorm room, no doubt recovering from a hangover sustained at uni bar the night before, attempting to work on assignments but procrastinating by browsing through Facebook (which was still very much in its infancy in 2008). But what happened that day would change my perception of motorsport forever.
I first met Ashley Cooper in 2006 when he was introduced to me by my first-ever client Ian Kegg, who had raced against him in HQ Holdens.
I came to know Ashley and his family very well during 2007, as he was competing in the Commodore Cup national series for which I was looking after the media and commentary (my first full-time gig in motorsport after finishing school). Ashley contested the first two Commodore Cup rounds at Oran Park and Phillip Island in 2007, but subsequently withdrew from the series to progress to the Supercars Development Series (at that stage branded as the Fujitsu Series).
Ashley was one of the drivers in the paddock I got on particularly well with. Like a lot of others, he enjoyed stirring me up and he was one who really knew how to push my buttons (not in a mean way, but he could be very cheeky!).
At the beginning of 2007, Commodore Cup ran as a support category for the Bathurst 12 Hour and because all the Commodore Cup races were finished by Saturday afternoon, everyone went out on the Saturday night. Having just finished school and having barely turned 18, I was still very new to the whole “going out” thing and I remember Ashley encouraging me to let my hair down and have a good time. I obliged, although it made the 4:30am arrival at the track for the 12 Hour the next morning a real challenge!
At the Oran Park V8 round in 2007, I remember hanging out near the DVS marquees during an autograph session, and Ashley’s dad Alan suggested I wind him up by asking him for a signed poster. He willingly obliged, and wrote on it:
“To Lachy –
Dig your style.
Ashley Cooper #95 (My number, not Keggie’s!)” – a reference to the fact Ian Kegg also raced under #95.
As well as being a top bloke surrounded by a lovely family, Ashley was also a talented steerer, achieving front-running results in the Commodore Cup national series and running competitively upon his progression to DVS, against a field that included stars such as Steve Owen, Tim Slade, Jack Perkins and David Reynolds, to name a few.
And so we fast-forward back to 23 February, 2008. I’m sitting in front of my laptop, watching the weekend’s opening Fujitsu Series race on live timing (this is before the days of live TV coverage of all support categories). I’m particularly interested in the progress of the drivers who’ve stepped up from Commodore Cup, who include Ashley as well as Geoff Emery and Brett Holdsworth.
Mid-way through the race, the timing screen turns yellow, indicating the Safety Car has been deployed. I keep watching the timing and see that all the drivers have completed the next lap, except for Ashley whose car has stopped after the second sector of the lap.
Even with no vision of the track, I make a guess based on the sectors that Ashley has come to grief at the infamous Turn 8 and keep watching the timing. It stays yellow for several more laps and then goes red. The race has been stopped.
“Wow, it must have been a big crash,” I think to myself. “I hope he’s OK.”
The incident slips my mind and I lapse back into my routine of attempting to complete uni assignments, knowing I need to get some work done before my family arrives in Bathurst to visit me for the weekend.
It’s not until I’m watching the news later that night that the gravity of the situation strikes me. I’m having dinner with my family in the house they’ve rented for the weekend and the TV news is on in the background. Suddenly I hear the sports reporter say something about Ashley Cooper fighting for his life in hospital. I freeze.
Totally shocked, I excuse myself from the dinner table and immediately ring Geoff Emery. What he tells me is hardly uplifting.
“All the media have gone quiet, it’s not looking good at all,” he tells me, clearly distraught.
I burst into tears.
I had witnessed fatal accidents in motorsport before – I had seen Mark Porter’s crash at Bathurst in 2006 on TV when it happened. But this was different. This was someone I knew, and someone I considered a friend. It was the moment when it hit home that motorsport really is dangerous.
The rest, of course, is history. Ashley succumbed to his injuries on the Monday after the event and everyone in the motor-racing community went into shock.
I remember ringing up some of the drivers in the days afterwards, and the conversations just being completely numb. No one could quite believe what had happened. There was Ashley one day, full of life, enthusiasm and passion, and the next day he was gone.
Even though the incident was a 10 years ago, it’s still something that brings a tear to my eye when I think about it and unfortunately, I’m reminded of it every time I see a big crash, especially one that involves a driver I’m close to.
Enough of the misery though, because Ashley would hate us reflecting on his life with sadness. I’m thankful I got to call what turned out to be his last-ever race win, in Commodore Cup at Oran Park in 2007 and that day he also set a lap record which – thanks to the demise of the circuit – will stand eternally.
And I’ve been watching the progress of Ashley’s kids as they progress through the karting ranks – Bailey, in particular, looks so much like his dad it’s not funny.
Thanks Ashley Cooper for giving us so many happy memories mate, I’m sure you’re watching down on us all enjoying our lives and even though it’s a decade since you departed us, we’re still thinking of you.