Jason York's hood adorned with a memorial to Rodney Cook before the Inaugural Rodney Cook Classic at Ace Speedway in May 2014. Corey Latham Photo

521 days. That is a long time when you think about it. But in some cases, it seems just like yesterday. That’s how long Rodney Cook has been gone from us now going into his memorial race Friday night, and I’m none too happy about it. I’m happy to celebrate the person he was, and that’s the hard part, using the word “was” as in past tense describing Rodney. But his legend lives on.

He may not have had the wins as say a Lee Pulliam or Philip Morris, but he had the heart and fan base that still reaches into many people to this day. There wasn’t anyone else like him; brash, in your face and highly intense. But while sometimes those traits are bad to some people, they are what made Rodney what he is, and on the flip side of it, showed his genuine side as one of the greatest people you could ever meet.

I grew up in racing, not as much as others but it’s all I knew since I was four with my dad taking me to races and my grandpa machining parts for cars at Bowman Gray. After getting into this racing journalism thing back in 2006 co-hosting Doc Love’s “Kickin Asphalt” radio show, I was introduced to all sorts of racing I had never seen, drivers I had never met and characters that wouldn’t soon be forgotten. One of those Was Rodney. After meeting him at Ace Speedway, one could not help but pull for the guy. They say in the media world you can’t have favorites, to me to be in the racing media you have to be a fan first and foremost, and I was a fan of Rodney instantly.

You could look around and see the other teams with big money and crew shirts, then there was Rodney’s crew with t-shirts and ole’ Charles with his shirt with the sleeves cut out. These were my people, this is what I grew up with, to me, it was as real as it got. And the on-track product is what racers are made of, what they didn’t have in the car, Rodney made up with it from the driver’s seat. He was a natural wheelman. Sometimes he overdrove the car, sometimes he wrecked it. But one thing was for sure, no one on God’s green earth could have gotten anything more out of it. If a car had a tongue it would have been dragging behind Rodney’s car at the end of a race.

I can’t tell you how many times I fell asleep in the lounge of the old Wayne Carter hauler they still use today. Others had nicer rigs, but the doggone air in that thing would put you to sleep, and the stories told in there had me laughing for days. At the track he was just fun to be around, he would be business when need be but would never shy away from a fan or a good talk. He was a die-hard race car driver, but first and foremost, he came there to have fun.

Aside from an awesome driver, he was just an awesome person. I talk to all sorts of drivers on a regular basis, usually for stories, but Rodney was one I would just call out of the blue about every week, or he’d call me, just to shoot the bull and talk about things that were going on. He was my friend, he just happened to drive a race car sometimes. But he was like that to almost everyone.

Many times at the track and this still amazes me to this day, he would get in another drivers car and practice it, work on it, and give tips, just to make the other driver better. Sometimes it was people he had never met. At other tracks people are secretive; they will only help so much. At Ace, in general, the people loved helping each other, and Rodney was first in line, he didn’t want to beat you because his car was better, he wanted to rub and bang the hell out of you and beat you to the line because he outdrove you. I always told him he would have been the happiest IROC driver to ever live.

National championships, shots at the next level, we have all seen recent drivers do big things. But to this day, there is no driver with a fan base like Rodney. It stretched from track to track, South Boston, Ace, Southern National, Myrtle Beach, Martinsville, when they announced his name you took notice because it got loud. The people knew, he was a great driver, a great husband to his wife Nicole, a great father to his daughter Kimberly, and most of all, he was a man’s man and someone the people could relate to.

So here we are, the second annual Rodney Cook Memorial race. The range of emotions going into this varies, in one instance I’m sad this day has come, and in the next I’m pissed we are even having to do it. But I know Rodney is looking down and proud we are doing what we are doing so I’ll go into the night smiling, because I know he is happy… the one thing he always loved is happening, his family is there, his friends are there, and we are racing. The things he loved most in life. I promise you, this race will only get bigger, I will see that it becomes one of the premier events in the region; he deserves that much and so much more.