Check another box for Justin Cooper.
Entering the pro ranks without major heritage or hype, the New Yorker has built his career by proving his late-bloomer surge is not a fluke. His sudden rise to dominance in his final amateur year was clearly sustainable. His podium moto performance in his pro debut at Unadilla in 2017 has not faded. His “flying at the test track” hype has carried over to the actual races. While he did not win a race in supercross this year, he was fully competitive in his first full season indoors. Each question that comes his way usually gets answered with an emphatic, “Yup, he can handle it.”
Now that he’s moved into real estate at the sharp end of the field, though one big obstacle remained. Cooper will have to prove he has the championship mettle to deal with pressure, scrutiny, and everything that comes with gathering so much attention. Title fights put a rider’s life under the microscope. That’s yet more new ground for Cooper.
It was a little shaky at first. When Austin Forkner went down at the Nashville Supercross, Cooper and Chase Sexton were suddenly thrust back into the title picture, and Cooper responded with a sub-optimum pass attempt on Sexton that left both on the ground—in the opening lap. Sexton outpaced Cooper in the final races and won the title. This year, Cooper has come into the Lucas Oil AMA Pro Motocross Championship with guns blazing, speed wise, but remained stubbornly unable to turn first moto wins into actual overall wins. At some point, he was going to have to show he could get over the hump.
Then came Thunder Valley, where he led moto two but crashed, but also voiced his displeasure with Adam Cianciarulo going off the track and reentering without a penalty. Similar to the Sexton incident, Cooper found himself on the wrong side of the argument with fans, another new wrinkle for a rider largely unknown just two years ago.
At High Point, Justin told me he did not care what people thought, and he just wants to be honest even if his opinion is not popular. While that’s sounds noble, his High Point ride didn’t show an ability to push the negativity aside. It was easily his worst race of the year, as he finished ninth overall.
So this weekend became the truest of tests. Whenever a sports team wins a major championship, one of the most common cliché phrases is “we dealt with adversity.” Doing so is paramount to winning a season-long award, because it is impossible for everything to go right at all times. Cooper had taken on heat from fans, followed it with his worst race of the year, and then headed to the home race for Cianciarulo, his title rival. Although Cooper had spent some time working at WW Ranch years ago, he’s fully California based now. In so many ways, he was playing an away game.
On Friday afternoon, I asked Cooper about acclimating to Florida humidity. He said that training out West might actually work in his favor. He could come in fresher and less depleted than Florida riders, and on race day, he would just have to suffer through it. Turns out that was correct. Cooper ran out of steam late in the second moto, but he showed toughness and grit by holding on enough to finally collect an overall win. Conversely, Cianciarulo took third, realizing he might have done too much work in the heat during the week.
“We are from Florida and we get to ride in this heat, but you can burn yourself out,” said Cianciarulo. “You don't get to recover the same riding this stuff every day.”
The win not only puts worries about humidity training to bed, but also proves Cooper can deal with championship adversity. He followed his worst race of the year with the first win of his career.
“It was good to bounce back after a less-than stellar weekend the last week,” Cooper said. “It’s hard when you have a down after so many ups. Man, I had so much pressure on myself this weekend, I just wanted to get back on the podium. I got ninth at the last race. I didn’t even know what to do with myself after that, I was pretty bummed. To come back and win, I can’t even describe this feeling. It’s amazing.”
On Friday, Cooper admitted that, as High Point started to turn bad, he had perhaps started thinking too much about the championship. It’s key to concentrate on each individual lap and each race, instead of thinking about championship implications and feeling even more anxious, or negative. By worrying about the title, he might have taken a bad day at High Point and made it worse.
So Florida became a pivotal round. He won it, he passed the test, he overcame the doubts, the pressure, the scrutiny, and of course the humidity. A first career win is always large, but considering the title implications, this is about as big as it gets.