Back in the 1940s, 50s and 60s racing was at its most dangerous. It was not until the late 1950s when NASCAR was created, that Stock Car racing really began to take off in popularity. What if I told you that Truman Cook Sr. A native of Umatilla, Cook raced with some of the best drivers of this era. Back then Stock Car racing was a sport that Bootleggers founded. Over the years the cars have become safer and the sport has grown wildly since this era. But to talk to someone who was there at the beginning, especially someone who was a native of Umatilla at this time in history, was fascinating.
(Truman Cook standing in victory lane at DeLand Speedway in 1968 with car owner Mr. Moyer.)
Truman Cook is 91 years old. But don’t let his age fool you. Truman is as sharp as the day he retired from driving in 1971. Born in 1932, Truman Cook is one of the few drivers remaining who raced on the original Daytona Beach Speedway & Road Course which was closed in 1958 in favor of the 2.5 Mile Daytona Superspeedway which has been in operation ever since.
Cook was a dirt track racer. Born in Georgia he moved down with his family in his early years and moved to Umatilla. His father worked on the Canal that was going to cut through Florida including much of the Ocala region allowing for ship traffic to navigate right through the state. His father did much of the blasting that took place for the ultimately doomed project. Portions of that project still can be seen today with concrete and rectangular water ways that would have made up the canal.
During his time in Umatilla, Cook decided to start a racing career. He raced in various cars over the years including a 1957 Ford Fairlane which was one of his favorites. Cook raced at DeLand Speedway which closed in 1973 but it was one of the best dirt tracks in Central Florida at the time.
(The car varied over the years but was typically a 1957 Ford Fairlane. Note the giant words “UMATILLA” down the side of the roof. Cook was always proud of his little hometown of Umatilla and always put the letters on the car big enough so everyone could see what small town he was from.)
Cook raced with names like Tiny Lund and Darrell Dake, but he also got the chance to race with some of the best stock car drivers in the world at Daytona Beach Speedway. Cook always raced with his hometown of “UMATILLA” written on the roof of the car. Cook was proud that his little team from a relatively unheard Florida hometown of Umatilla. He could go out and compete with some of the best dirt track racers of the era. Sometimes he was even offered money to just fill a field at a local event as well. We call that Start and Parking in racing which is often frowned upon these days but back then, you had to do what you had to do to make money.
Although Cook would never race in NASCAR, he raced with most of the names that would make NASCAR famous when it would be introduced in 1959. He won multiple races at DeLand Speedway in the Dirt Late Model division, culminating with a spectacular wreck in 1971 that would ultimately end his driving career.
(Truman Cook would be heavily involved in a rollover crash that would end his driving career in 1971 at DeLand Speedway.)
It was a sunny afternoon in 1971 and Cook was battling up front with a few other cars when all of a sudden his left rear wheel came off his car. The car began barrel rolling down into turn 1, eventually coming to a stop. Many people there in attendance thought he might be dead. As the car tumbled to a stop, Truman had been knocked unconscious. By the time he came to, his son was inside the overturned car helping him out.
Cook ended up breaking his back in the accident and unfortunately would end his driving career. He tried to come back in 1972 but the effects of the crash simply wouldn’t let him be competitive and he hung up his helmet and driving gloves by around late 1972. Sounds like a very familiar story in the Disney Pixar Cars movie with Doc Hudson. If you don’t know that story I suggest checking it out.
(Truman Cook Sr. Left and Truman Cook Jr. Right stand together and talk about the memories they shared growing up in the area. Truman Cook Jr. Right is still involved with racing and is one of the Directors at Original Speedway Park in Fruitland Park, Florida.)
By 1973 DeLand Speedway was deteriorating and eventually shut down. Volusia Speedway took much of the business over when it opened up in 1968. DeLand just could not compete with this speedway that continues to flourish with the World of Outlaws to this very day. Many attempts were made to save DeLand Speedway, but ultimately none ever happened. DeLand Speedway was sold and made into a housing development.
Any signs of the track are completely gone but there is a house located where turn 1 used to be. Right inside these unsuspecting home dwellers living room, would have been an overturned dirt late model in 1971 which was one of the most famous wrecks at the track.
(An arial shot in 1973 shows the track as it was just shut down. Racing moved to Volusia Speedway in the following years. Eventually the track was sold and turned into a housing development.)
(Today nothing remains of the track. This is the photo of where the track used to be. Incredible to think that 1970s era dirt late models were running right where people eat and sleep.)
Today Truman Cook lives with his son Truman Cook Jr. in Mount Dora. The family is involved with the famous Fruitland Park Speedway which has been in operation for 65 years. The Cook Jr. is one of the Directors at the track. He loves watching and helping youth racers climb the ladder and the first race back at the track will be Saturday September, 2nd.
Cook could go on and on about the memories he shared in the early days of Central Florida. He raced at New Smyrna Raceway and Bubba Raceway Park in Ocala. This man drove some of the coolest cars to ever grace the surface of a race track. He survived the wrecks and he continues to tell tales of the glory days of Stock Car racing.
We loved hearing Truman Cook’s story. Hopefully this small piece of Florida history can live at least digitally forever. The physical cars and tracks of that era may be gone, but the stories and memories will last forever.
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Truman Cook Jr.