Before there were X-Games, free-style and international bicycle motocross racing, there was Mark Cook and a group of friends from Muscoy and San Bernardino’s Northend who 40 years ago were laying the groundwork for professional BMX competition. Some continued as the sport grew to become internationally sanctioned.
Many considered Cook a prodigy when it came to navigating a bicycle on a speedway track. At the time of his death in 1977, he was ranked No. 3 in the nation in the 15-and-under division. He died three days after taking a hard fall while performing an off track bicycle trick on the Pacific High School campus. He was one of a handful of bicycle motocross riders who were able to perform in free style.
On his fateful day friends said he pushed his limits when he fell and banged his head. It probably happened while Cook was trying too hard to impress his large audience of Pacific HS cheerleaders and wrestling team. Cook’s mother and sister want to know if people fully understand how a premature death in the family affects the survivors.
Relatives say, besides being traumatic, his death “screwed up the entire family” with collateral effects numerous, devastating and long-lasting. Nancy Cook, Mark’s mother became obsessed with memorializing her late son. She lobbied the City of San Bernardino to name its local racing facility the Mark Cook Memorial BMX Track. The now-defunct track was located adjacent to little league headquarters on the site of the current Caesar Chavez Middle School.
In an interview at a local Baker’s Burgers, Nancy Cook detailed the fierce struggle it took to get the Mark Cook Memorial BMX Track fully up to racing standards. She recalled that it was actually easier at the time to get approval on the national level than at the local level. “We were able to get a fully sanctioned annual ‘Mark Cook National Bicycle Association Race’ however the San Bernardino Parks and Recreation never adequately held its end of our agreement.”
When Nancy Cook first got involved with the local bicycle track it was a year before her son’s death. She said the original intention was to provide her three sons and all their friends with an outside activity. The track was in operation for a total of eight years. From 1978-1982 the Mark Cook Memorial BMX Track was one of 20 prototype courses on the Southern California circuit. Nancy Cook remembered current BMX Hall-of-Fame and Grand National Champion Tinker Juarez racing at her sons track.
Cook family colleague Ralph Wilkinson mentioned a number of other future HOFers who raced at the San Bernardino track. “At that time there were about 10,000 kids in SoCal actively involved in BMX. San Bernardino was one of its main destinations,” said Wilkinson. “I always got the impression that the city did not want the track there.” He detailed times when he helped train his son and daughter and the Cook brothers by having the pre-teens practice on the difficult fire roads up and down the Cajon Pass. “They wanted to go faster. In the early 1970’s, I think my garage in Muscoy was the first place to first to start modifying bicycles.
Wilkinson credits those years of practice as the reason his daughter, Jane was able to win an age division grand national championship. Wilkinson said he still feels guilt that Mark Cook did not live long enough to win any nationals. “He was right there,” said Wilkinson. “Mark did not live quite long enough. You had to be 16 to become a professional. He was there with Tinker, John George, Stu Thompson, and David Quinten. Mark listened to instructions, had good reflexes and was exceptional off the start. Mark inspired me to start racing and then kept motivating me. I often think if he hadn’t met me that he would still be alive. I visited him in the hospital. Oh! My God. It still hurts me.”
Nancy Cook, 74 and her daughter, Janice Dickey said their family are all natives of San Bernardino. His late brother Butch was also a BMX racer. They are confused that no public record exists of the Mark Cook Memorial BMX Track. Nancy Cook said records should be somewhere since the city collected parks and recreation fees, sent out planning and health inspectors, required a Franchise Tax Board license, and heard her emphatic pleas in support of a mandatory helmet law.
She did say that a number of city employees volunteered at the track and was appreciative for support from the local Marine Reserves and from the San Bernardino Police Department. “I can’t believe that no one even remembers our ‘Annual Race for Life’ as a fundraiser for the American Cancer Society,” said Nancy Cook. “There are still a lot of people still around from the city. I am surprised.”