CONCORD, N.C. — The DIRTcar UMP organization is mourning the loss of Gary Cook Jr., a former UMP Modified national champion who died on Sunday following a five-year battle with sinus cancer.
Cook, 37, of Deer Creek, Ill., died on Sunday evening at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria, Ill., the town where he was born. He had been hospitalized since late May after contracting pneumonia and having his condition steadily worsen.
“Gary Cook Jr. will always be remembered as a great UMP Modified champion,” said DIRTcar UMP director Sam Driggers. “He spent his whole career racing with UMP and became one of the UMP Modified division’s most respected drivers. He was a fierce competitor but also a real nice, likeable guy who was always very helpful to his fellow racers.
“I know that Gary went through a lot in the past five years, but he never stopped fighting and he never lost his desire to race. He was a true champion.
“Gary will be greatly missed,” added Driggers. “All of us with the World Racing Group and DIRTcar UMP send our thoughts and prayers to his family.”
The owner and operator of Cook Fabrications, Signs & Graphics, Cook spent more than two decades racing on dirt tracks in the Midwest. He followed his father, Gary Cook Sr., into the sport, climbing behind the wheel of a race car for the first time at the age of 14.
A winner of many feature events and track championships driving his familiar No. 64 machines, Cook’s greatest triumph came in 2009 when he won the DIRTcar UMP Modified weekly series national championship worth $20,000. It was a major accomplishment for Cook, who had seen his bid for the national crown sidetracked in 2008 when doctors first discovered a cancerous tumor in his nasal passage.
Cook finished third in the 2008 DIRTcar UMP Modified national points standings despite missing some mid-season racing time while undergoing radiation and chemotherapy treatments for the inoperable tumor that doctors found in July. With doctors determining before New Year’s Day 2009 that Cook’s cancer had gone into remission and subsequent cancer scans finding that the dead tissue was continuing to deteriorate, Cook was able to race full-strength for the entire ’09 campaign and won 24 features en route to the title.
“It was pretty emotional,” Cook said while accepting his UMP Modified national championship accolades during the circuit’s awards banquet in January 2010. “Winning this championship is what we set out to do (in 2008), but we couldn’t do it because of unfortunate circumstances. Fortunately we were able to come back strong (in 2009) and meet our goal, which makes us feel great.”
Cook’s cancerous tumor returned in 2011 and he made regular trips to Michigan for surgeries and appointments with doctors. He responded positively to treatments and won seven UMP Modified features in 2012, but earlier this year doctors found that the cancer had spread and his condition deteriorated.
Cook made his last appearances behind the wheel of a UMP Modified in February during the UNOH DIRTcar Nationals by Summit at Volusia Speedway Park in Barberville, Fla.
Cook is survived by fiancée Shannon Giersch; two children, Dawson Cook, 12, and Sophia Cook, 8, both of Morton, Ill.; mother Linda S. Klein of Sunnyland, Ill.; father Gary W. Cook Sr. (Terri Miller) of Deer Creek, Ill.; maternal grandparents Jim and Evelyn Ward of Sunnyland, Ill.; and one sister, Lisa Cook, and three brothers, Dylan Klein, Derek Klein and Cory Cook, all of Sunnyland, Ill.
He was preceded in death by his stepfather, Randy Klein, and paternal grandparents.
Cook will be remembered by his family and friends on Thurs., June 13, during a visitation from 4 to 8 p.m. at Deiters Funeral Home & Crematory in Washington, Ill., and then a final ‘victory lap’ around Peoria (Ill.) Speedway at 10 p.m. Cook’s fans are welcome to gather in the speedway’s stands at 9:30 p.m., and his family encourages all attendees to wear racing or Harley attire.