Article from 8/15/2005

'Coo Coo' Marlin dies at 73

Father of Sterling, also a tough NASCAR driver

He was born Clifton Burton Marlin, but to friends across Tennessee and to millions of racing fans around the country he was always known as "Coo Coo."

Marlin, 73, died at 2 a.m. yesterday in Maury Regional Hospital after a long battle with lung cancer. He left behind a legacy as one of stock car racing's most determined competitors and one of its most colorful characters.

Services will be held at 1 p.m. tomorrow at Spring Hill Memorial Park and Funeral Home. Visitation will be today from
4-8 p.m. and for two hours prior to tomorrow's service. Burial will be in Rose Hill Cemetery in Columbia.

The family requests that in lieu or flowers donations be made to the American Lung Association, St. Jude's Children's Hospital or the Victory Junction Gang Camp.

Marlin is survived by son Sterling, the only child of Coo Coo and Eula Faye Marlin, who died several years ago.

Sterling Marlin skipped yesterday's Nextel Cup race at Watkins Glen, N.Y., to be at his father's side when his condition worsened Friday.

As a teenager Sterling worked on his father's pit crew and went on to become one of NASCAR's top racers. He credited the qualities of toughness and tenacity he inherited from his father for helping him endure a 17-year winless streak that was snapped by back-to-back Daytona 500 victories in 1994 and '95.

"Daddy taught me to never give up," said Sterling, who dedicated his first Daytona 500 victory in 1994 to his father.

Coo Coo Marlin was also an inspiration for many other young racers who passed through Nashville's Fairgrounds Speedway.

"As far as Nashville racing folklore is concerned, Coo Coo Marlin is at the top of the list," said Franklin's Darrell Waltrip, a retired three-time champion in the division now known as Nextel Cup. "I still remember that red No. 711 flying around the track at the Fairgrounds. Coo Coo was one of our sport's pioneers and I feel privileged to have gotten to race against him early in my career."

"I was just a kid when Coo Coo was racing, but I always admired him," said Mt. Juliet's Bobby Hamilton, defending champion in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. "He went out and raced against the best there was, running out of an old tobacco barn on his farm. Nobody had more determination than Coo Coo Marlin."

"Coo Coo was always happy-go-lucky," said retired Nashville racer "Bullet Bob" Reuther, an equally flamboyant driver from the sport's early era. "But he was serious when he got on the racetrack. I started racing against him at the old Legion Bowl (in downtown Nashville) and later at the Fairgrounds. Coo Coo was as tough as they came."

Although Marlin was famous for his wide-open racing style, that wasn't how he acquired his nickname. As a toddler he was unable to pronounce "Clifton." It kept coming out "Coo Coo." That became the name he was known by and raced under.

Marlin ran his first race as a teenager at a dirt track in  Hohenwald  in a car he "borrowed" from his big brother, Jack, a prominent area racer. Coo Coo sheepishly returned the car in a crumpled condition. Jack forgave him, and began helping his kid brother develop his racing skills.

In an incident that reflected Marlin's toughness, he was badly burned in a fiery crash at the Fairgrounds that destroyed his car. But he showed up the following weekend, heavily bandaged and driving a backup car.

Marlin won four track championships at Fairgrounds Speedway (now Music City Motorplex) in 1961-62 and 1965-66.

This past June he paid a visit to the Fairgrounds, assisted by some friends, but had difficulty recalling those distant days when he ruled the track.

In 1966 Marlin began competing in the Grand National (now Nextel Cup) Series and became the first area racer to achieve national prominence. He even appeared in a 1960s racing movie, Track of Thunder.

Marlin competed in NASCAR's top division for 14 years, running 165 races. He never won a points race but had three third-place finishes, nine top-fives, 51 top-10s and won a Daytona 500 qualifying race.

At the end of his career he said, "I always did as good as I could with what I had to run with."

Marlin was an "independent" driver, fielding his own cars with no major sponsorship backing. He was forced to compete against such well-financed, big-name drivers as Richard Petty and David Pearson, racers he called "hot dogs."

After his retirement, Marlin frequently attended races to watch his son compete. He joined Sterling in Victory Circle when he won his first race at Daytona in 1994.

Except for his racing travels, Marlin seldom ventured far from his vast Maury County farm. When he wasn't racing, Marlin was farming, raising crops and cattle. He remained active on his farm until recent months, when he was slowed by illness.

A few years ago an interviewer asked Marlin if he had any regrets about his racing career. At first he said no, but after pausing a moment, he confessed:

"I'd have liked to have run against the hot dogs just one time with the same equipment that they had. I'm pretty sure I could have beat them, but I never got a chance. I reckon we'll never know."

Larry Woody covers auto racing for The Tennessean. Reach him at or 259-8019.