Coo Coo Marlin
How a farmer from Tennessee cultivated one of the
best-known names in racing
Photography: Courtesy of the Marlin Family, Ken Spooner
. Say it with a fast
Southern drawl and it might sound like “hole in the wall.”
Actually it’s a small town about 33 miles west of
Columbia, Tennessee. That’s 13 miles closer to Columbia
than the big city of Nashville, which is 46 miles north.
And it might be the reason a 15-year-old Columbia farm boy
named Clifton Burton Marlin found himself sitting in the
grandstand of the Hohenwald Speedway in 1948.
went there with his older brother, Jack, and it didn’t
take much to convince both of them that they could do
that. Jack went first but, in no time flat, little brother
Clifton was out of the stands and on the track kicking up
the dirt with the big boys. Of course Clifton’s parents
didn’t know about it. But boys will be boys, won’t they?
Clifton doesn’t exactly sound like a name for a fledgling
race car driver, but probably none of the boys racing with
him back then knew him by that name. Even Marlin had
trouble with it. “I couldn’t say Clifton right and when I
was around 4, I gave myself the name ‘Coo Coo’ and it
That’s the story behind one of the most colorful
driver names in history. And it marked the beginning of a
lifetime of racing that has since moved to Coo Coo’s son,
Sterling, who drives the Coor’s Light Dodge in the NASCAR
Winston Cup Series.
“I’ll Drive It”
One night brother Jack didn’t show up to drive so Coo
Coo said, “I’ll drive it.” He showed everyone his first
cousin’s license and got in the car. Whether it was
talent, beginners luck or just his competitors giving him
a wide berth, Coo Coo’s confidence in that first race had
to be bolstered by the outcome. He finished third.
“I would like to think it might of been a combination of
all the above and a good helping of a natural feel for the
earth, as any real farm boy would have to have. Some of
the best dirt drivers I have known, came from a real job
that connected them to it,” Coo Coo says.
long retired from racing on the dirt, and asphalt, Coo Coo
Marlin is still well grounded with the earth as he was
some 54 years ago when he first plowed dirt with four
tires. As he approaches 70 years of age, he still actively
runs his cattle farm in the Carters Creek area of
He’s lived in the same modest, but comfortable
farmhouse for more than 45 years. Just across the road is
what you might call a mansion on the hill. It shows the
sharp contrast between what racing is like today and what
it was back then. Racing people live there, too. The
mansion’s residents are son Sterling and his family,
including grandson Steadman, now the third Marlin
generation to leave a mark on the track.
Though it would be some 18 years before
he would enter the major leagues of stock car racing on a
fairly regular basis, Coo Coo remembers the first big-time
race he entered, an event held around 1950.
“I drove up to Nashville and got me a Hudson Hornet,”
he says. “We put straight exhausts on it and a seatbelt in
it. Then I drove it south to Decatur, Alabama, taped up
the headlights and raced it. I think I got third there.
After the race, we untaped the lights and drove to a curb
service place for something to eat, then drove it on
For most of the ’50s, Coo Coo ran the short-track
circuits in Tennessee and Alabama. By the late ’50s he was
becoming a regular at the Tennessee Fairgrounds and
running against some strong competitors: The Allisons, Red
Farmer, Bob Reuther to name a few.
In 1959 Coo Coo won his first driving title at the
fairgrounds, driving a ’34 Ford Flathead for Carl Wood. He
repeated the accomplishment in 1962 and then again in ’66
and ’67. That record of four track championships will
stand forever as the Nashville Fairgrounds track finishes
its last year of operation.
During his era of dominance
at the fairgrounds, Coo Coo had battles both on and off
the track with “bunches of them.” His most affectionate
ones, though, were with entertainer Marty Robbins, who ran
there on many a Saturday night when he wasn’t on the road
singing. On nights he worked the Grand Old Opry, Robbins
would ask to be put on last so he could get some racing
“One night I was running up front and Marty spun me out in
the first few laps. Well, down in the infield I went,” Coo
Coo says. “When I got the car re-fired, I was back around
27th, and I went hunting for him. I was really making some
speed, and I think I lapped the field, but I couldn’t find
Robbins. Finally the crew gives me the sign ‘Slow Down ...
Marty’s gone to the Grand Old Opry.’
“Another time he
blocked me for the whole race. I’d get up to his door, but
he kept me from getting by. The last thing I wanted to do
was touch him, ’cause them stands were pretty full and his
fans would of all come down out of them and killed me. But
all and all Marty was my buddy. We would pit next to each
other at all the big tracks.”
The big tracks came calling for Coo Coo in the late
’60s and through the ’70s. Basically self sponsored, he
got some help from a Tennessee car dealer named H.B.
“He gave me a wrecker and some motor parts, but I pretty
much supported it myself,” Coo Coo says. “We never could
afford to run the whole season, so I ran around 12 to 20
For a low buck operation, he made a good
showing. He won a Daytona 125 in 1973 and had several
Top-5 finishes in the Daytona 500. Daytona and Talladega
were his two favorite tracks.
“We would run in a pack of 23 cars at Talladega,
clocking around 210 to 215mph in the draft on old-style
tires. Of course the tires were only good for 10 or 15
laps,” he says.
How did that speed feel? “Well, after you get above 175
or so you can’t tell the difference if you’re going 190 or
210. I loved it. Had a lot of fun, too.” During the early
’70s, 14-year-old Sterling started working as a
right-front tire changer on the pit crew.
A Simple Life
Coo Coo is a fairly quiet man. He
basically listens to you, and if he has something to add
to it he might. Then again, he might just say, “well,”
then trail off, and that’s all you get. There is no doubt,
though, if you spend a little time with him you will learn
One day this past spring, when Coo Coo was about to get
back to farm work, he told one little story. He doesn’t
recall the exact year, but it was sometime in the ’70s. It
was the Daytona 500 and it seemed like it was going to be
Coo Coo’s day.
“We made our last pit stop and I was leading it with 15
laps to go,” Coo Coo says. “Well, they waved the black
flag at me. I ignored it. They waved it again. I still
ignored it. When they give it to you the third time, if
you don’t come in, you’re out. So I came in. They said I
had a loose lug nut. There was nothing wrong, nothing
loose. The NASCAR inspector said, ‘OK, you can go.’ Well.
Hell.” By the end of the ’70s, Coo Coo was rapidly
becoming the oldest active driver in Winston Cup. He was
also having high blood pressure problems and was very
tired from running the farm and trying to make as many
races as he could. Sterling was coming on strong and had
some Grand National experience. He had driven a few relief
races for his father.
So Coo Coo ran his last race at
Talladega in 1980. In 1987 he, along with driver “Bullet”
Bob Reuther and promoter Bill Donoho, became the first
three inductees in the Tennessee Motor Sports Hall of
Fame. It was a proud day for all the Marlins.
These days, Coo Coo can be seen at some of his favorite
tracks like Daytona and Talladega, keeping a close watch
on Sterling. Can you imagine how this man felt when
Sterling’s first win came at the same place he was denied
one? He was with grandson Steadman, too, when he got his
“It’s a good thing Sterling and Steadman are
race drivers,” Coo Coo says, “’cause they don’t know
nothing about farming.”