Birthdate: January 3rd, 1932
Hometown: Columbia, Tenn.
Top Fives: 9
Top 10s: 51
Next to the Daytona 500, last weekend’s night race in Bristol, Tenn. is one of the most anticipated races of the NASCAR season. As the series was preparing to race in Thunder Valley, I had thought about writing a piece on Sterling Marlin; the home-state favorite who was unable to make the race last weekend in his first attempt with Furniture Row Racing. While Marlin is worthy of a profile, he is still very much an active driver, and will attempt to qualify the No. 78 Chevrolet at Richmond next week. With that in mind, we’ll profile Sterling’s father, the late Coo Coo Marlin.
Earlier this week, I wrote a story of how NASCAR has seemingly lost much of its heritage and heart with the influx of drivers from outside the South. Racecar drivers should sound like they’re racecar drivers, not just your Average Joes and you have to hand it to the Marlins, they all have cool names. Taking a trip around the family tree, you’ll find Sterling, Stedman, Eula Faye and Coo Coo (Clifton if you want to get legal). Although it’s usually uncool to peg yourself with a nickname, this one stuck from the time the elder Marlin was four years old and had trouble pronouncing his name.
Clifton Marlin’s career began almost by accident. His brother Jack campaigned a car at Hohenwald Speedway in Tennessee, but didn’t show up one night for one reason or another. Coo Coo volunteered to drive and finished third in his first race on dirt. While he credited a lot of it to beginners’ luck, a good car and the competition giving him plenty of room; he had another colorful explanation for it. He figured that being a farmer and having an intimate relationship with the earth helped him get around on it faster in a racecar as well.
Marlin would later pick up a Hudson Hornet, the hot ticket for racecars in the early ’50s and take his stock car down to Decatur, Ala. to race. This wasn’t a stock car as we know it today, it was actually “stock.” He axed the mufflers, put straight pipes on it, covered up the headlights and raced it, finishing third in his first race and then simply driving it home. He would continue to race on dirt tracks in Tennessee and Alabama through the late ’50s, winning his first of a record four championships at the Tennessee Fairgrounds in 1959 driving a ’34 Ford coupe.
A new car and a new challenge came calling in the 1960s. Coo Coo ran a bright red Chevrolet Impala, battling tooth and nail with rival Charlie Brinkley and country singer Marty Robbins. Marlin and Robbins would go at it until Robbins would have to leave the track, sometimes in mid-race, to play at The Grand Ole Opry. Marlin also continued to run many races in Alabama, going up against the famed “Alabama Gang” of Bobby and Donnie Allison and friend Red Farmer; winning the Fairgrounds Speedway championship in ’62, ’66 and ’67. In 1966, he got his first shot at the NASCAR Grand National series at his home track in Nashville, driving for owner Clyde Lynn. It would be his only start that year, with three more following in 1967. His final start that year was with local car dealer HB Cunningham, who he would drive for in 163 races through 1980.
For all of his efforts, he was never able to win a points-paying event at NASCAR’s top level. He did win a Daytona 500 qualifying race in 1973, and he did come very close to winning the Daytona 500 a year later. Leading with 15 laps to go following pit stops, Marlin saw the black flag being displayed as he drove under the flagstand. He didn’t think anything of it. The next lap, another black flag. After the third time, he figured he better come in so he wouldn’t get disqualified. The reason given to his team for the flag was a loose lugnut. After examining the lugnut and seeing that it wasn’t loose, he was allowed to return the race by inspectors. From there on out, things went from bad to worse, and Marlin lost more positions. Thinking the race was over; he let off early on the white-flag lap. He lost second and third places to Cale Yarborough and Ramo Stott, while Richard Petty went on to win his fifth of seven Daytona 500s.
His best season statistically was 1975. During that year he posted four top-five finishes and 11 top 10s to place 20th in the standings on a partial schedule. With his limited resources and sponsorship, he never ran a full schedule in his entire career; the most races he ran in one season was 23 out of 30, in both 1974 and 1975.
Besides, he had bigger things to tend to. His farm. Coo Coo was a self-proclaimed dirt farmer; raising tobacco, soybeans and cattle so he could race. Since he didn’t have the funds to cover some of his checks, he’d often buy cattle out of state and come back to Tennessee, sell them off at an auction the next morning, and deposit his earnings to cover the checks he had written. That sort of resourcefulness would come to define his career and his life, along with a memorable evening carousing in Alabama.
Coo Coo Marlin was so resourceful that he once tried to make a key out of a metal cup and a tool from a spoon to break out of jail.
Events at Talladega usually result in some pretty interesting stories, whether it’s a 30-car pileup, wanton debauchery in the infield or a drunk guy stealing the pace car before the race and turning some hot laps with it. During race weekend at Talladega, Marlin and car owner Hoss Ellington went out to have a few at the bar along with Coo Coo’s wife, Eula Faye. Coo Coo and Hoss (seriously, how great are these names?) had a bit too much (or just enough) to drink that night, and handed the keys over to Eula Faye. The Anniston, Ala. police were waiting outside the bar to pull over drunks attempting to drive home. Sure enough, they pulled the car driven by Marlin’s wife over, with Ellington and Coo Coo laughing hysterically at the scene that was unfolding. The flashing lights of the patrol car had frightened Marlin’s wife, and she continually fumbled with the power window switch, struggling to lower the window.
Unfortunately the police did not share in their humor. Ellington and Marlin were arrested for public intoxication.
While they were led to a pitch-black holding cell, Hoss realized that they wouldn’t be going anywhere for a while, so he hopped in the top bunk and went to sleep. Shortly thereafter he was awoken by the sound of metallic clanking below him. He asked Marlin if he heard something. Coo Coo did. The guard had left them a metal drinking can, and Marlin, with the help of his boot and belt buckle was attempting to make a key out of it to unlock the jail cell. He had also used his belt buckle on a spoon he found, in an effort to fashion a tool with which to tunnel out of the jail with.
“We’ll be out of here by dawn.” He told Ellington.
Ironically, Marlin’s final race was in 1980 at Talladega. He would only last 41 laps, after the crankshaft broke in the No. 14 Chevrolet, relegating him to a 37th-place finish in a race marred by 20 drivetrain failures. He would retire just as son Sterling’s burgeoning career was starting to gain traction. At the time one of the oldest drivers on the circuit, he had developed high blood pressure, which gave Sterling an opportunity to drive for him in relief in races in the twilight of his career. Besides, he had more pressing business to tend to: running the family farm.
He could be found at select NASCAR events through the 1990s, at the racetrack with a smile, going out of his way just to say “hi” to someone he had not seen in a while. In 2005, after a long bout with lung cancer, Clifton Marlin was laid to rest on, of all days, August the 14th.
Sterling would campaign the number 14 through 2006 and the first half of 2007 in honor of his father prior to the merger of Ginn Racing with DEI. Sterling’s son Steadman Marlin has made a handful of Busch and Craftsman Truck Series starts, even running the No. 14 on a couple of occasions in 2006.
Coo Coo never did win a top-level NASCAR race, but he won the hearts, minds and admiration of everyone in the sport.
Petty called him one of the most genuinely nice people he’d ever met, as well as one of the smartest and cleanest drivers he ever ran against. “He usually knew early on in a race who could beat him and who couldn’t. If you were faster than him, he’d pull over and let you by.”
Darrell Waltrip considered himself fortunate to have been able to race against him early on in Nashville at the Fairgrounds racetrack, cherishing the times when he would be able to out run the four-time track champion. In 1987 Marlin, along with driver “Bullet” Bob Reuther and promoter Bill Donoho, became the first three inductees in the Tennessee Motor Sports Hall of Fame.
Humility, good cheer and MacGyver-like resourcefulness. He may have not been seen in victory lane on the Cup circuit, but you’d never mistake that bright white mile-wide smile, or a grab of the arm behind you, just coming up to say he’d missed you. With the abundance of homogenized, made-for-TV competitors in the sport today, a good portion of its heart has been left wanting as well. If racing had more personalities and names like Coo Coo Marlin, racing would be a lot better for it.