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50 years of family: Racers, spectators celebrate brotherhood at BIR's 50th anniversary

Chaplin Russ Elzy, Racers for Christ, mingles among the racers Wednesday, Aug. 16, at Brainerd International Raceway. A racer himself, he moves from car to car offering his support to the racers. He remembers the old days at Brainerd International Raceway, which is now celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Down in the Brainerd International Raceway staging area, there was a sight of such contrast—Russ Elzy, soft-spoken and easygoing as he mingled with racers, offering quiet prayers among machines that produce eardrum-popping roars of barely-contained power.

"What I do is I come up to people, start talking with them, and just ask them 'Do you want me to pray for your safety?'" Elzy said Thursday, Aug. 16, interspersing his comments between the barking roar of engines down the track. He said drivers never ask him to pray for victory, merely for a clean and safe race.

Elzy, from Big Lake, has been racing since 2000 and served as a Racers for Christ chaplain for about four years—though, he noted, he has memories of the track going back 50 years, paralleling BIR's half-century existence. The raceway, north of Brainerd, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

Thursday afternoon wasn't quite prime BIR yet—a day set aside for the amateur racers, where its bustling walkways saw about a fourth of the foot traffic it would see the following day, Friday, when the professionals gear up and tear up the track.

Maybe Thursday's crop of drivers didn't quite have the name recognition their Friday peers enjoyed, but don't tell that to their engines—novice to pro, these machines are loud and pack enough horsepower for a king's stable.

In 50 years of spectating and driving, BIR has grown significantly and developed in tune with the years, Elzy said, while still retaining a kind of brotherhood between racers, as well as with fans.

"A lot of changes. Like 50 years, the individual tree (or, signal lights racers follow much like traffic lights at an intersection)—they had five lights, now they have three," Elzy said. "With the technology, back 50 years ago they didn't give you 60-foot times, they didn't give you 1,000 foot times, or half-mile and eighth-mile times. It's really a neat time."

Racer Toby Giese said it's been a joy to watch the raceway's arena rise, expand and grow more sophisticated over the decades.

Giese, of Wilmar, said he's been at BIR 29 out out the last 30 years—experiencing the wonders of hot asphalt, loud engines and fast cars since he was 15 years old.

This year, he was steering a 1968 Chevy Camaro—courtesy of a friend—which packed 850 horsepower and could reach top speeds close to 150 mph.

"We brought the knife to the gun fight," said Giese, strapped into a boxy ketchup-red coupe in a line of aerospace-esque dragsters. "Most people prefer to have a big-block Chevy dragster. We're running with the door-car because that's what we've got."

Maybe outgunned, but certainly not lacking in enthusiasm—because ultimately, Giese noted, the thrill of racing makes it all worthwhile, irrespective of outcome.

"It's adrenaline, it's like a legal drug," Giese said. "I don't even know if I breathe, to be honest with you—you get so locked in, tunnel vision. It's the adrenaline rush, the G-forces, it's the thrill of it going down."

Jason Anthony, of East Bethel, operated one of these dragsters—the newest iteration in a line of vehicles he's handled over the course of 27 years at BIR. He sat, arms crossed over his chest like a pharaoh, as he waited in his 2010 Darren Erickson supercomp drag racer, 1,000 horsepower at his fingertips. He said the dragster could reach speeds of 170 mph in less than nine seconds.

"It's the people and the history that are here. It's a great track. It's where I grew up, as a kid. It's great to come back over and over again," said Anthony, a third-generation raceway aficionado. "I started with my family, my great-uncle and my dad raced. I grew up in the garage. Got hooked right away."

Anthony said racing is, at its fundamental levels, a family sport—while it's a pastime of adrenaline and the need for speed, at every track there's the car guys, but also spouses, cousins, uncles, nieces and nephews and children of all ages.

Giese echoed these sentiments, noting how racing is a family affair—both blood-related and the kind of family one finds on the track.

"The people, a lot of them are the same people," said Giese, 45, who's been a mainstay at the racetrack for decades and once worked for BIR when he was young. "It's just a big family here, it's awesome. The family never changes. That's terrific. "

In the stands sat Josh and Deb Hughes—the second trip to BIR for her, while he's been coming for about two decades. Josh Hughes said the racing at BIR represents a part of a larger, unifying experience.

"This is what dictates America—streetlight to streetlight racing. That's what I love about it," said Hughes, who noted that drag racing is heart-pounding and awe-inspiring, while remaining powerfully intimate. "This is something you can build in your own garage and hammer on the weekends."

Wanda Craig and Craig Erickson—both of Upsala—watched the drag racing carry on from the afternoon into the early evening.

"It's drag racing!" chimed in Erickson, who's been watching races for 40-50 years. What keeps bringing him back? "It's the access you have to everything here. There are no other types of races where you can get as close to the action quite like this."

Craig echoed Erickson, then noted a different kind of immediacy—those with the people in the thick of it.

"The pros, the amateur races—you get to know them," Craig said. "Knowing what the racers and the builders can do with their engines, it's impressive."

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