Overseeing what amounts to a city -- about 600 acres of Brainerd International Raceway with a weekend population of 100,000 -- wasn’t what Kristi Copham ever expected to do on her own.
Copham, who took a break between appointments to talk earlier this month, was thrust into the role after her husband and high school sweetheart Jed Copham died in a swimming accident in Florida in November. He was 46, not an age when a spouse plans to suddenly lose a husband and father of their two children. In addition to the personal loss, Kristi Copham also found herself in the rarefied air of being a woman running a NHRA race track.
The workload involved has come with a benefit of keeping her mind busy, Copham said, as she prepared for the start of BIR premiere event the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals.
After the tragedy, Copham said there never really was a thought of not continuing. There have been frustrating days, but Copham said “for the most part I don’t know that I ever considered walking away.
“I had been here with him everyday through this whole thing, I knew, I just never really planned on doing it myself.”
Copham, who had never been to Brainerd before BIR came up for sale, said she wouldn’t have purchased a racetrack on her own, but she grew to love it. Right from the beginning, the people -- fans and racers -- meant the most to Copham.
“I’ve gotten to know these people so well. I know their families. I know their kids, I know their grandkids. You drive around and there’s not very many people at our muscle car series or bracket series that I don’t know them by first name. It would be hard to walk away from that,” she said. “It would be very hard to walk away from that.”
Focusing on her two children, Alyssa, now 18, and Ayden,13, Copham was also faced with managing all parts of BIR after her husband died, Copham said in January she started meeting with friends with businesses of similar revenue and put together a team she consulted with weekly for two or three months. She still stays in contact with them. She said a good friend she knew growing up, who sought her help in the past, called her right away to offer assistance and that gave her the idea to get a team to help as well. They went through files and tried to learn as much as they could.
They went through contracts and different aspects of the business her husband handled and they hadn’t needed to pay attention to before. Winters are typically spent on contracts and lining everything up for the coming busy months once the snow departs. They went through everything they could put their hands on before the racing season started and contacted people. Even for regular staffers it was a learning curve to pick up things Jed handled himself. He kept sticky notes and paper everywhere and worked off much of the knowledge he had in his memory. A saving grace was finding a book Jed kept with detailed notes, photos and drawings of how the racetrack should be set up for Nationals.
“I’m very thankful for that book right now,” She said.
Copham credits the team around her, established with their years of ownership, for helping her through the process and the help of the NHRA, friends and the racing community. She’s putting in 12-14 hours a day leading up to the Nationals.
“We have the team in place here,” Copham said of everything from the chief financial officer to ticketing manager, operations and maintenance to security. “The people definitely make this easier. If we were starting over I would be in trouble for sure trying to figure it out from scratch.
“When we took over the track in ‘06 it was a big feat for us to take over.”
When the Cophams bought BIR in 2006, their entrance as owners was a relief to racing fans who feared the drag racing and road course may end, silencing the speedway’s legacy that began in 1968. Jed Copham was a mechanical engineer and an amateur road racer with a passion for cars. His heart was in the road course.
"The sky's the limit really to what we can do," Jed Copham told a crowd gathered at the track on a blistering hot July afternoon, a day after the purchase was announced in 2006. "I want this place to be a world-class facility -- that's my goal."
Their main goals, to increase safety by splitting the road course from a shared section of the drag strip into two separate tracks and to increase the amenities and make improvements to the facility, were accomplished. There were two last pieces of the puzzle, Copham said. One piece was 7 acres of asphalt completed recently, which will allow the NHRA to put their professionals together instead of having them separated on either side of the facility, making it difficult to move through the crowds. The work started on this major piece, which almost doubled the pro pad, in the fall after the track closed for the season and as soon as the thaw went out they were working on getting it going in the spring.
The additional asphalt pad also means more drivers have options for two other raceway events -- drifting and autocross -- as the track will now be able to handle both at the same time. Copham said this will hopefully mean more spectators because of that ability.
And now all the professional drivers will use the return road that goes in front of the grandstand, where previously some, like Pro Stock, needed to use a road that took them away from the fans.
“So now the winners, everybody comes in front of the grandstand with all the spectators so it is a big deal to get them all to come back that way,” Copham said.
For spectators, another benefit comes in having all the pits in one area to avoid a sometimes complicated walk, including a tunnel, to gain access.
Copham said they are still working to get the road course fenced to move it to the next level of certification, which would put the road course ready for all levels just below Formula One racing.
Getting that designation is a big deal, Copham said, and not easy to get, noting it means a lot of fencing, walls and tire bundles. Getting that designation was the very last thing on their checklist, Copham said. Formula One racing is the only style of racing BIR can’t accommodate.
Not surprisingly, Nationals generates two-thirds of BIR’s revenue. The business is more than the track itself with 200 acres of camping with areas slated specifically for families, a playground, a driving school, band stage, and Wheelie Bar and Grille, along with 164 full-service recreational sites, shower trailers, and in-field deluxe condominiums. The raceway employs 15 full-time, year-round staff members with 35 seasonal staff and more than 300 temporary workers for Nationals.
Sunday, Aug. 18, Jed Copham will be remembered with a moment of silence before the national anthem. The Nationals are dedicated to him. Fox will also produce a piece on Jed.
For the next year, Copham said she wants to work on improving things, updates to the bathrooms, facilities around the track, construction of a large storage building, insulating the driving school.
Copham sees more and more families at BIR, kids by the campfires hanging out and junior dragsters coming back to the track. She’s driven a racecar but not in competition and likes taking her vehicle out on the road course as a stress reliever. She’s moving past the early days when a security person wouldn’t let her in until someone came out to say it might be a good idea since she owned the place.
So how does Copham describe BIR?
“This place is just something you have to see, you really just have to see it,” she said. “My favorite thing is bringing here for the first time somebody at Nationals and watch the expression on their face. It really is. ‘You’ve never been here before? You should follow me then’ … because the expression on their face is priceless when they’ve never seen a Top Fuel go down.”