Auto Racing: BIR hoping to put 2020 in its rearview mirror

The decision to cancel the NHRA Lucas Oil Nationals has Brainerd International Raceway reeling.

With Samantha Watkins in the passenger seat and professional NHRA drag racer Matt Sackman driving, a dragster launches off the starting line Friday, Aug. 21, at Brainerd International Raceway. With the absence of the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals, the track ownership keeps the facility busy with special events such driving a 10 second dragster or riding along with a professional by The track is also home to SCCA racing, proving grounds drifting, motorcycle racing, car shows, NAPA Street Legal drag racing and muscle car shootouts. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Seventy-five percent.

That’s how much of the annual income budgeted by Brainerd International Raceway was whipped off the books when the track decided to postpone the NHRA Lucas Oil Nationals event that was originally scheduled for Aug. 14-16 in Brainerd.

The hope was to reschedule the event in September but track owner Kristi Copham believes that’s a pipe dream.

Not enough has changed with the restrictions that forced her original decision earlier this year. In the press release concerning the postponement, Copham said

“Our first and foremost concern is the health and safety of our fans, vendors, staff and race teams,” she said. “We’re looking at this from every angle imaginable to figure out a way to put on a safe show for our fans, who deserve their annual dose of NHRA racing. I’m on the phone almost daily with state and county officials who have been generous with their time in working with us to figure out how we can host Nationals this season, which is so important to the regional economy and our fans.”


On Thursday she said Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz’s executive orders made it too difficult to offer on-site camping and because of the track layout made it hard to social distance.

“Mainly it was the restrictions that were put into place by the governor of the state that stopped us from having it,” Copham said. “NHRA is having events at other facilities, but we were not able to comply with the current restrictions on people. We really had no choice but to cancel.”

The NHRA has had 10 events canceled this season across the country and three more postponed, including BIR.

Copham said the NHRA charges a “hefty” sanction fee to even step foot onto the BIR property and there wouldn’t have been any way to recoup that fee without fans.

“Absolutely not,” she said. “We never would have made it up.”

In the place of nationals was the Brainerd 10K bracket national, which saw Brad Koivisto and Cole Casteel each win $10,000.

Copham called it a fun event that was helped by many sponsors to create the larger purse. She said there were 250 cars racing, but it wasn’t the same as seeing more than 100,000 people camping and cheering for the annual Lucas Oil event. Copham called it eerie.

“It really was,” said Copham. “Standing out there in the evening and not seeing all the people and even in the daytime with how busy we should have been and how quiet it was. It was eerie. It was for everybody. It was very sad in this time to not be having such a large event for everyone.”


While it was sad for fans, the cancellation is crippling for operations at BIR. When asked what the outcome for the remainder of the year might be and what can be done next year to help offset the loss, Copham didn’t have an answer.

“I wish I knew the answer to that,” she said. “What I would say on the record and off the record are two totally different things at this point. I just don’t know. The only thing that will help is if I can get spectators back at BIR.”

While 2020 has been a troubling year for many and for multiple reasons, BIR must feel like it’s been in a one-sided boxing match.

It’s Drift Bash scheduled for April 18-19 was canceled. The Nord Stern Porsche Club of America April 24-26 canceled. The NAPA Street Legals April 29 canceled. The CRA Superbike Racing May 8-10 canceled. Bracket Drag Racing and PDS Private Event and Slowpokes May 15-17 canceled. Napa Street Legals May 20 canceled. The 12th annual Street Car Showdown May 22-24 canceled. The Wet and Wild Weekend June 5-7 had no spectators. The MAP Proving Grounds June 12-14 had no spectators. Bracket Drag Racing and CRA Superbike racing had no spectators. Bracket Drag Racing and CRA Superbikes July 17-19 had no spectators. Lakes Jam scheduled for Aug. 5-8 canceled. Thunder at the Lakes Aug. 13-14 canceled.

“If I can’t figure this out then I’m looking at taking out a loan in order to operate and then I’ll spend the next few years paying that back before I make it back to where we were,” Copham said.

BIR does have a contract with NHRA that lasts another three years and talks will resume to lengthen that agreement. The Lucas Oil Nationals will be back and Copham hopes they come back bigger and better than ever.

“People will be so excited to go, I think, we’ll be able to put on quite a show once we’re allowed to have attendance back,” she said.

“People aren’t upset about BIR, thank goodness,” Copham said. “They know and they understand that we would definitely have it if we could. We look forward to having everyone back, but it’s just not going to happen until we can have spectators.”


Copham said she knows the ramifications the cancellation has on other area businesses, too. She said grocery stores, hotels, liquor stores and other businesses were likely hurt from the lack of people attending the NHRA event although she has not heard from any other business owners. She said on the flipside, trying to handle the extra people with the current restrictions on social distancing might have been too much for everyone to handle.

“I’m almost to the point, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m ready for this year to just be over,” Copham said. “Let’s start planning for next season and hope for a better season for us and everyone involved. We’re going to do what we can to stay in business and stay afloat for this season, but we’re ready to end 2020. BIR will be in trouble if we have to go through another season like this.”

JEREMY MILLSOP may be reached at 218-855-5856 or Follow on Twitter at
Covering the Brainerd lakes area sports scene for the past 23 years.
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