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Racing: Passion for racing drives Copham's ownership

Jed and Kristi Copham with their son, Aiden, talk to fans Sunday, Aug. 19, before final eliminations in the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals at Brainerd International Raceway. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Fans attending the 2006 Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals at Brainerd International Raceway were treated to an upset by Brandon Bernstein over Tony Schumacher and a win by Antron Brown in the Pro Stock Motorcycle finals.

They also experienced lines of up to two hours to get in to the track.

Fans also heard the announcement that Jed and Kristi Copham were the new owners of the track. The Cophams' lifetime love for racing provided momentum in making much needed changes to the track, and more than 10 years later, they are still building the racing brand at BIR.

"I started coming here in the mid '90s as a racing enthusiast and did some drag and road racing and always had a good time coming here," Jed Copham said. "If someone would have told me back then that I would own this place one day, I would actually have believed that. This place is such a part of me and where my passion lies.

"In 2006, we came in and I realized that I may have bit off a bit more than I can chew. But we identified problems from the beginning that we needed to address and the biggest one was the fan experience and getting in the gate.

"I remember being horrified at our first national event in 2006 at how things were done. Being a mechanical engineer by trade my goal all the time is to find an efficient way of doing things. When I started, I heard reports that it took two hours to get from the front gate to your seat and that was horrible. We looked at some other facilities and how they did things and we made some changes in parking and ticketing.

"We still have some issues but it is now night and day to what it was. You can get to your seats in about 15 minutes, but the front gate was my nemesis for many years."

The next item to address was to return BIR to its roots in 1968 when the track opened. BIR was then known as Donnybrooke and was built as a road course by George Montgomery.

"I started the drag racing and it is a passion, but I have developed a love of racing since we have owned the track," Jed Copham said. "BIR's road racing track had really fallen by the wayside, and my goal was to bring it back.

"The track was built in the '60s and there were no walls. That was a big undertaking to bring road racing back, but my family was committed to it. Turns 9 and 10 were a hazard and Turn 1 was way too fast. So we started looking at what we needed and that was a motorsports park. We came up with a plan for the competition course and we carved a new section for that so that now we have a safety barricade system and a top-notch track."

Copham said he sensed the NHRA leadership knew the new owners were passionate about the sport.

"I think the NHRA learned early on that I was an enthusiast and had a passion for the business," he said. "They were very receptive and even more receptive after the relationship with the previous owner."

The relationship with the NHRA has been a good one through the years for the Copham family and they have been able to adjust to the updates requested.

"They do ask for things and last year their list was extensive," Copham said. "The scoreboards were getting hard to see and they wanted us to have new ones, and that is a price that the track has to pay. We had to update our timing system and work with the asphalt and we have added a lot more paving so that cars and rigs can stay out of the dirt.

"We were also one of the few tracks that could have safely stayed at a quarter of a mile with our runoff and shutdown area at the end. At some other tracks, you can see those cars down into the catch net but it is a mass of destruction, where here that is not an issue."

As the track moves forward, Copham is focused on increasing enjoyment for the fans, and he also sees the potential of electric and driverless cars providing an entirely different fan experience.

"The overall customer enjoyment has been huge for us," he said. "We know people are here with us and they are spending their vacation dollars. We try to let them have as much fun as possible, but we also have to respect other people having fun, and handle that accordingly. But we get a lot of good comments, and when people are having a great experience, it makes it all worthwhile.

"Electric cars have a lot of potential in the future, and it does kind of excite me with where it can go. There is only so much you can do with the internal combustion engine, and the possibility of driverless racing with some death-defying stuff, ... you could do with that. You can use a track like this to breed those new innovations."

With the introduction of luxury garages, racing enthusiasts will have the opportunity for a year-round living experience at the track.

"When you talk about customer experience, there is nothing like our custom garages and a trackside living, where you could get access to the track," Copham said. "I think of this for a lot of people as their second home and we have a number of options. If you combine a cabin on the lake with a garage on the track, that is the ultimate. It is fairly new and we are just getting the word out but I am really excited about it."

Copham is close to completing track certification that will put BIR in position to host more classes of racing in the future. He's also committed to continuing to provide a safe environment for weekend drivers to experience the thrill of road and drag racing for years to come.

"At the end of the year, I am hoping to get an F1 Level 2 sanction and I have been trying to get that certification for 11 years," he said. "With that, we could run any event except for Formula One. Finding our next niche will be a challenge when you look at the marketing and putting together a purse. Ultimately the sky's the limit based on what you can put together.

"I love getting people behind the wheel and having fun. Instead of going to the driving range and hitting balls, we go to the track and burn rubber. There is nothing like it and once you learn how to performance drive, you can take things to another level."