BRAINERD, MINN. — The 480 students in Brainerd High School’s Class of 2020 were in the same predicament as seniors across the state of Minnesota: Formal graduation ceremonies that had been a celebration as American as apple pie were another casualty of “2019-nCoV.”
The pride that can come from these moments was reinforced last week when asking an interviewee when he had graduated from college. “Graduated in 2015, but I walked in 2016,” was the response.
The Walk. There was none in our spring of gorgeous weather and isolated misery, but a brilliant idea was hatched in Brainerd:
Kristi Copham, the owner of Brainerd International Raceway, called the principal and suggested seniors could be honored at the track. On the evening of May 22, balloons were sent skyward, the grads and their families lined up in vehicles, and then proceeded at a modest pace, being announced individually as they reached the starting line.
“Worked out perfect,” Copham said. “The grads and their families seemed to love it.”
That has been the largest event at BIR in 2020, before this weekend when the Trans Am Series for road racing arrives.
BIR was shut down as a nonessential business in April and May. The track was allowed to reopen June 1 with a limit of 250 spectators. This was too late or too restrictive to save another handful of events scheduled for June.
The Trans Am Series event scheduled for this weekend remained in doubt until the series was able to pull off its first race since March 1 on the last week of June in Lexington, Ohio.
Kristi’s husband, Jed, died from drowning in November 2018 on a family vacation to visit his parents, Dave and Cheryl, in Fort Myers, Fla. There was a Jed Copham Memorial Race last summer — not a Trans Am Series race, but as part of a Sports Car Club of America event.
“The Trans Am was Jed’s favorite race; he competed in it,” Kristi said. “Dave and Cheryl really wanted to have the Trans Am here to be the memorial race for Jed this summer.”
Kristi and her staff — limited but loyal — were able to get a Trans Am date for July 11-12. The support of Dave and Cheryl was able to make it a free Fan Appreciation weekend, with the Jed Copham Memorial Trans Am as the main event.
Problem was what to do to follow state guidelines for social distancing and crowds. Consultations with county officials and BIR’s massive size have led to this:
There are 220 acres among BIR’s 600 total that are attached to the racing circuit. Fencing abounds as the main road track twists for 2.5 miles. Much like Brainerd grads and their families were contained in vehicles in May, racing fans will be allowed to enter the track and follow a map to parking locations behind the fence.
“Look at this place,” Kristi said as we drove the road track Tuesday. “Social distancing is not a problem. We will have fans park behind a fence a good distance from another.”
The attendees will be instructed to stay in their groups when standing outside their vehicles. There will be concession stands set up that will take orders from drive-ups.
The only certainty in this is to be rooting for it to work, because Kristi Copham deserves a break.
Her husband was a radio guest of mine on three or four remotes at Cragun’s. He would show up in a rush around 5 p.m., in grimy garb from having spent a day pounding, wrenching, building, crawling, climbing to fix and improve things at BIR. Jed was a kid from a family with money, but at heart he was the proverbial grease monkey.
Kristi lost him in shocking fashion in November 2018, and described “being knocked off” her feet for three months. Then, she had a track business to run with right-hand man Dan Antrim and others, and the 2019 season was a success.
The potential for 2020 was greater, with the return of Trans Am and more use of the recently installed, expensive Pro Pad (an asphalt slab) for “drifting” and other attractions for younger racing audiences.
“We had more tickets sold for our biggest event, the Lucas Oil NHRA drag races, than any time since we bought the track in 2006,” Copham said. “The economy was rolling and people had money to spend.”
And now this fierce opponent. The drag races remain scheduled for Aug. 13-16, but limits on crowd size could make that event problematic.
“We’re just hoping to finally give race fans a safe, enjoyable weekend,” Kristi said of the Trans Am event. “Come to BIR and spread out because what we have here more than anything is room.”