Brainerd International Raceway in Minnesota has been re-establishing itself as a road racing venue in recent years, alongside its ever popular programme of drag racing.
The circuit now boasts two variations of its road course; the classic 3.1 mile Donneybrooke Course and the newer 2.5 mile Competition Course, the latter of which can be run at the same time as the drag strip is in use.
After a fallow period where drag racing was the biggest earner and took priority, under new ownership Brainerd has begun to attract road racing events once more, with MotoAmerica the highest profile, although the stop of of the SCCA Trans Am Championship is a highlight of the four-wheel action.
What do you do if you own a 427 Cobra but have nowhere to really let it stretch its legs? Well, if you live in 1960s Minnesota and your name is George Montgomery, the answer is simple; build your own racetrack.
So it was that the Northwest Airlines pilot began buying up plots of land near to the then-relatively small town of Brainerd. By 1967 he had acquired some 800 acres and set to work turning his dream into reality. Enlisting the help of SCCA Land O' Lakes Region founder Bill Peters Sr., together the pair began to plot out a course.
The major feature was a near one-mile main straight, followed immediately by a near flat-out sweeping first turn and an equally fast turn two; in one fell swoop the track claimed the longest straight and fastest corner of any road course in the USA. The rest of the circuit was plotted out around swamps and gulleys after the pair surveyed the land elevation and drainage and in 1967 construction began. Trees were cleared and soon the fast but flat 3.1-mile course emerged.
Montgomery chose to name the new circuit Donnybrooke Speedway, in tribute to two stalwart SCCA competitors who had been killed in separate accidents, Donny Skogmo and Brooke Kinnard. Opening for action in July 1968 with an NHRA Drag Race (utilising the main straight), a grand opening for road racing on the full course was held on August 10, featuring SCCA sportscars.
Can-Am and Trans Am and bike racing become regulars
Despite a paucity of facilities (there were no concessions stands or restrooms for spectators and the pit area remained basic, in fact there was pretty much just the track and a small control tower), Donnybrooke proved popular and soon began attracting more prestigious series. Soon Can-Am and Trans Am became regulars and there was even a one-off USAC Indycar Race in 1969. Al and Bobby Unser, AJ Foyt, Mario Andretti, Gordon Johncock and Dan Gurney were thus among the first 'pros' to lap the course in anger. Held over two heats, Johncock and Gurney ran out the winners.
The crowds soon came too, filling the infield and with a paucity of places to stay, swamping the roadsides and any areas they could to camp. Their sometimes rowdy behaviour didn't always go down to well with the townsfolk... Despite the good show on track and support from the crowds, the finances didn't stack up and, by 1972, the track was in crisis as the money ran out.
The circuit actually closed altogether for a short period until the whole facility was bought by noted amateur racer Jerry Hansen in 1973. He renamed the facility Brainerd International Raceway and installed a new management team, which soon began righting past wrongs; general manager Dick Roe would serve the track well for many years, while Mario Andretti was also a director for several decades.
Over time facilities were improved and the track thrived through the 1970s. The Trans-Am series was very popular among fans, and attracted racers like actor Paul Newman, who set a lap record in 1977 during the SCCA Nationals, won races in 1978 and 1979, and then won his first race as a professional at the track in 1982.
The road course also became a favourite for motorcycle racers. In 1982, superbikes came to town when BIR hosted the Honda Classic Camel Pro Series. Three-time 500cc world champion Wayne Rainey won the superbike final that first year and then repeated in 1986 and 1987. The renamed American Motorcycle Association Superbike Championships made Brainerd a regular part of its schedule and names such as Fred Merkel, Doug Chandler, Mat Mladin, Miguel Duhamel and Eric Bostrom all wowed the crowds.
In 1989, the motorcycling tradition developed further with the arrival of the World Superbike Championships. A revised Turn 9 was created at the insistence of the championship organisers; tighter and slower, it crucially helped divert riders away from the bridge abutment that otherwise awaited them on the exit of the original corner. The series stayed for two more years before venturing to pastures new.
New owner focuses on more lucrative drag events
By this point, the track's financial situation had deteriorated once again and in 1994 the course was sold to Michigan businessman Donald "The Colonel" Williamson. Under Williamson's tenure, Brainerd focused heavily on its drag racing schedule, to the consternation of many road racers who felt that they were treated very much as second-class citizens. It perhaps was not a real surprise however, when you consider the NHRA Nationals could draw in 100,000 spectators, becoming the largest annual sports events in the Upper Midwest in the process.
The road racing tradition largely disappeared at the venue, not helped by the heavy drag racing usage making the front straight tricky to race on in inclement conditions. Some may have given up hope on racing ever returning in any meaningful way. In 1999, Williamson fired Dick Roe and took day-to-day control of the track himself, no doubt helping to fuel the schism with the road racing community.
Road racing revival begins with Competition Course
However, in 2006, Williamson sold Brainerd to Jed and Kristi Copham and a revival began. The couple had previously tried to establish a 'country club' style track nearby, but the project fell prey to a vocal opposition group and the Cophams decided to explore whether BIR might be for sale. A deal was eventually struck and the new owners began mending fences with a view to returning road racing, karting and a driving school to the facility.
In 2008, construction began on the new 2.5-mile Competition Road Course. This uses the back half of the original track, minus the long straight. Crucially, this allows road racing and drag events to take place simultaneously, boosting earning potential and solving the issue of the slippery track surface of the drag staging area. Most weekends now see a combination of activities taking place on both tracks. In a nod to the circuit's history, the full 3.1-mile course is now referred to as the Donnybrooke Course when used, though largely this is for track days and school use, with all racing now concentrated on the shorter variant.
BIR now hosts national-level SCCA races, including Trans Am (again bringing back memories of days of old), and more recently has attracted top level motorcycle action in the form of MotoAmerica, supplemented by the CRA-sponsored motorcycle races. While not yet quite back to its heyday, Brainerd is at least back on the road racing map and with a seemingly bright future ahead.