For race fans that have visited Brainerd International Raceway recently, it’s difficult to imagine the facility in 1968 when George Montgomery carved a three-mile racetrack through a wooded area on the south side of North Long Lake.
Back then, there were no concrete safety barriers, run-out areas, grandstands, condominiums, food vendors, ticket offices or even restrooms. The facility was nothing more than the track and a very small race “tower,” located in the northwoods that was far from being the vibrant vacation destination and commercial hub that is representative of the Brainerd Lakes Area now.
But Donnybrooke Speedway quickly started developing its reputation as a world-class motorsports facility, attracting some of the most popular racing circuits and the biggest names in drag racing, road racing and, eventually, snocross.
In its early years, the track was primarily known for its road racing, which was the focus of Jerry Hansen, who bought the track in 1973 and named it Brainerd International Raceway. Hansen was the winningest amateur driver in the Sports Car Club of America history. In 1974, the SCCA Uncola Nationals attracted 17,000 fans.
Throughout those early years, BIR continued to attract rising stars in motorsports. NASCAR’s Ken Schrader and Jimmy Spencer were among those who raced at BIR, as well as Indy 500 racers Danny Ongais, Tom Sneva, Bobby Unser and Al Unser.
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 Uncola Nationals, won races in 1978 and 1979, and then won his first race as a professional here in 1982.
The road course also became a favorite 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 in1986 and 1987.
Superbike racing quickly became very popular among fans, and attracted the top riders in the world over the years. Renamed the American Motorcycle Association Superbike Championships, the series made BIR a regular stop during most of the next 25 years, giving fans a chance to see racers like Fred Merkel, Doug Chandler, Mat Mladin, Miguel Duhamel and Eric Bostrom.
Although road racing was BIR’s focus for the first decade, drag racing gradually became more prominent at the track. The first drag race was in 1969, when the National Hot Rod Association brought its regional points race to BIR’s mile-long straightaway that still doubles as a drag strip today. In 1977, BIR made a significant investment in drag racing by hosting the Crown Auto Funny Car Championship and the Crown Auto Winston Points Championship.
In the first Funny Car Championship, Don “The Snake” Prudhomme took home the championship but was beat the following year by Tom Hoover. By the third year, the event attracted 22,000 fans.
With motorsports gaining popularity through the 1980s, BIR began to make major improvements to the facilities, including grandstands, VIP suites and a concessions arcade. In 1982, when the Met Stadium in Bloomington was tore down, BIR acquired its bleachers in preparation for its newest drag racing event, the Quaker State NorthStar Nationals.
More than 50,000 fans attended the inaugural NorthStar Nationals as they watched Shirley Muldowney win the Top Fuel Dragster finals and Mark Oswald set a world speed record of 256.41 mph in his Top Fuel Dragster. Other winners in the early years of that event were Kenny Bernstein, John Force, Jim Head, and Joe Amato, the winningest Top Fueler in NHRA history, who won at BIR in 1983, 1984, 1988 and 1989.
The NorthStar Nationals eventually became the NHRA Nationals, the largest annual sports events in the Upper Midwest. Attracting over 100,000 people for the weekend, BIR is a favorite stop for the race teams, the NHRA and fans alike mainly because it’s the only track on the NHRA circuit with on-site camping – The Zoo.
BIR has come a long way since its modest beginnings in 1968. Its colorful history and world-class racing has helped put Brainerd on the map, and continues to do so annually. Under its current ownership – Jed and Kristi Copham purchased BIR in 2006 – there’s a renewed commitment to offering a wide variety of racing for fans.