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“Paul Newman was here and Jacky Stewart, you name it.  The top drivers had been through here and raced on this track so it has a lot of history."


Brainerd International Raceway

by Ziva Allen


biraerialcBrainerd International Raceway, located in Brainerd, Minnesota, has a rich history going back to 1968 with its very first race and to 1969 with its first and only Indy Car race.  Brainerd has hosted some of the top drivers from around the world.  During its heyday, according to Gary Curtis, Owner and Director of BIR Performance Driving School, Brainerd “was a who’s who of racecar drivers.  We had everything from Indy car and Formula 500, the Cam Am, and the Trans Am Series.  All those top series back in the day,” he reminisces.  Curtis recalls the times when “Paul Newman was here and Jacky Stewart, you name it.  The top drivers had been through here and raced on this track so it has a lot of history.  And it’s a history that a lot of the younger people don’t even realize or understand and don’t appreciate at all.  Probably one of the only other tracks right now that has some of that rich history would be Sebring.  I’ve raced Sebring a number of times so I always felt that history when I was there.  Every day I’m at BIR, I feel that history surrounding me here on the track.  I think it’s one of those types of things that sometimes people take for granted or just quite frankly don’t even understand.” 

Curtis started back in the late 1960s racing motorcycles and up until 1978 he raced professionally.  Curtis then transitioned from motorcycles to racing cars and raced everything from open wheel to sports cars, eventually winning the Panoz GT Pro Lemans Series in 2001.  During this time, Curtis started the performance driving school at BIR and was fortunate enough to be in the position to have others help him run the school while he was travelling and pursuing his racing.  Finally, in 2001, Curtis retired from professional racing and devoted his time solely to his high performance driving school.

Curtis, like most other people we have spoken to in the motorsports industry, says that he sees the HPDE hobby growing.  “My business increases every year.  Even with the downturn of the economy, my business has flourished.  Every year it gets bigger and bigger.  I think that people maybe have gotten sick of the doom and gloom that the media puts out there.  Or they’re more aware of things happening on the road or there seems to be worse drivers every day.  It gets worse and worse out there as far as drivers and what they do at my performance school actually lends itself to better driving on the street.”

The school is now in its 22nd year.  BIR runs several different types of schools but the main school is the performance driving school and, according to Curtis, “that allows people to come drive either one of our cars, a spec racer Ford, or they can drive their own vehicle.  Eighty to 85% of the people who come to BIR drive their own vehicles.  On a typical day continues Curtis, “I have everybody get here by 7:15/7:30 in the morning.  We do an SUV ride with pretty high speeds to basically bring to light what I will be talking about in the classroom.  The classroom lasts for about an hour and fifteen minutes.”  Following the classroom session, the students make their way to the track.  For those renting a spec car, they will engage in lead/follow laps for about 25 minutes.  Curtis explains that they are sure to maintain speeds that are at a comfortable level for the students’ skill set.  For the students who are driving their own cars, an instructor will ride with them for a number of laps until the student feels good and the instructor feels good about their skill set.  And then they’re allowed to drive alone up to six 25 minute sessions in one day.  Curtis emphasizes that the student will get “as much help as they want or need from any one of us.”

BIR has two tracks that are used during the season for instructional purposes.  The students start off their day with the two and a half mile track in the morning andbirschoolbig440x261c then transfer to the three mile track in the afternoon.  The two and a half mile track is referred to as the competition track and then the three mile track is referred to as the Donnybrook track because that’s what the track was called from 1968 through 1972 before the name changed in 1973 to Brainerd International Raceway.  “We kind of kept part of that Donnybrook name for historical value,” says Curtis.

According to Curtis, the three mile track has the longest straightaway and the two fastest turns in all of North America.  The front straight is just short of a full mile and so it can be somewhat intimidating when new students get out there because some are going to be faster than others.  Says Curtis, “You get a ZR1 corvette that is capable of nearly 170 miles an hour by the end of that front straight.  And then you might get a Dodge Neon SRT-4 out there so understandably there is a difference in closing speeds and so for that reason and a few others, I start out the day with the two and a half mile course.  Turn 1 runs at a very high speed.  It’s big at about nine degrees.  With our spec racers, after a couple of sessions up here, most students would be able to go flat out through there at 135 miles an hour because of the banking.  Some may never be able to do that but turn two is the same radius and it’s a flat turn.  There’s no banking and it can be very challenging.  So that’s another reason we tend to start out with the two and a half mile track.”

BIR is a large school, with 64 instructors on staff.  The staff of instructors are quite varied.  The BIR website (birperformance.com) lists the bios and profiles of most of the instructors.  They range from top amateur racing to professional racing as well as law enforcement guys on staff who work in the law enforcement training and anti-terrorism programs.  One of the instructors was even with the secret service and another worked with the United States private security company Black Water.  Additionally, they’ve got state troopers, sheriff deputies, and professional racers.  All of the instructors are very accomplished and excellent drivers and Curtis feels that he does a very good vetting process and chooses his instructors wisely.  “Anybody that I bring onboard is good.  Not only with their skill sets but how they work with students as well,” says Curtis. 

There are plenty of instructors to help students as much as they want or need throughout the day.  Curtis requires all students to go through the classroom portion at least their first or second time there.  After that, they can forego the classroom and get right out on the track with their run group.  The student will continue to have an instructor in the car with them.  For some people it might be a full session that an instructor is with them, for others it could be half a day.  This depends on the student’s skill sets because, as Curtis maintains, “Safety obviously is our number one concern.  But we still want people to be able to go at the speed that they are comfortable with.”

birteencBut the high performance driving school is only one of a number of schools that BIR has.  Curtis says, “I also train law enforcement.  I’m only one of three in the state that’s registered to train law enforcement that are required once every five years to take a course like we offer here.  And we go through everything.  We do high speed pursuit.  We teach them to maneuver, such as learning the pit maneuver.  When you watch T.V. and you watch one of the cop shows or you watch news from California, it’s always almost every night in the news where the police officer or trooper is coming up behind the bad guy and nudging him or you know hitting the back end of the vehicle and spinning the car out.  That’s called a pit maneuver or pursuit intervention technique.  And we teach that and all the other things that they’re required to brush up on once every five years.

“Then I also do a very advanced teen school where we actually teach the teens how to drive.  In fact, a lot of the same things that we’re teaching law enforcement folks, we’re teaching the teens.  We don’t teach the teens the high speed pursuit or the maneuvering but we do teach them skid pad and what to do when they get two wheels off the road surface.  What we’re trying to do is turn their thinking into an unconscious competence mindset.  In other words, get them to the point where they don’t have to think about it.  I also do an anti-terrorism/anti-kidnapping school.  I also have a full-on racing licensing school.  And we do a lot of private and corporate events as well.”

With all of the many different schools and events that take place at BIR, Curtis is most proud of their teen school.  Having participated in a lot of trade shows, Curtis has had lots of opportunities to engage with folks in his community and around.  Curtis relays a very rewarding moment he experienced recently at a Minneapolis show.  It was a nine day show and a lot of folks came through.  There were a lot of kids and parents of kids who have attended Curtis’ teen program.  “At one point I was standing there talking to a group of folks and right in mid-conversation, this guy kind of brushes up to me, grabs my arm pretty hard and, you know kinda’ interrupts what I’m doing and he’s very emotional and looks at me right in the eye and he says, ‘you saved my daughter’s life.’  And then he proceeded to explain the situation where his daughter got into a slide and counter-steered and then back and forth and got the car in control and stopped them going over into a ravine and her best friend was a passenger and turned to her and says, ‘We would have died if I had been driving.  How did you know how to do that?’  And she said, ‘well I learned it at the BIR Teen School.’  And so all these people were slack-jawed standing around hearing this conversation and the father had tears welling up in his eyes and you know I got a lump in my throat.  But it’s not the first time I’ve heard those types of things so we know we’re making a difference.  We know we’re saving lives and if you took a poll of all my instructors, every one of them would, without a doubt, say the most rewarding thing that they do here as far as our schools is definitely the teen school.” 

In addition to running the teen school program, every other Wednesday night during the summer, BIR hosts what they call Street Legal Craze.  In fact, one of thebirclassroomc guys who is very involved with the weekly event is an ex-state trooper.  This event is a street legal drag race where, Curtis says, “we get these kids off the street.  They get the chance to get that need for speed fulfilled here at the track safely.  And for only $25 they can come and run – you know in the old days – run what you brung – so we get everything from motorcycles to snow mobiles with wheels, full-fledged drag cars to regular street cars.  Everything you can imagine.  The turnout is huge.  It’s getting bigger and bigger.  You know you can see 150, maybe 200 cars here on any given Wednesday night now.  And so it’s very popular.  And again, we know that’s saving lives as well.  It’s keeping these kids off the street and getting, as I said, their need for speed fulfilled here at the track in a safe environment.” 

Over the years, Curtis has seen an increase in women HPDE participants.  And he is proud to say that “we make it very comfortable.  We specialize in getting new drivers.  I have a lot of repeat customers and a lot of advanced drivers but you know the biggest hurdles for most drivers, men and women, is that feeling of ‘I am going to come up there and I’m going to be the only new person there.  I’m going to be sitting there in the classroom and everybody’s going to be kind of looking at me as the newbie and so on.’  But, no, it’s quite the opposite here.  In fact, the very first thing I do when I start the class is I ask, ‘how many of you are here for the first time?’  My class size averages around 75 people.  And yet about 50% to 60% of the room raise their hand.  And it’s the same thing for women.  When they come out here, obviously they’re feeling like ‘oh these guys are going to be fast’ and so on and so forth.  We make them feel very comfortable very quickly.  And the word is spreading - we never push anybody to go any faster than what they have a comfort level for and skill set for and we are unbelievably patient with anybody who comes up here and that’s rewarding in the end both for men and women drivers because they’re going to advance more quickly more comfortably that way.  So yeah the word is spreading that women are certainly treated well and they can feel comfortable and not feel like outsiders.”

birfacilities400x393c“I think the biggest thing that we want to get across is that anybody can come to this school and learn something and feel comfortable learning it,” says Curtis who goes on to say, “obviously we’re here for people to drive at a high speed but that doesn’t mean that, as I said earlier, that we’re going to get in the car and say, ‘come on you gotta’ go faster.’  No, it’s smoothness and technique.  And if there’s any word that people are going to hear ad nauseum, it’s going to be ‘smoothness’ and again that transfers over to your daily driving.  And so that comfort level is what we want people to understand that we provide here and that doesn’t mean that the most talented driver you can think of wouldn’t get something out of coming to one of our track days or school days because we’re also going to be able to help those people as well doing maintenance and coaching.  In fact, I’m going down to Alabama at the end of this month to coach a driver in the World Challenge Series so we can help anybody.  I don’t care what level they are - from beginner to top pro.  We’re here to support and to help any driver who wants to get out and drive in performance mode.”

The town of Brainerd is known for its beautiful lakes and camping grounds and is a very popular resort destination.  In addition to BIR’s on-site condominiums and on-site camp grounds for rent during your track stay, you can also choose to stay at any one of the many area resorts.  Keep in mind that Brainerd opens its track seasonally due to the area’s weather limitations.  In fact, the day in April that Auto TrackDay Monthly interviewed Curtis, he said, “Right now it’s near blizzard conditions.”  Generally, BIR’s first performance driving school of the season is in early May with this year’s first event being on May 5th.  They are holding their last event this year on October 6th.  As Curtis says, “you go much past the second week in October and you’re risking snow, rain, sleet or all of the above.”  So plan your next HPDE road trip accordingly and hurry and get to BIR while the winter freeze has thawed!



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