Trans Am Series, BIR celebrate 51 years of history

When the Trans Am Series rolls into Brainerd International Raceway this weekend, 51 years will have passed since the series first entertained race fans here.

That was in 1969. During the next 20 years, the series featured some of the top drivers in the sport as well as a few celebrities who battled on BIR’s 3.1-mile road course. That first race was won by the legendary Parnelli Jones, who had won the Indy 500 in 1963 and was the first Indy driver to break 150 mph, which he did during qualifying for the 1962 race.

The Trans Am Series and BIR will make history again this weekend during BIR’s FREE Fan Appreciation Weekend. The series will team up with the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) to provide two full days for great racing action. It’s the first spectator event of the season for BIR because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the track got creative with the restrictions, providing a drive-in style event where fans can watch from their vehicles. Sunday’s action will be covered by live streaming, using the Trans Am Series’ free app. Sunday’s action includes a pair of 100-mile, 40-lap races, the second of which is the Jed Copham Memorial Race, in honor of the late BIR owner who died tragically in 2018.

Twin Citian Jim Derhaag before his first Trans Am race at BIR in 1981.

The early years of the Trans Am Series attracted a long and impressive list of drivers, but the one who drew the most attention was actor Paul Newman, who had been racing in Sports Car Club of America races at BIR since the 1970s. He set a lap record in 1977, then won here the following two years. In 1982, he moved up to the professional ranks, choosing BIR’s Trans Am Series race to debut as a pro. He wasted no time finding the Winner’s Circle, after driving his No. 33 Datsun 280ZX Turbo to his first professional win that day.

Other drivers who competed in the Trans Am Series at BIR include Mark Donahue, David Hobbs, legendary stock car driver Dick Trickle and former BIR owner Jerry Hansen, who won the event in 1975 and 1978. Former U.S. Olympian and 1976 decathlon gold medalist Bruce Jenner raced in the series as well.

Twin Cities racer Jim Derhaag started competing in the Trans Am Series in 1981 and hasn’t missed a race at BIR since, even when the series took BIR off its schedule after 1989. The series returned to BIR in 2010 and Derhaag was behind the wheel, eventually transitioning from driver to team owner and crew chief but not before he set Trans Am Series records for most top 10 finishes, consecutive starts, total starts and laps completed. Some of those records still stand today. Although he no longer owns Derhaag Motorsports, the team will sponsor Simon Gregg in the TA class this weekend.

Jim Gray is another Twin Cities racer who will be on the track this weekend, sponsored by Ryan Companies. Gray is racing in the TA2 class.

Gates open at 7 a.m. Saturday and Sunday. Admission and parking are free. Limited camping is available on a first-come, first-served basis. Saturday’s schedule includes practice and qualifying sessions, with SCCA racing in the afternoon. Sunday’s schedule starts with practice and qualifying, followed by the first 100-mile race at 11:15 p.m. and the Jed Copham Memorial Race at 1:35 p.m.