Brainerd International Raceway owner Jed Copham died Sunday, Nov. 11, as a result of a swimming accident off the coast of Florida.
He was 46.
Copham was swimming from his parents' boat Sunday afternoon near Punta Rassa, just south of Fort Myers, Fla., when he went missing. Search and rescue teams temporarily suspended their efforts to find Copham Sunday night after he went overboard, and found his body Monday morning.
Lee County deputies haven't released more details. Witnesses, however, said an anchored yacht seemed to be the center of the search.
Crime scene tape blocked off the Punta Rassa boat ramp while others on the water were directed away from the area of concern, witnesses said.
"This is a tragic and sad day for Brainerd International Raceway, the entire racing community and the Brainerd lakes area," BIR spokesman Geoff Gorvin said in a news release. "Everyone here is still in shock and trying to make sense out of it. Our heartfelt sympathies go out to Jed's wife, Kristi, his two children, his parents and his extended family.
"Jed was the face of BIR and spared no expense to improve the track, the infrastructure and the entire experience at BIR. Nobody championed motorsports like Jed did. He worked tirelessly to make sure BIR was a safe and challenging place to race, a fun place to watch racing and a welcoming place with many opportunities to try your hand at racing."
A passionate racer and a popular figure at BIR with fans and racers alike, Copham along with wife Kristi bought the 600-acre BIR complex in 2006 from Sports International Inc. of Michigan, which owned the facility since 1994. The purchase was just 10 days before the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals-the single largest race at BIR each year with more than 100,000 fans through the gates.
During his ownership, Copham's focus was always to improve the track and safety systems for racers while exposing fans to a variety of exciting motorsports, the release stated. His greatest achievement was building a section of track separating BIR's road course from the drag strip. The original 3.1-mile, 10-turn road course built in 1968 had a mile-long straightaway used for drag racing. But the track could only be configured for a single type of racing, either drag racing or road racing.
The new section of track created a 2.5-mile, 13-turn road course, allowing BIR to offer drag racing and road racing simultaneously, which was the case for most of the events on the racing schedule each year. Fans buy a single ticket and can watch either type of racing or both.
The new track, called the Competition Road Course, is certified to host nearly every level of road racing except Formula One.
Copham also sought to improve the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals in August. One of his primary goals was to get fans to their seats as efficiently as possible. Traditionally, cars lined up for miles on the shoulder of Highway 371 as fans waited to get through the front gates and park. A new ticketing system and relocated ticket booths greatly improved traffic flow and kept cars off the highway.
Behind the wheel, Copham was a fearless racer himself. Growing up in Forest Lake, he started drag racing and road racing at BIR in the mid-1990s. As owner, he continued to race in many of the events at BIR, including Sports Car Club of America races, International Watercross Association races (snowmobiles racing on open water) and endurance races.
He also held his own against professional racers each year during BIR's Trans Am Series. A year ago, he hauled his Corvette to Daytona International Speedway in Florida to compete in the Trans Am Series' final race of the season. Unfortunately, he crashed his car during practice laps.
Copham loved to ride snowmobiles and was excellent on stand-up Jet Skis, pulling backflips and other maneuvers. He could be found each spring on the surf off Daytona Beach with other Jet Skiers.
Copham is survived by his wife Kristi, daughter Alyssa, son Ayden and parents, Dave and Cheryl Copham.
The NHRA extended its condolences to Copham's family and friends.
"On behalf of everyone at NHRA, our thoughts and prayers go out to Kristi, their two children and all of those in the racing community that knew and worked alongside Jed," said NHRA President Glen Cromwell in a news release. "Twelve years ago, Jed and Kristi took over what has now become one of the more legendary race tracks on the NHRA national event circuit. Because of his passion and his own drive to race performance vehicles, the customer experience was vital to Jed. He knew how to put himself in the shoes of both BIR's patrons and participants.
"The NHRA has been thoroughly impressed with the many improvements made to the facility in recent years, including more efficient ingress, improved ticketing operations, new scoreboards and more asphalt for parking to name a handful.
"A true racing enthusiast at heart, Jed often looked forward to the future of the sport and innovations in racing. We appreciate all of the ideas and forward thinking that Jed has brought to NHRA Championship Drag Racing and will miss him dearly."