UW-Stout alum John “Jed” Copham, who had a passion for racing cars and motorsports, was the owner of Brainerd International Raceway in Brainerd, Minn., when he died in 2018.
Jed graduated from UW-Stout in 1997 with a bachelor’s degree in industrial technology.
Beginning with the 2022-23 academic year, three students in engineering and technology programs each will receive a $5,000 scholarship. A professor from the same department will receive summer pay and other financial support for an approved professional development experience, with a priority in motorsports or automobile research.
“It means a lot to me to be able to do something to help other people and honor him,” Mae said. “We miss him a ton. No one will ever fill that hole, but it feels appropriate to remember him by helping others achieve their dreams.”
Mae wanted to use funds generated from the sale of the family business, Liberty Check Printers based in Shoreview, Minn., to make a substantial donation to an organization connected to Jed.
“Jed was a big reason our family business was successful. He worked there for 20 years starting from age 13 and contributed so much creativity and resourcefulness to the operations,” she said.
With his engineering background, Jed helped design several mechanical improvements that were integral to the company’s success. He contributed to three patents that his dad received.
“He was always inventing things with my dad to make the process better,” Mae said, such as a machine to automate the process of printing the numbers at the bottom of the checks. “He had what we called magic hands. He’d make it work.
“The joke was, at Christmas, Dad would put things together and Jed would fix them,” she said, adding that at 7 years old Jed took a watch apart and put it back together.
“He was plain-spoken but a genius at how things worked,” Mae said.
Living out his passion as track owner
Jed’s real passion, however, was motorsports, including racing motocross cycles in high school and competitive drag racing in Brainerd while in college. He had a chance to live out that passion when his family, from Forest Lake, Minn., sold Liberty Check Printers in 2005.
In 2006, Jed and his wife, Kristi, bought the iconic Brainerd International Raceway.
At BIR, Jed was in his element. He made major improvements that solidified the 600-acre facility as one of the best in the Upper Midwest, where tens of thousands of spectators are not uncommon for large NHRA — National Hot Rod Association — events.
The track also hosts drag racing, superbike racing, endurance events, car shows and more.
In a Brainerd Dispatch story a decade after he bought the track, Jed said, “ “If someone would have told me back then that I would own this place one day, I would actually have believed that. This place is such a part of me and where my passion lies.”
He was a hands-on owner, cleaning restrooms, mowing the lawn — whatever it took to get the job done and improve the driver and spectator experience, Mae said.
“He was very humble and down to earth. He was on the job with his hands dirty and working, not all spiffed up. He was never above any task, just a regular guy,” she said, adding that Jed “would describe himself as a bit of a redneck.”
Once, Jed almost missed the start of his race because he was working on a competitor’s engine, she said. “He would drop anything to help someone.”
He owned race cars and raced regularly at BIR, including in Sports Car Club of America events and the Trans Am series. He also raced snowmobiles in International Watercross Association events.
“He was a total daredevil, usually with speed,” Mae said. “He was one of handful of people in the world who could do backflips on a standing jet ski in still water.”
UW-Stout made a difference in his life
Mae said Jed wasn’t necessarily a dedicated student in high school. Going to college wasn’t high on his list. However, his parents Dave and Cheryl stressed the need for education.
One day another worker at Liberty asked the teenage Jed if he was planning to operate a noisy printing press for the next 40 years, telling him he could do more with his life. After high school and a year of working nights full time at Liberty, Jed took the advice of his co-worker and parents. He decided to go to college and enrolled at UW-Stout, although he continued to work weekends at Liberty.