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Auto racing: New Superior track burns rubber

Black River Motorsports Park provides a venue for nontraditional motorsports that have gained a lot of traction in recent years.

Eric Mack, of Superior, weaves his Ford Mustang GT through cones at Black River Motorsports Park
Eric Mack, of Superior, weaves his Ford Mustang GT through cones at Black River Motorsports Park south of Superior on Wednesday evening, July 27.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
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SUPERIOR — Brian Johnson is a lifelong resident of Superior, but he didn’t know the old Copper Creek Motorsports Park even existed until early last year.

Brian Johnson, owner of Black River Motorsports Park, talks
Brian Johnson, owner of Black River Motorsports Park, talks about some of the work he and his friends have done at the track Wednesday, July 27.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

The facility, 8 miles south of Superior just off Wisconsin Highway 35, had fallen into disrepair in recent years and became a graveyard for illegal dumping.

The dilapidated Bugsy’s Bar, vacant and near the entrance to Copper Creek, greeted Johnson when he pulled off the highway to shoot footage for a YouTube video he was working on.

“Then I saw this building and was like, ‘What’s back there?’” Johnson said.

It was the old announcer’s booth at Copper Creek Motorsports Park, a two-story shack that stuck out like a sore pollex.

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Johnson did a little research and a couple months later, he was the new owner of the former go-kart facility. He had a little different motorsports use in mind. His vision was more like “Tokyo Drift,” of the Fast and the Furious movie franchise that helped ignite a motorsports sensation in the U.S.

Johnson's facility will feature drifting — a judged competition where the driver intentionally oversteers, losing traction but still maintaining the car through the corners — and autocross, a competition where cars are driven through a coned obstacle course.

Welcome to the new Black River Motorsports Park.

“I knew of the course but didn’t really put cars on it, because in my mind, back in the day, it was go-karts,” said Johnson’s buddy, Eric Mack. “But then as we walked out here, it was like, ‘Yeah, we could definitely do that here. It’s definitely doable out here. We always looked for somewhere we could take videos or do burnouts or whatever.”

Mack’s 12-year-old son, Cole, agreed.

“Ever since Brian got the track I’ve been looking for some fun toys to have out here,” Cole said. “We’ve had some dirt bikes that were super fun out here to go around the track.”

Barriers line the track at Black River Motorsports Park
Barriers line the track at Black River Motorsports Park on Wednesday, July 27, south of Superior on Wisconsin Highway 35.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Fast track to improvement

The Black River Motorsports Park features 20 acres and three tracks. In addition to the asphalt track already mentioned, there was a clay go-kart oval that is now a pond, and a track way in the back intended for dirt-track car racing that never came to fulfillment.

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Johnson’s focus is on the asphalt, which includes remnants of the Apollo 0.8-mile drag strip that well preceded Copper Creek Motorsports Park.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon you could hear the pop-pop-pop from the Superior Trap and Gun Club through the woods that serves as the backdrop for the track. The area is scenic and often much warmer than the city by the lake, especially in springtime. In addition to concerts and other community gatherings, Johnson, 30, could eventually see having a small campground.

Like Johnny Cash’s classic song, Johnson and Co. are putting this together “One Piece at a Time.”

“We’ve been doing that for the last year as time and money allows,” Johnson said. “Stuff gets predictably expensive when you’re buying barriers in bulk and paving. All of that adds up really quickly, so we’re trying to pay as we go instead of having a mountain of expense, which doesn’t make any sense. I’m trying to keep it manageable.”

Cole Mack, 12, of Superior, sets out cones along the track at Black River Motorsports Park
Cole Mack, 12, of Superior, sets out cones along the track at Black River Motorsports Park south of Superior on Wednesday, July 27.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Trees had sprouted along the fence line and had to be chopped down. Cracks in the pavement had become overgrown. Everything was in need of a good coat of paint. A homeless man had been sleeping in the garage and later the bus by the bar. The land had become an eyesore and a dump.

Johnson was asked if the project was more work than he had thought.

“Yeah, way more,” he said, drawing a big laugh. “Even just mowing the grass and stuff alone, it’s a lot.”

Workers recently paved a 10-by-100-foot gap that bridges the sections of pavement that were already out there, opening up all kinds of motorsports possibilities. In addition to the labor, the project has added up financially. Johnson has already invested $15,000 on equipment and materials on site, including barriers, asphalt and gravel.

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Johnson, however, wanted to emphasize a key point, one he said has given the project added meaning. He said this is more than just him and his friends having some fun on weekends. It’s gone beyond that. He hasn’t done this alone.

“It’s more about community,” he said. “The car community is really amazing. There are a lot of good people who have come out of the woodwork and have been helping out. They just have an interest, and they’ve provided a lot of help, which has been amazing. It’s been a good thing, it’s cool. There’s been a lot of good people here.”

Smoke rises from the tires of Eric Mack’s Ford Mustang GT
Smoke rises from the tires of Eric Mack’s Ford Mustang GT as he does a burnout at Black River Motorsports Park south of Superior on Wednesday, July 27.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Hot rods and racing

Johnson, a 2009 Superior High School graduate, was into cars in high school, working on stuff in shop class and going to Brainerd (Minn.) International Raceway for drag racing and other events when he could.

“All my friends were into drifting when we got out of high school, so I’ve been into a little bit of all of it this whole time,” Johnson said.

Johnson stills lives in Superior’s East End with his wife, Hannah Wells. The couple has a son, William, and a baby girl on the way. Johnson works for the railroad and has a YouTube channel called GreenLightFilming that features motorsports content.

“We’ve looked for many years for a place to do autocrossings, specifically, but I ran into a lot of dead ends,” Johnson said.

When people have the passion, they’ll go to extremes, even if it means breaking the law. Wells described how one time Johnson’s crew even used a park-and-ride lot like it was a motorsports playground … anywhere you can do a burnout.

“Wherever they could find where they were least likely to get in trouble,” Wells said, laughing.

Cole Mack, 12, of Superior, sports a Black River Motorsports Park shirt
Cole Mack, 12, of Superior, sports a Black River Motorsports Park T-shirt at the track just south of Superior on Wednesday, July 27.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Venues like BIR, and now Black River Motorsports Park, are a way to take an entertaining, yet potentially dangerous exhibition off the street and make it as safe as possible.

Wells was all for her husband’s pursuit of the property.

“I was never like ‘No, don’t do it,’ because for years he has wanted to do these things,” Wells said. “I’d much prefer he do it somewhere he can (she laughed again), rather than try to find some random road or something. There is nothing like that around here. Brainerd is a drive, so the thought was, even if this doesn’t turn into a big business thing, it’s someplace our kids can play and his friends can come and hang out.”

Nothing wrong with that.

“And it’s really fun to watch,” Wells added, “but I wouldn’t want to get in the car.”

The facility had a Lions Club fundraiser planned for June that got rained out as soon as the music started. The next event is the Machines and Caffeine Car Show Sept. 18, featuring beer, brats and burnouts.

Eric Mack’s Ford Mustang GT speeds between cones and a barricade at Black River Motorsports Park
Eric Mack’s Ford Mustang GT speeds between cones and a barricade at Black River Motorsports Park on Wednesday, July 27.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Mack gave a little demonstration with his 2007 Ford Mustang GT and Johnson gave him some advice.

“You don’t have to go hard,” Johnson said, before whispering under his breath, “He’s going to go hard.”

Mack did just that, but not too hard. That Mustang, as Mack pointed out, “Doesn’t have a scratch on it,” and Mack plans to keep it that way, unlike most drifting cars. Mack said he won’t even autocross with that Mustang because he doesn’t want the cones brushing it up.

Drifting cars can get beat up. Some drivers even reinforce the wheel wells to minimize potential damage when a tire blows. Tires are, after all, meant to go forward, not sideways.

“Usually it’s big motors, little cars,” Mack said of the popular Nissans with V-8 engines. “You get points when you get close to the wall, kind of stuffed into it a little bit. It’s very technical driving; it’s not just going out and doing a burnout for 20 minutes. It’s super technical, but that’s kind of the goal, to see how close you can drift your car, on the edge of pushing it out of control and right up against the wall, but not hitting the wall.”

Little Mack agreed but added it’s not as easy as some can make it look.

“It’s a little scary when you’re trying to hang on going sideways,” Cole said, drawing yet one more laugh on an afternoon full of them. And that’s part of the fun.

Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at jnowacki@duluthnews.com or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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