BIR brings Trans-Am back for ‘drive-in’

John Gilbert

Mike Skeen of Charlotte, N.C., drove his white No. 77 Camaro on the inside of the No. 81 Mustang of Thomas Merrill, Salinas, Ca., early in Sunday’s TransAm 2 feature. Skeen yielded the lead, but came back to win the race at BIR.

BRAINERD, MN. – There’s no state fair this year, and all the primary entertainment attractions are closed down for the pandemic, so Brainerd International Raceway threw a big weekend that had a little bit of everything on Sunday, including two parts of the legendary Trans-Am road races.

Tony Drissi won the Jed Copham Memorial, the second 100-mile feature around the 2.5-mile course, although his victory had none of the drama as the first feature, for less-powerful Trans-Am 2 cars.

But, as they say, getting there was half the fun, as in getting to the checkered flag. The Trans-Am tandem were the feature attractions of a day that included various classes of road racers on the course, while thundering drag racers hurtled down the long straightaway that used to be the main part of BIR’s track, before it was reduced in size and tucked inside the previous layout.

The big news was that spectators were allowed to drive in free, and “drive in” is the operative phrase, because fans could pull in and drive up to the inside fencing of the track and watch the races from their cars. The several grandstands and bleachers were taped off for proper spacing, and fans had the luxury of sitting in their cars and following along with a streaming broadcast, or listening to the public address announcer. Concessions were open, and you could drive up and order out — just like in your suburban neighborhood.

Skeen led early in the Trans-Am 2 opener, and hurtled in to the banked right-hander on the inside of Thomas Merrill’s Mustang.

“Three of us went in there together, and I backed off,” Skeen said, when interviewed over the PA system.

His patience paid off because after trailing Merrill until things got hotter and a few cars spun off, Skeen had moved into the lead.

After Scott Borchetta’s Mustang spun off into the infield, Skeen took off after the restart, and pulled away for a comfortable 2-plus second victory over Merrill after a spirited three-car battle for second. Texan Dylan Archer, son of former Duluthian Bobby Archer, took seventh in a Camaro.

In the second Trans-Am feature, the Jed Copham Memorial, Tomy Drissi got his first victory of the season, with Amy Ruman battling to take second, and Simon Gregg got third in a Jim Derhaag Racing Camaro. The winning Audi SR won the race on superb handling against the more powerful Camaros.

In all, it was a return of big time racing to Minnesota, and for me and the few thousand other spectators watching as though at a drive-in movie, it was an escape from the pandemic shutdown on a perfect 85-degree day in the sun, and isolation worked.

Derek Plante

Plante returns to UMD

Derek Plante capped a four-year career at UMD by winning WCHA player of the year by leading the league in goals, assists and points in 1993-94, then jumped right into the NHL to score  21 goals for the Buffalo Sabres. He went on to play with Dallas, Chicago and Philadelphia in the NHL — winning a Stanley Cup while with Dallas.

He stands as UMD’s No. 3 all-time career point-getter, and after  proved as good a coach as he was a player when he assisted Scott Sandelin and made an indelible impression on the players of the team who won the school’s first NCAA title in 2011, is returning to the same position.

Plante did a lot of teaching as an assistant coach, and he also may have done his best coaching by example when he helped organize the post-practice “AHL” for “Afternoon Hockey League,” a light-spirited but intense 3-on-3 series in which Plante would show extremely skilled Bulldogs how it could be done.

“When I left UMD, I became Player Development coach for the Chicago Blackhawks,” Plante said. “I really enjoyed working with our drafted players who weren’t ready for the big club yet. But I also had enjoyed coaching in college too, and I recently started to think about it more.”

A couple things happened to inspire Plante. First, his oldest son, Zam, is going into 10th grade, while Max, a year younger, is going into ninth grade and will be a second-year Bantam. The two were a dynamic duo for Hermantown’s state tournament Bantams last year. Son No. 3, Victor, is two years younger yet, and a Peewee.

While he was able to live at home in Hermantown “and catch a lot of 6 a.m. flights to Chicago,” he said, the next few years will be when he wants to spend more time at home.

The timing came to a head when Brett Larson, who formerly was an assistant coach alongside Plante at UMD and is now head coach at St. Cloud State, had an assistant coaching vacancy and called Plante.

“We talked for quite a while,” Plante said. “He asked if I’d be interested, but I wasn’t sure. Larson later hired Dave Shyiak from Western Michigan. About then, Jason Herter decided to resign as co-head coach at UMD, creating an opening for Scott Sandelin that wasn’t quickly filled, during the pandemic. Plante had his opportunity, and when Sandelin called, the connection clicked.

“I’m really looking forward to it,” said Plante. “A lot of assistants get worn out by all the travel needed for recruiting, but I really enjoy that part of it, too, getting out to see the prospects and having a little say in who gets recruited. Adam Krause did a lot of recruiting last year, and he’ll be great to work with.

“I was able to watch UMD play a few times last year, and they had a great team. Nick Swaney will be back, and he’s the only player left that I helped recruit, so I’ll be anxious to work with him again.”

Derek said he and his wife were in Germany when they made up Zam’s name. “There are a lot of Sams and Cams, but we wanted something starting with ‘Z’ so we made it up,” said Plante.

Naturally, as UMD’s No. 3 career scorer with 96 points, and the No. 3 goal-scorer with 36 in 1992-93 — the third-best single season in goals to Brett Hull’s 52 and Bill Watson’s 49, when he also registered UMD’s third-best assist season with 56 — behind only Watson and Tom Kurvers — Plante is in UMD’s athletic Hall of Fame. But so is his wife, Kristi, who was both a basketball and softball star for the Bulldogs.

Line wins Pro-Stock

The last time I was at BIR as for the NHRA Nationals last August, and it was also a fantastic weekend because Jason Line, of the Wright, Minn., racing Line family, won his first NHRA National Pro Stock title at his home track with a brilliant weekend.

Line had to defeat his teammate, Greg Anderson of Duluth, in the semifinals before claiming the title at Indianapolis Sunday. Line has announced that he will keep working with race cars, but this will be his “farewell tour” as he is retiring from driving after this season.