Look up the definition of fan and you’ll find, “an enthusiastic devotee (as of a sport or performing art), usually a spectator.”
For two die-hard drag racing buffs at Brainerd International Raceway that definition doesn’t quite do them justice.
The word “superfan” best applies.
Tony Olinyk of Winnipeg, Manitoba, and Bruce Miller of Maple Grove are both 54-year-old race lovers who have barely missed a Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals at BIR since 1982.
Drag racing runs in their blood. And the NHRA Nationals is the event they plan for all year long.
Olinyk is a friendly, happy go-lucky Canadian you like from the instant you meet him. He actually began making the six-hour trek across the border in 1978, four years before Brainerd hosted its first national race in 1982.
“Back in those days, BIR used to be a free-for-all before they allowed camping,” Olinyk said. “It was a real zoo. Then they broke up the raceway into lots and campsites with power and things changed for the better.”
Olinyk absolutely loves the Nationals.
“It’s my No. 1 thing to do every year,” he said.
“I love the thrill of it all,” he added. “Unless you’ve been here and seen and heard a car with 8,000-horsepower start up, you can’t appreciate it. It will take your breath away. Breathing in the nitro (methane fuel) fumes, the smell of the cars, the speeds going down the track … Until you experience it, you don’t understand.”
There’s also a real spirit of camaraderie among race fans that calls Olinyk back each year.
“There’s a group of people here I’ve grown up with,” he said. “My best friend is from Grand Rapids, who I met here. I’ve known some of these people and families for the last 30 years. We all started camping together about 20 years ago, after staying in Brainerd motels for many years.”
Virtually nothing can stop him from coming to the Nationals. For the past few years, he has proven it.
“I was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2009,” Olinyk said.
“They did surgery and at my check-up in 2010 they found some cells had spread to my liver and stomach,” he added. “So I was on chemo from March to July of this year. I’m going to see the doctor when I get back to Canada to see if I need more surgery.”
Olinyk doesn’t let his illness get him down. He told his oncologist that he didn’t want any treatment between Aug. 12-22 so he could attend the races. He even arranged to have some follow-up treatment at a Brainerd clinic.
He has seen many improvements in his three decades at BIR.
“We used to sleep in a tent or car,” he said. “Now you can have motor homes and campers. Things have even gotten better in the last four years because it’s more relaxing and family oriented.”
In addition to collecting muscle cars and good memories from his years at the race, among his proudest possessions are a T-shirt, program and souvenir guide to the first NHRA Nationals at BIR in 1982.
Olinyk plans to donate them to the new owners of BIR.
Ask Bruce Miller where he’s from and he’ll tell you Maple Grove, the “veritable hotbed of drag racing.” He calls it that because many drag racers are from Maple Grove. Bruce himself used to be a race car driver.
A slim man with a wry smile, it’s easy to envision Miller as the pied piper of a merry band of pranksters at BIR.
Some of his group’s race traditions bear that out.
“Each year we come up with a T-shirt for our friends that has a saying based on some kind of shenanigans from the race the year before,” Miller said. “I do the saying and my friend does the artwork. Something is memorable every year.”
The shirts have included such slogans as, “Don’t worry, be happy,” “This is your brain (dull) … this is your brain on nitro” (excited), and “Got milk … got beer … got nitro,” with “got milk” and “got beer” crossed off.
Miller has been to all but one NHRA Nationals race since 1982.
“Tremendous friendships have grown out of being race fans,” he said. “We’re like one big, happy family.”
Over the past 30 years, he has seen a lot of changes in technology and safety at the track. As a former driver, he can appreciate the improvements to make the sport safer and the cars less expensive.
“When Tony Schumacher ran the fastest quarter-mile time in 2005 at 337.58 mph, the NHRA said drag racing was getting too fast,” Miller said. “It took measures to slow down the dragsters. So they shortened the track to 1,000 feet.
“But, as a purist, I really miss the quarter-mile track.”
Miller said he loves the sport because of its camaraderie. Competitive NHRA drivers donate parts and even help fix one another’s cars.
He also loves drag racing because it’s fast.
“I don’t have to wait three hours to find out who won a drag race,” Miller said. “It’s over in five seconds. Waiting is for NASCAR fans.”