Probably the greatest accolade for a racer is that he owns, so to speak, this or that particular track, as in the late Dale Earnhardt owned Daytona International Speedway. And his company, DEI, now virtually owns the restrictor-plate tracks at Daytona and Talladega.
Virtually every driver has a favorite track where he has so much success that one wonders if the deed doesn't have his name on it. He owns it and the checkered flags to go with it.
Now here's a track that is truly racer-owned, from the high-banked turns to the paved access road into the pits, right down to that concession area just behind the tech center.
When the voice intones "Gentlemen, start your engines," this owner, however, is not in the cockpit, but in the control tower. He's there before the pits open and is the last to leave after the last lap.
Mike Cope, 40, does indeed own this track, Bronson Motor Speedway, a 31/48-mile, high-banked asphalt oval in Bronson, Florida. And he has the papers to prove it.
Cope is a third-generation racer who competed last season in the American Speed Association (ASA) and had his Bronson facility as a member track of that association.
Years ago Cope didn't just climb into a race car and enjoy success, despite his roots. The Bronson track, however, first appeared to him like the siren Lorelei beckoning on his many trips on Florida's State Road 24.
"It started from the time I began touring with NASCAR in 1989-'90," Cope recalls. "Me and my crew used to pass by the track while driving back and forth from various All American Challenge Series races.
"I would tell anybody who'd listen that one day I was going to own that racetrack."
Not an idle vow.Cope continued his racing, including forays into the Truck Series, Busch, and ASA after two championships in the then All-Pro Series and being named that tour's Most Popular Driver.
"I heard from a friend that the track was for sale, and after numerous meetings with the previous owner and a lot of convincing to my wife, Jane, as well as my business associates, after about a year and a half it became a done deal.
"Let's just say it took a lot of talking."
And by late August of 2001, Bronson's new owner took over the reins and immediately began a program of improvements, which are ongoing today.
Such a venture is obviously not without obstacles to overcome.
"There have been a lot of challenges that we have had to overcome and are still facing and probably will continue to face," Cope says. "Things such as the rising cost of insurance, car counts, continuing to try and improve the facility, and most importantly, being able to keep the fans happy and putting on a good show week in and week out. The challenges of owning a racetrack are never ending."
Being a racer, Cope says, helps him appreciate both sides of the situation. "I have learned to be more understanding to the powers that be," he says. "The job on the owner/promoter/sanctioning body side of the fence is a lot harder than I had ever imagined. On my race team I have only 10 people I have to keep happy, but on the promoting side I have more like 1,500 people to keep happy on a weekly basis. Now, that is a tough job."
Cope says that being a track owner has made him more appreciative of the efforts that tracks at which he has raced in the past have put into their programs. He's even reconsidered the many times he's, well, protested as a driver at other tracks-including stopping on the front stretch, calling down the flagger, yelling at the promoter, and so on.
"You name it, I've done it, and in these past three years I've had it all done back to me," says Cope. "I realize now how much of an idiot I was and I just wish that competitors would understand that not all promoters, track owners, and sanctioning bodies are out to get them, but that they are doing this out of their best interest."
Racing Background Cope's dad, James L. Cope, his mom, Anna Lee Cope, and grandparents, Arlie and Irene Owens, on his mom's side of the family, all raced cars.
"My father and grandfather were pioneers of Sunshine Speedway in the '60s. There was never anything else that I ever wanted to do besides race cars. It is just in my blood," Cope says.
Born and raised in Pinellas Park, Florida, Cope and wife of 22 years, Jane, now make their home in Weeki Wachee, from where they commute to Bronson and to stops on the ASA tour. They have two children, Megan, 21, and Travis, 16.
Older brother Jimmy still races Late Models, while eldest sibling Herbie has moved into designing racing helmets and graphics.
"We all raced bicycles first, and I raced the heck out of them for quite some time," Cope says, laughing. "Then Jimmy bought a used go-kart from a guy at a place where he worked."
Cope says he thereby received a virtual free ride in his older brother's go-kart, but their dad figured out quickly that kart racing for his three sons could become pretty expensive.
"So we tried our stint at motorcycle racing, briefly. Mom didn't like that, because you can wind up with broken legs and all that 'good' stuff," Cope says, smiling at the recollection. "Dad then said, 'Let's build a car for Jimmy and go race, and then when Mike's old enough, he'll be able to do it, too.' "
Oh, did they ever.
That first car was a '66 Chevelle with a big-block engine which took shape from virtually nothing in the Cope family's back yard. Brother Jimmy was about 16, Mike still only 13, but that was the start.
"I worked with them week-in and week-out for what seemed like forever," says Cope. "I crewed for him all the way up until he was in Late Models, and then I started doing my own thing and Jimmy helped me along.
"In 1978, I think it was, I ran my first Street Stock race, and from that beginning I knew what I wanted to do. I just had to try and figure out the means and how to get there."
But Cope also credits long and loyal associations for helping him. He first came into the spotlight with the help of Ralph and Rosemarie Bowser, of Clearwater, Florida, when he competed in the United Stockcar Alliance (USA) Series and ran a limited schedule in the All American Challenge Series.
"They watched me from the stands, then came down to the pits-you never know who may be up there watching," Cope says. "Most recently, it's been Charley White with the Manheim Auction people, and his wife, Kim. He's become probably my best friend and biggest supporter besides my wife, Jane. He has pushed me right along, and they've been associate sponsors of mine forever."
Not to be forgotten in this rundown of early support personnel, Cope hurries to interject, are brothers Jimmy and Herbie, and, of course, when he's off to an ASA race, Bronson General Manager Tommy Dunford.
"Our upbringing was about being happy and doing what you want to do to the best of your ability," says Cope. "Jimmy and I have rubbed fenders a lot on the racetrack. But it doesn't matter if we're fishing or shooting pool-it's who catches the most."
Mike Cope, the racetrack owner, has a word for his fellow drivers:
"The most unappreciated group of people at any track across the country are the employees and volunteers who come out and work every weekend for little or no money at all and put up with all the b.s. just because they love the sport and enjoy being at the track.
"I have learned to appreciate them more than anything. Without those people, racing at any level wouldn't be where it is today."