The drag racing world was dealt a devastating loss on Saturday, March 6th, when 27-year-old small-tire racing star Blake Copson unexpectedly passed away. News of his passing spread quickly on social media, with family, friends, fellow racers and fans sharing tributes and fond memories of the rising star.
Copson was going into the 2021 season as the reigning champion in the Atomizer Racing Injectors Outlaw 10.5 National Championship Series, coming off an incredible 2020 season that saw him win 26 out of 27 rounds in the family’s twin-turbocharged “Root Beer Rocket” Corvette. He had also won Duck X Productions’ Magic 8 and No Mercy 11 races in Manny Buginga’s X275 Mustang.
[Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in DI #166, the World Doorslammer Nationals Issue, in April of 2021.]
But above his seemingly natural abilities behind the wheel, Copson was known for the quality of his character and the smile he brought with him wherever he went, from signing autographs and taking pictures with young fans to celebrating in the winner’s circle with his team. It was clear to everyone who met him that Copson was passionate about drag racing and cherished every opportunity he had in the sport.
Copson’s enthusiasm for drag racing started at a young age. His father, Joe, would take him to the local tracks near their Philadelphia area home, like Maple Grove Raceway in Reading, Pennsylvania, and Atco Raceway and the now-defunct Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in New Jersey.
“He would run up and down the stairs with the little plastic dragsters and make noises as a kid,” Joe Copson says. “He just absolutely loved it there. Loved the atmosphere.”
Blake would continue going to the track with Joe as he grew up, ultimately helping Joe with the family race car, an Outlaw 10.5 Camaro, which went on to become Ryan Martin’s Street Outlaws Fireball Camaro. In 2017, the Copsons took delivery of a brand-new Corvette that Blake would drive.
But before he could get started in the high-horsepower doorslammer, Joe took him to Frank Hawley’s Drag Racing School in Gainesville, Florida, to learn how to drive a race car. Copson excelled, focusing on Hawley’s guidance related to the mental aspects of driving.
The elder Copson had plenty of confidence in his son after the successful weekend at Hawley’s school. Still, they took baby steps with the car, eventually debuting at Lights Out 8 at South Georgia Motorsports Park in February 2018.
“When we first got the car done, a lot of people, myself included, were saying, ‘Holy smokes, that’s a lot of car for somebody to start out in,’” Joe remembers. “He never drove any other car besides this car. Getting behind the wheel of a 4,500-horsepower car is a pretty tall task, but needless to say, he just had a God-given talent behind the wheel. I don’t know how to explain it, but he just loved it, thrived on it, and wasn’t intimidated. He was very good at listening; less talk, more listening.”
The Copsons were still building confidence and taking small steps together at the Yellowbullet Nationals at Cecil County Dragway over Labor Day weekend later that year. Blake started winning rounds and ended up in the semifinals, where his driving skills would be put to the test. After launching, Copson started heading towards the wall while the front wheels were in the air, so he let out of it.
“Me and Josh are standing on the starting line, we’re like, ‘Well, that’s that.’ All of a sudden, Blake blips the throttle and corrects the car, and goes right down Broadway, and wins the round,” Joe remembers. “I look over at Josh, and he looks over at me and I was like, ‘Did that really just happen?’
“The third round of Yellowbullet of 2018 was, at that very moment, an awakening to Blake’s natural ability,” Joe adds.
By getting back on the throttle, Blake went against one of his father’s stipulations that was put in place when they started racing, which was to lift if the car ever started to go into a wheelstand. But it wasn’t done out of recklessness. He simply felt it was the right thing to do, and he was right.
“I actually went to bat for Blake with his dad because Blake pedaled it at just the right moment,” says tuner Josh Ledford, who had just started working with the Copsons as their main tuner that weekend. “He had it under control, I didn’t see any crazy things, and so we just kept going. One of the agreements I had with his dad was that if there was ever a point where I asked [Blake] about something that was going on with the car and he couldn’t tell me, then we’d ease up a little bit. There was never that point. That kid was in there like a human Racepak.”
After making a slew of changes to the car to step up for the final round, Copson unleashed a 3.92 to take the win over past champion Mike Decker Jr., who ran a 3.93 to make it one of the closest final rounds in Yellowbullet Nationals history.
“Everybody, even ourselves, had given us very little chance of winning that race, and to go ahead and win it, was just like, oh my God,” Copson says. “We had dreamed about winning that race, and to do it in those circumstances, it was amazing.”
It was the first of numerous races Blake would go on to win in his short career. He picked up another Outlaw 10.5 win at one of Cecil County’s Outlaw Street Car Shootout events in 2019, which helped him land on the DI 30 Under 30 list that year.
But 2020 was Copson’s breakout season, as he added two more Outlaw Street Car Shootout wins, along with Outlaw 10.5 victories at Michigan’s Milan Dragway, the Shakedown Nationals at Virginia Motorsports Park, and the World Street Nationals at Orlando Speed World Dragway. He also became the first and only Outlaw 10.5 driver to dip into the 3.60s with a 3.694 at 210.60.
For Joel Hull, who was one of Blake’s best friends as well as his car chief, the Shakedown Nationals win is one of his favorite memories of racing with Blake. The team went into the race with four consecutive wins behind them. Calling on the reaction time skills he acquired through a childhood of slot car racing, Blake used holeshot advantages to win the semifinal and final rounds, beating Mark Benston Jr.’s 3.74 with a 3.76 in the final.
“We got down to the top end and we were like ‘Blake, you killed it. You did this.’ He looked us all in the face and he said, ‘No, I didn’t do this. We did this,’” Hull says. “He said, ‘I wouldn’t be able to cut a light if I didn’t know Josh was on the keyboard, my dad was right there by his side, or if you weren’t on the car. I wouldn’t have been comfortable enough to cut lights like can.’ It was never a ‘he did it’ or an ‘I did it.’ It was ‘we.’ We did everything as a family together.”
Hull met Copson when they were young teenagers and they became fast friends, often wrenching on and riding dirt bikes together. Copson knew Hull was mechanically inclined, so he was the first guy he called when putting together a small crew for the Corvette. With Ledford calling the shots, it was Joe, Blake and Hull forming a tightknit crew that worked well together.
“When we were at the track, it was never work,” Hull, 25, says. “We always had smiles and we were having fun. It was awesome. We got to make memories that will last forever. We were comfortable together. It was always fun. There was never a stressful moment with those guys.”
Ledford, who’s tuned for a number of high-profile clients around the world in small-tire and Pro Mod classes, similarly felt a strong bond with the Copson family. Blake would spend time at Ledford’s house and go out on his boat with him between races.
“His family and my family are family,” Ledford says. “He called me Dad. Joel calls me Dad. I’ve never, ever been so close with a client. His dad calls me every couple days. His mom talks to my wife. We were more than just a team, we were all family.”
The family atmosphere extended beyond Copson’s crew. Blake was known for offering spare parts and assistance to fellow racers.
“If somebody needed help, he would come back to the trailer and ask myself or his dad, ‘So and so needs this. Do we have it? Can we help them?’ He reminds me a lot of [Mark] ‘Woody’ [Woodruff]. Everybody says ‘Woodymart’ because he’s always helping fellow racers with parts and has been doing it for a long time. Blake reminded me of him, just his sportsmanship and his smile. I can’t get his smile out of my head.”
Copson always made time for fans, too, taking extra care to roll out the red carpet for young fans. It wasn’t long ago that he was in their position, and he never forgot that.
“He would grab an 8-year-old and put them in the car,” Joe says. “As a youngster, I took him to the track and he would go up and I could see the look in his eyes, that stargazed look. And now all of a sudden, 15-20 years later, Blake had little boys and girls coming up to him, and I would give him a little wink. He just loved the people. That’s really what this is about.
“Of course, Blake was a very fierce competitor,” Joe adds. “You get him to the starting line and he’s just going to want to win at all costs. But underneath it all, it was always about the people with Blake, the friendships that were made.”
The hundreds of social media posts about Blake have helped the Copson family to fully realize the impact Blake had on the people he encountered and the friends he made.
“When it’s all said and done, it’s about your family, the people, and the lives that you’ve impacted along your journey,” Joe says. “That’s what we would talk about on the road, and that’s what makes the drag racing family so unique. We’ve been getting messages from all over the world – Australia, the Middle East, Brazil, Argentina – people that we didn’t even think followed us, but they did. People loved Blake. They just loved him for who he was.”
Even as successful as they were in 2020, the Copsons and Ledford had even bigger things planned for 2021. The plan was to move over to the Pro 275 class. Ledford told Copson his goal was to go 3.65 at 215 MPH on 275s, and they were going to have everything they needed to accomplish that goal.
“We were getting the latest and greatest,” Ledford says. “The motor that was in Blake’s car was three-year-old technology and we still ran 94-millimeter turbos. We were getting the latest and greatest outlaw Hemi from Proline with 98s. We were probably going to make 5,200 to close to 5,500 horsepower. We were going to pick up a lot of power over our old combination. We were just excited to get out and try to continue the success we had in the previous season.”
On top of running the family car in Pro 275, Copson was set to run another handful of races as a hired gun in Manny Buginga’s Jamie Miller-tuned X275 Mustang. He qualified No. 1 in the car at Lights Out 12 just a week before his passing. The opportunity to drive for Buginga was proof that others recognized Copson’s abilities, and there’s no telling what kind of opportunities would’ve followed.
“He very much wanted to be like Stevie ‘Fast’ [Jackson],” Joe says. “That’s a driver that he really admired. Stevie and Jose Gonzalez, those are two drivers that Blake really looked up to and followed. But Blake wanted to dominate small-tire racing. That’s what he wanted to do, and then eventually parlay that into perhaps a Pro Mod ride.”
To those who knew him best, there’s no doubt Copson would’ve excelled in Pro Mod or other categories as he continued to climb up the ranks. He had what the famed author Tom Wolfe would call “the right stuff.”
“He was consistent. He always did the same thing in the car – always,” Ledford says. “Going down track, if it started to wheelie or it was out of shape, instead of being aggressive on the wheel, he would just finesse it back in the groove. Some drivers are good at one thing or the other, but he had the whole package down, from cutting lights to being in sticky situations and getting out of them.”
As for Joe’s future in drag racing, he’s unsure how he’ll continue. He’d jump back into it “in a heartbeat” if his daughters, Taylor and Ava, show an interest in getting into the sport their late brother loved, but he’s focused on simply getting through this difficult time, along with his wife, Lianna, and their daughters.
“I can tell you that the ‘Root Beer Rocket’ is officially retired from drag racing,” Joe says. “We’ll bring it out probably on his birthday, and we’re going to display it at Yellowbullet for the fans to come over and see it. But I know that Blake would want me to be out there. We’ll see if the right opportunity arises, but for right now, I don’t see any drag racing in my near future, let’s put it that way.”
Weeks after Copson’s passing, the tributes continue to roll in on social media. Offline, mourners pay tribute to Copson with “RIP BCOP” and “BCOP Forever” decals and messages written in dial-in paint on their race cars. A massive memorial banner hung in the staging lanes at South Georgia Motorsports Park during Donald Long’s Sweet 16 race in late March. The X275 class at Tyler Crossnoe’s Outlaw Street Car Reunion in April will be renamed BCOP275. Each gesture ensures that Blake’s memory will live on.
“I couldn’t be more proud as a dad,” Joe says. “And it’s hard, because again, we feel like we’ve been shorted, but God did give us 27 wonderful years with our boy. We’re forever grateful on that. We’re going to hold on and cherish those memories that we made. His spirit is going to live on with us, and hopefully it’ll live on in the people’s lives that he impacted. So that’s really what I would be hopeful for, is that they’ll remember him, how Blake treated them, and how much love he gave to everybody.”