Rest In Peace Bill, it was a pleasure to have known you.
Story by Mark Hazelwood And Joe Centers Tandem Media Network, Norwalk Reflector, Ohio, Photo Courtesy of NHRA
Jun. 27—NORWALK — Bill Bader Sr., 79, the former longtime owner of Summit Motorsports Park dragstrip, died in an accident near his home on Sunday in northern Idaho.
His son, current track owner Bill Bader Jr., made the announcement late Sunday night.
“It is with a heavy heart that I share the news that this afternoon, my dad was involved in an accident on the mountain he so deeply loved and passed away. I will share more information as it becomes available. Know that my father loved you.”
The news came just hours after the finale of the 15th annual NHRA Summit Racing Nationals held at the famed Norwalk track that Bader Sr. built.
He slowly transformed the track — later named Norwalk Raceway — into the gem it is today. He was the creator of the wildly popular “Night Under Fire” exhibition event, held yearly in August. The annual sold out event will see its 44th edition this season.
A longtime International Hot Rod Association track, Bader Sr. stepped out of his role and handed the reigns off to Bill Jr. in January of 1998.
Bill Sr. moved on to the ownership and management of the IHRA in 1999. He later retired to Idaho, but often came to visit the dragstrip for big-time events.
That included the NHRA Summit Nationals, which began at the Norwalk track in 2007. The transformation of Summit Motorsports Park from its infancy to landing a marquee, national event was often cited as a seminal moment for Bader Sr. and his family.
“We are deeply saddened over the tragic loss of Bill Bader Sr., who built an extraordinary legacy in the sport,” said NHRA President Glen Cromwell. “With an incredible work ethic and a remarkable dedication to hospitality, Bill taught us all important lessons on how to make a race a memorable experience for drag racing fans.
“He turned Summit Racing Equipment Motorsports Park into one of the premier facilities on the NHRA tour, and one that was loved by all racers and NHRA fans. On behalf of everyone at NHRA, we offer our sincere condolences to the family and friends of Bill Bader Sr.”
Jay Ewell has worked with Bill Sr. and and his son over the years. Ewell is involved with the alcohol sales at Summit Motorsports Park through the Norwalk Lions Club.
“He was a Lions Club friend,” Ewell said. “He gave us the beer booth back in the 1970 or 80s and Bill Jr. kept it going. They are really great friends of the Lions.
“He is famous in the racing circle. He is a famous man and very well respected.”
Ewell saw Bill and his wife, Debbie, over the winter. Ewell and Debbie went to school together.
“I was out there visiting him at Christmas and we sat down and talked for two hours,” Ewell said. “I loved talking to him and listening to his stories.
“He was such a perfectionist. One day I was following him down the track and he stopped, got out a can of spray paint, and painted a rusty weld. The steel gate had a couple of welds on them that were rusty. That’s the kind of person he was.”
Longtime Norwalk Reflector sportswriter Don Hohler worked with Bader Sr. as a public relations man in the early days.
Hohler actually first met Bader while doing a story for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
“I was covering racing at the time, including SIS (Sandusky International Speedway),” Hohler said. “Norwalk’s George Friend and Morris Van Vlerah were very popular modified car drivers and
Boyd Martin was among many other sportsmen division racers that drove at the track. Bader had just leased the track from Bert Decker and needed the publicity.
“Fast track a number of years later when Bader heard that a drag strip east of Norwalk, one that was growing up in weeds, could be bought for a song and dance. Bill knew absolutely nothing about drag racing other than entries drove in a straight line.”
Hohler said Bader Sr. didn’t hesitate to buy the 50-acre facility. He also needed someone to do public relations, but didn’t have the funds yet to pay one.
“I was at his side for 25 years, getting paid maybe three times a year,” Hohler said. “Wow. Those were tough times. The drag strip was barely holding its own financially. At the end of maybe the second or possibly the third season, he needed money just to stay afloat.
“He came up with the idea of a late season mega race for sportsman driver, door-slammer cars so-to-speak. He called it the Halloween Classic. It turned into the largest car-count event of its kind in the history of the sport and still is.”
Hohler said a number of years later, Bader Sr. moved to another year-saving venture when he started hosting Monster Truck meets across the midwest during the winter months.
“One after another, Bill Bader and his wife, Debbie, hit home runs,” Hohler said. “They were vested at one time in every drag racing body known to man, AHRA, IHRA and finally, NHRA. Bill owned the first two at one time and has the show-pony of NHRA out at the intersection of Routes 18 and 601.
“And he has a son that is a chip off the old block in Bill Jr., calling the shots,” he added. “And if one does not think the family has a dynasty, all they had to do was look at that ‘city’ that showed for the national event over the weekend.”
On Facebook, thousands of comments poured in on the Summit Motorsports Park page. Many expressed tributes and shared memories, such as Jeff Lee, who owns the HammerHead IRS automotive customization shop.
“I thought Bill would live to 100 out of sheer will,” Lee wrote. “Bill was the guy who took a chance on me in the racing industry. My first job away from home. He taught me so much about how to treat customers, how a show is run, to underpromise, overdeliver, never get taken advantage of, never settle for mediocrity and to never forget that we’re in the business of fun.”
Lee recalled a story from the 2005 Night Under Fire event, when legendary driver John Force ran a customized car with Bader’s face on the hood.
“He asked me to drive him home after he made his rounds thanking all the drivers for being there,” Lee said in his post. “Long story short, I ended up in John Force’s motorhome till 4 a.m. listening to some of the greatest drag racing stories ever told by Bill and John and learning their thoughts and philosophies on the sport and its direction. It is a night I’ll never forget and I cherish even more today as it was one of the last times I got to spend any real amount of time with Bill after he left IHRA.
“He was loud and brash and demanding, but was smart and hilarious and cared about you like you were one of his own. He challenged me and really brought me out of my shell and his mentorship has helped me throughout my career. I am better for knowing Bill Bader and thankful for my time with him. I know he will be missed by so many.”