Norwalk Night Under Fire

Fireworks light up the night sky at Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk, OH. This is an image from SMP’s annual “Night Under Fire”—the largest single-day event at the track each year. This weekend is the 2017 Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals, which is the track’s largest multi-day event each year. (Image/Quarter Mile Classifieds)

NORWALK, OH. — Sitting in his office at Summit Motorsports Park, Bill Bader Jr. pulled his mobile phone from his pocket to play a voicemail message.

The unmistakable voice of drag-racing legend John Force filled the air.

It wasn’t a business call to the racetrack’s president and co-owner.

It was simply a call to his friend.

Not about racing. Not about anything Norwalk-related. Just about life.

John Force. The guy with 147 career wins, 42 more NHRA wins than #2 Frank Manzo. A person among the most dominant and iconic figures in any competitive sport in history.

He had a lot on his mind. Personal stuff. And he just wanted to talk to his friend, Bill.

Like the best of friends do.

Like families do.

Watch our on-camera interview with Bill Bader Jr. here:

Summit Motorsports Park, like so many places and groups involved in motorsports, is entirely about family.

It began humbly as an inoperable, abandoned strip called Norwalk Dragway. Bill Bader Sr. bought it in April 1974.

Today, SMP—considered by many to be the premier dragstrip in North America—is owned and operated by Bader Jr. and sister, Bobbie Bader. Their children are heavily involved.

But the theme of family runs so much deeper than genetics and the Bader bloodlines.

You can feel it when you’re there.

You can see it in the families among the fans visiting the track together.

You can see it in the families among the race teams working in the pits together.

And you can hear it in the voice of the biggest name in drag-racing history when he randomly calls his old pal in Norwalk for a heart-to-heart.

What Does it Take to Host a Major Event Like the NHRA Nationals?

The Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals began Thursday at Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk and run through the final rounds Sunday, June 24, unless weather dictates otherwise. Leading up to an event of this scale, we were interested in learning what all goes into preparing for a nationally televised NHRA race that can draw nearly 100,000 people over the entire weekend.

There are several things one can prepare for by asking the right questions, and there are several more things subject to conditions outside of anyone’s control, like weather and temperature.

“No two events are ever the same,” Bader Jr. said. “Each event takes on a life of its own. If it’s particularly hot weather, how will that affect bottled-water sales? Will we need misting stations? There are some things we can’t anticipate.”

Bader Jr. jokingly questioned his sanity.

“The one thing that you can never really truly be at peace about is the idea that you do all this work, all this planning, all this coordination, and extend yourself by millions of dollars, and then it can rain,” he said. “Who in their right mind would do that?”

SMP employs about 30 people full-time. There will be 430 working at the track for the NHRA Nationals this weekend.

NHRA officials work closely with their event-hosting tracks in preparation for the national events. You’ll notice a fully repainted starting line, official NHRA Christmas tree, and countless subtle and not-so-subtle changes to the racetrack and grounds.

How many Porta-Johns are needed?

How many cleanings do they need each day, and if so, what time?

How many portable showers are needed for the campgrounds?

How many gallons of water will they consume, and when will the water supply need replenished?

The SMP staff targets times like nitro qualifying sessions to empty trash, replenish toilet paper and clean bathrooms.

“We do it then because that’s when the vast majority of people are in the grandstands,” Bader Jr. said.

Food and beverage (and ice cream!) sales are a significant part of SMP’s business, and after 40 years of event planning and food sales, Bader Jr. and his team have developed a knack for knowing what to expect from customers buying food, drinks and ice cream, depending on the particular event.

“You will never outsell a hamburger, hot dog, chicken finger or fry,” Bader Jr. said, but the introduction of Stromboli, pizza and wraps has been a big hit with the SMP faithful. “The Stromboli has been hugely successful for us, and it wasn’t offered here five years ago.”

Beyond Concessions, the Work is Never Finished

“There are a hundred things right now that give me a stomachache when I think about our facility,” Bader Jr. said. “Certain entrances and perimeter fences—there’s lots of stuff I see that we need to improve. The seating bowl should be a Wi-Fi hot spot. We should have more flush bathrooms. Porta-Johns can be a God-awful experience.”

How do you measure success?

“There’s always room for improvement,” Bader Jr. said. “One of the reasons the New England Patriots are such a great organization is because they’re always hungry to make it better. It’s this idea that we all want to produce the very best we possibly can.

“By the same token—we had the Cavalcade (of Stars) here in May. We rained out Friday. Weather affected us over the weekend, and we finished on Monday. We had 18,000-19,000 people here, which fell well short. But we had three complaints. That’s like .0000… whatever-it-is percent. I’ve learned through the years how to take some of that in stride and focus a little more on the thousands who were pleased.”

Bader Jr. sometimes gives out his personal phone number and email address to customers if he can help facilitate a customer-service request. (SMP offers an unconditional money-back guarantee on ticket sales.)

“Dad always said the complaining customer is your friend,” Bader Jr. said. “And they are. The complaining customer is saying ‘I have a problem, and I would like to give you a chance to fix it.’”

Success at SMP is measured by guest satisfaction, he said.

“Merchandising sales being up is always an indicator of customer happiness,” he said. “But I measure it based on the number of satisfied guests and their input.

“The ultimate report card is how many people came and, was the event up or down?”

How Did We Get Here?

From a tired old racetrack to the host site of the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals which can mean upward of 30,000+ visitors per day coming through the gates over the course of three days.


The same way Force racked up 147 wins. Which isn’t by getting the big things right. Every pro driver gets the big things right.

Every racetrack that hosts NHRA races gets the big things right, Bader Jr. said. But the things that have made Norwalk, OH as desirable a destination as Indianapolis, IN for straight-line racing are not the big things.

It’s the same behind-the-scenes magic you sometimes get a glimpse of while visiting Walt Disney World, or watching a how-it-was-made feature after a movie.

“That’s a body of work that’s been built from 1974 to the present,” Bader Jr. said. “Our success, our position in the industry, how we’re viewed—that took a lifetime to build. There’s a lot of pressure associated with that. You worry about your fall from grace.”

Bader Jr. told us a story about his first time driving to Lambeau Field in Green Bay, WI, the famed home of the NFL’s Green Bay Packers. He stopped the car in the middle of the road on Vince Lombardi Way and stepped out for a moment with his wife encouraging him to not.

“But that’s Lambeau Field,” he said to her.

He just wanted a moment to look.

“I think there are people who view us that way,” he said about SMP. “When you’re on the inside of that, you don’t always view yourself that way, because you just spent two days without sleep or shoveling gravel. You’re not thinking this is the most glamorous job in the world. But for that guy who’s just getting there on Day 1, and he’s ready for the NHRA Nationals? Sometimes you forget what a big deal it is to wear this uniform and what a big deal it is to be a part of this.”

Because this isn’t just business—it’s personal.

It’s not just about racing.

It’s about family.

Author: Matt Griswold

After a 10-year newspaper journalism career, Matt Griswold spent another decade writing about the automotive aftermarket and motorsports. He was part of the original OnAllCylinders editorial team when it launched in 2012.