Bill Bader Sr., Drag Racing’s Last True P.T. Barnum, Dies in Accident at 79

Bader bought Norwalk (Ohio) Raceway in 1974 at age 27 and bought the International Hot Rod Association in 1998.

Bill Bader Sr., Drag Racing’s Last True P.T. Barnum, Dies in Accident at 79
NHRA/National Dragster

  • Former Summit Motorsports Park owner Bill Bader Sr., who had the rare combination of P.T. Barnum’s showmanship and Warren Buffett’s business savvy, died Sunday at age 79 in an accident on his Idaho property.
  • Bader, who also owned the IHRA for a time, and wife Debbie lived north of Riggins, Idaho, since he retired in 2004.
  • Bill Bader Jr. currently owns and operates the Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk, Ohio.

    Every May 22 and June 13, Jim Weinert, the “Picasso of track prep” for the IHRA, would send his wife, Carrie, flowers for her birthday and their anniversary.

    Every year after he passed away in March 2012, Bill Bader Sr. stepped in and without fail continued the tradition.

    Jumping in and doing what he thought needed doing was Bader’s signature. Seven-time IHRA Alcohol Funny Car champion Mark Thomas visited Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk, Ohio, in 2009 after he retired from racing, and he and two of his young children encountered Bader driving an old pick-up truck that Thomas guessed “wasn’t worth 500 bucks,” collecting trash bags throughout the property. They joined him in his chores.

    Bill Bader Sr., Drag Racing’s Last True P.T. Barnum, Dies in Accident at 79

    Bill Bader Sr.

    NHRA/National Dragster

    “We picked up trash for probably two or three hours. Here’s the guy who owns this beautiful racetrack and he could be hanging out with anybody he wants,” Thomas said. Everyone knew the Bill Bader who freely handed out smiles, hugs, kisses, handshakes, and encouraging words, but he got to see the hard-working, roll-up-your-sleeves Bill Bader. “He wasn’t afraid to do anything,” Thomas said.

    Dozens of others, such as Paula Motolik Smith, former public-relations manager for both the Norwalk, Ohio, racetrack and the IHRA, never will forget the Bill Bader Sr. who, in her words, “took me under his wing, treated me like his own, taught me business and life lessons, gave me opportunities, saw things in me that I didn’t know existed, challenged me, (very often) aggravated me, and encouraged me and protected me.” She said, “I wish everyone could have a Bill in their life at some point. Because of his faith in me I have countless memories and friendships that I will cherish for a lifetime.”

    That is the impact Bill Bader Sr. has had on motorsports and the people who make it work.

    But Bader—the larger-than-life character who had the rare combination of P.T. Barnum’s showmanship and Warren Buffett’s business savvy to set the standard for racetrack operations—died Sunday at age 79 in an accident on his Idaho property. Ironically, news reached his son at and family moments after Sunday’s conclusion to the NHRA Summit Equipment Motorsports Park Nationals.

    Bill Bader Sr., Drag Racing’s Last True P.T. Barnum, Dies in Accident at 79

    Bill Bader Sr. bought the race facility in Norwalk, Ohio in 1974. It is now one of the jewels of the NHRA schedule.

    NHRA/National Dragster

    Track owner Bill Bader Jr. issued the following statement shortly after Sunday’s final rounds: “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.”

    He is survived by wife Debbie; son Bill Jr. and wife Jayme; daughters Bobbie, Kelly, and Lisa; and grandsons Evan, Garret, Nathan, and Brett.

    Bill Bader Sr., and wife Debbie have lived north of Riggins, Idaho, on a steep and remote 3,000-acre mountain homestead that overlooks the Salmon River ever since he retired in 2004. It’s a long way both geographically and chronologically from his world of drag racing, from his lifetime commitment to building first a racetrack, then an entire sanctioning body, that catered to racers and treated fans like royalty. And that was just the way he wanted it, for whatever reasons he had.

    He had earned the right to peace and privacy. This man who never had raced only briefly in circle tracks but never had attended a drag race before he bought ramshackle Norwalk Raceway in 1974 at age 27. He transformed it into one of the top drag racing facilities in the country and then went on to purchase the International Hot Rod Association in 1998 and did the same on a grander scale.

    He was the fifth owner in IHRA history (after founder Larry Carrier, Texas Motorplex owner Billy Meyer, the tandem of Ted Jones and Jim Ruth, a group of racers, and Elton Alderman). But he was the one who applied his marketing magic and common sense to elevate it to its finest hour. By the time he retired, Bader said, “I’ve attended so many races, I’ve promoted so many events, if I never saw another race, I’m sure my life would be just fine.”

    He did say, “What I miss the most are the people, the friends we’ve made over the years.” And they missed him—and were shocked and saddened when news of his death hit Norwalk, Ohio, the center of his empire for so many years. In every way, he will be linked with the racetrack and its continuing traditions. He always will be associated with $1-per-pound ice cream, fireworks shows that rival any Disney park’s display, a special ice-cream-scooper trophy that NHRA Norwalk winners receive, the August all-star grandstand-jamming showcase called Night of Fire, and the week-long Halloween Classic. His fingerprints are all over the track that he handed over to son Bill Jr. 24 years ago. And his legion of friends hardly can believe he’s gone.

    Funny Car racer Dale Creasy Jr., who competed with Bader at Norwalk in both IHRA and NHRA competition, said, “Bill always made time to come talk to the racers during the event. always smiling. We will miss him.”

    Bill Bader Sr., Drag Racing’s Last True P.T. Barnum, Dies in Accident at 79

    Nowhere else but Norwalk do NHRA winners get both the Wally and the silver scoop.

    NHRA/National Dragster

    NHRA Pro Stock racer and 2017 champion Bo Butner said Sunday, “It seems unimaginable that as we watched the final rounds at Norwalk Raceway Park, something unimaginable happened to the Bader family. Bill Bader Sr. had visions, dreams, and hopes that were not for selfish achievements but rather for racers and a family he loved. He gave us the best racing facility in the country and then topped it off with ice cream and fireworks! May we all have such love for a sport, our families, our work, and our lives as Bill Bader Sr.”

    Thomas agreed. “None of us saw this coming, right? But then again,” he said, “Bill was doing it his way. He did everything his way.”

    And “Bill’s way” has been the gold standard.

    “He made every racer feel important. He made very fan feel important. He made every woman feel beautiful, because he hugged and kissed everybody. Everybody felt special, because he had that smile that was just wonderful. At the same time, he could conduct business like nobody else. They (the entire Bader family) stuck with that ‘We’re going to build the Disney World of drag racing.’ And they did – just incredible commitment. They made it look easy, but they worked so hard to make that happen. It was probably more profitable and better-run than NHRA ever was. Even though it wasn’t he biggest dog-and-pony show, it was quickly becoming such an incredible venue.”

    Bill Bader Sr., Drag Racing’s Last True P.T. Barnum, Dies in Accident at 79

    Mike Salinas won on Sunday at Norwalk.

    NHRA/National Dragster

    The blueprint for his dad’s success, Bader Jr. said, was “hidden in plain sight. It’s not rocket science.”

    Years ago, Bader Sr. said, “It was a matter of analyzing my customer. I broke them into four categories, starting with “the participant that puts on the show. The second category is the fan, the customer who pays to see. Then the sponsor who utilizes those two markets that I’ve created to sell his wares to. And then my fourth customer is the suitcase promoter—you know, the NHRA or the guy that has a little special show of some kind (and) he takes it on the road and goes from track to track. By trying to analyze what each of those different categories wanted and supplying what they wanted, we grew and we grew and we grew.”

    Grassroots racer and former IHRA employee Michael Beard recalls that Bader had a sign in his office that said, “I don’t know what the secret to success is, but the secret to failure is trying to please everyone.”

    Bader Jr. said he never has forgotten seeing his dad sitting at his desk, holding up a pencil. Dad told the son, “I just want to remind you that you can’t always run a business like this with one of these. So don’t concern yourself with the bottom line. Concern yourself with your guests. If your guest is happy, the bottom line will take care of itself.”

    “We’re a blue-collar family,” Bader Jr. said. “We just worked hard and we treated people well and we were sincere and available.”

    Thomas said, “He never, ever, ever, ever, ever treated anybody (poorly). You could take the worst drunk who probably sneaked into the race and didn’t pay, and Bill would still treat him like a friend. It’s just Bill. That was his make-up.”

    Carrie Weinert said Bader “was like a second father—yelled at me when I needed it and praised me when I needed it. If we had a long race and we got tired and I would mess up a car number, I would get irritated with myself. He would yell at me and for being so hard on myself. He’d say, “It’s OK, you’re human, but don’t do it again.” She laughed at the memory and said, “Bill was best man at our wedding, too. He was more than just a great boss. He was our best man in life.”

    Bader’s reach went far beyond Norwalk. The New family, who own Firebird Raceway at Eagle, Idaho, have been close to Bader for more than 30 years. They said in a statement this week that in that span “there was never ever a time when he wouldn’t share or offer advice. His wealth of knowledge and hands on expertise in all avenues of life were nothing shy of astounding. Honestly, we could literally call anytime of the day or night to seek advice or input. Our entire family feels a great loss, but at the same time we are truly grateful for all the good times we shared. Bill was revered, admired, and loved by everyone who came to know him. Truthfully, he was the embodiment of pride, dignity, and respect.”

    Maybe the New Family summed it up best: “There will be only one Bill Bader. May Saint Peter offer him one final green light to the pearly gates of Heaven. Godspeed, Bill.”

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