As I entered the motorcycle pits at the the world’s largest independent drag race last season, the illustrious Norwalk Night Under Fire, I was overcome with excitement as Bill Bader Jr. and his team gave Cycledrag a coveted opportunity to bring a motorcycle show to the big stage – in front of more than 40,000 drag racing fans.
The motorcycle racers participating were equally thrilled and one of the team owners, Scott McKinney yelled to me,”Even Bill Sr. is out here directing traffic.”
“What?” I thought to myself.
I knew exactly who he was referring to when he said “Bill Sr.” – Mr. Bill Bader Sr., the legendary, longtime time owner of arguably the most beautiful and well-kept drag strip in the world, Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk, Ohio, and by far one of the greatest promoters and success stories the sport of drag racing has ever seen.
I questioned why this legendary figure, now in his late 70s would be working the pits, helping park racers on a sweltering hot weekend.
“Shouldn’t Mr. Bader be somewhere with his feet propped in the air enjoying the fruits of one of drag racing’s most remarkable careers?” I thought.
It’s not the Bader way.
You see, due to the shortage of employees last year the 78-year-old legend rolled up his sleeves and went to work at his family’s race track on the biggest weekend of the year. It’s this type of leadership-by-example that has instilled a remarkable work ethic in the entire family and staff.
I knew I had to make the long walk up the steps, to the tower to catch a quick word with the legend, as we watched the stands fill to capacity just prior to the start of the show.
It’s an interview I will treasure forever.
Sadly, Bader Sr. passed away in an accident near his home on Sunday in northern Idaho.
His son, 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.”
I was introduced to the Bader family by another of my mentors, one of the greatest drag racing promoters of all-time, Keith “Scooter” Kizer. I was a young, nervous announcer for Kizer’s AMA / Prostar organization at his 2002 Norwalk event when he took me up to Bader Jr. after the race and said, “teach my young announcer a few things.”
I’ll never forget the words Bader Jr. spoke. They paved the way for my career and this outlet.
“I’ll teach you what my father taught me,” Bader Jr. said. “We are not in the racing business. We are in the entertainment business. Never forget that.”
These valuable, wise and immortal words came from legends who sacrificed and built racing legacies from the ground up. After all, without interest from passionate fans and participants, what would racing truly be?
Bader Sr. had the same type of impact on Kizer that Bader Jr. had on me.
Kizer sent along the following memories of Bader Sr. –
“This morning longtime friend and colleague, Doug Neubauer, text me to see if I had heard that Bill Bader had passed away Sunday. In shock, I went to the Summit Raceway website to read the vague details that Bill had been involved in an accident on a side-by-side at his mountain home in Riggins, Idaho.
At my age, I now work in a sector of the motorcycle industry where most of my friends are in their late 60’s up to their 90’s, so learning of another friend or acquaintances passing is not new nor specifically emotional as it once was. Today was different. I get an early start each day so once my wife was up, I went in to tell her the news about Bill. I couldn’t get the words out. It was then my attempt to utter Bill’s name overcame me.
Bill Bader was a true mentor to me, and I know to hundreds if not thousands of others. I am truly saddened by this news. Bill taught me the art of business, marketing and caring of those who participate in our sport. I met Bill at an IHRA Track Operator’s Conference in 1992 and he took me under his wings and helped me grow the sport of motorcycle drag racing.
Long before I took the AMA/Prostar series to Norwalk, I spent many days visiting Bill at his office and home to learn from the true master. He was 49 years old when we met, and I was just a kid at 32. Before showing me his marketing methods, he first taught me how to communicate. Today that would be known as networking, but Bill taught it as personal relationships with everyone you meet. He taught me the art of handwritten cards to those who either help us or those we need to encourage. This was at the beginning age of personal computers and way before texting but “Nothing means as much as a handwritten card,” Bill would say. 30 years later, I’m still handwriting cards.
The first time I came to Norwalk, I flew in, arriving on a Friday night. Since I was unknown to anyone at the track, Bill asked me to “Shop” his staff. I drove in the gate in a plain-jane 2-door rent car, pulled up to the gate and said, “I’m in town for business and thought I would come see what drag racing was all about, can I race my car?” I was given friendly instructions (by who turned out to be Bill’s daughter, Bobbie) of what I needed to do and sent to the staging lanes. I spent the next couple of hours bracket racing until I was eliminated. I visited with every employee that night and the concessions staff. I got my first taste of $1 per pound ice cream. After I was eliminated, I headed to the tower to find Bill. After racing was over, Bill had me participate in a post event briefing with his staff. They passed with flying colors. Looking back now, I’m not so sure who was being tested. I thought it was his staff, but he knew exactly how they would perform. I think maybe it was it was a test to see if I could follow instructions. I think that night, we all tripped the win light.
I grew up working for my Dad and understood the importance of taking care of the equipment. In Bill’s case, the equipment included all the acreage that made up Norwalk Raceway Park. I was with him on his golf cart one day when out of the corner of his eye he saw a little piece of trash. Something that I did not even notice. He shot across the grass pits to retrieve this trash and stuck it in his pocket. For all the years I attended or raced at Norwalk, I never walked pass a piece of trash without stopping to pick it up. That is the attention to detail I learned from Bill.
I’ve read the word “Mentor” many times today. I think Bill Bader’s photo should be posted next to that word in the dictionary. I’m not sure there was a better mentor than Bill. When you were in his presence, you had the feeling you were the most important person in the world. And at that moment, you were. To all my fellow mentored brothers and sisters, my deepest condolences to you because I feel your loss.
I have had three mentors in my business life: Jack O’Malley (Orient Express), Skip Bernard (Bernard Racing) and Bill Bader. I have now lost all three and vow to carry on their names and work ethic to the next generation.
From the Kizer family, our deepest condolences go to Debbie, Bill Jr., Bobbie, Kelly, Lisa and then entire Bader family. Thank you for sharing Bill with us. We loved him dearly. Keith (Scooter) Kizer.”
Cycledrag sends its thoughts and prayers out to the Bader and Summit Motorsports Park family during this difficult time.
Godspeed Bill Bader Sr., there will never be another. Let’s hope we can all make you proud.