Bill Bader Sr., Drag Racing’s last true PT Barnum, dies in crash at 79

  • Former Summit Motorsports Park owner Bill Bader Sr., who had the rare combination of PT Barnum’s showmanship and Warren Buffett’s business acumen, died Sunday at age 79 in an accident on his property in the Idaho.
  • Bader, who also owned IHRA for a time, and his wife Debbie had lived north of Riggins, Idaho, since retiring in 2004.
  • Bill Bader Jr. currently owns and operates Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk, Ohio.

    Every May 22 and June 13, Jim Weinert, the “Picasso of Runway Prep” for the IHRA, sent his wife, Carrie, flowers on her birthday and their anniversary.

    Every year after his passing in March 2012, Bill Bader Sr. stepped in and continued the tradition without fail.

    Going in and doing what he thought he had to do was Bader’s signature. Seven-time IHRA Alcohol Funny Car Champion Mark Thomas visited Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk, Ohio in 2009 after retiring from racing, and he and two of his young children met Bader driving a an old pickup truck that Thomas guessed “wasn’t worth $500,” picking up trash bags all over the property. They joined him on his chores.

    Bill Bader Sr.

    NHRA/National Dragster

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

    Dozens more, like Paula Motolik Smith, former public relations manager for the Norwalk, Ohio, and IHRA racetrack, will never forget Bill Bader Sr. who, in his words, “m ‘took me under his wing, treated me like his own, taught me business and life lessons, gave me opportunities, saw things in me I didn’t know existed, challenged, (very often) annoyed me, encouraged me and protected me. She said: “I wish everyone could have a bill in their life at some point. Thanks to his faith in me, I have countless memories and friendships that I will cherish for the rest of my life.

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

    But Bader – the larger-than-life figure who had the rare combination of PT Barnum’s showmanship and Warren Buffett’s business acumen to set the standard for racetrack operations – died Sunday at 79 in a crash on his Idaho property. Ironically, the news reached his son and his family moments after Sunday’s conclusion of the National Championships at NHRA Summit Equipment Motorsports Park.

    bill bader sr nhra
    Bill Bader Sr. purchased the race center in Norwalk, Ohio in 1974. It is now one of the gems on the NHRA schedule.

    NHRA/National Dragster

    Track owner Bill Bader Jr. released the following statement shortly after Sunday’s final rounds: “It is with a heavy heart that I share the news that this afternoon my father was involved in a accident on the mountain he loved so much and passed away. I will share more information as it becomes available. Know that my father loved you.

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

    Bill Bader Sr. and his wife Debbie have lived north of Riggins, Idaho on a rugged, secluded 3,000-acre mountain farm that overlooks the Salmon River since he retired in 2004. It’s geographically and chronologically far from his world of drag racing, his lifelong commitment to building first a racetrack, then an entire sanctioning body, that catered to racers and treated fans like royalty. And that was exactly what he wanted, for all the reasons he had.

    He had earned the right to peace and privacy. The man who had only raced circular tracks briefly but had never attended a drag race before buying the dilapidated Norwalk Raceway in 1974 at the age of 27. He turned it into one of the best drag racing facilities in the country, then bought the International Hot Rod Association in 1998 and did the same on a larger 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 heyday. When he retired, Bader said: “I’ve been to 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 said: “What I miss 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 any way, it will be linked to the racecourse and its traditions. It will always be associated with $1 a pound ice cream, fireworks that rival any Disney park, a special ice cream trophy that NHRA Norwalk winners receive, the showcase of the August Star Stands jamming called Night of Fire, and the week-long Halloween Classic. His fingerprints are all over the trail he gave to his son Bill Jr. 24 years ago. And his legion of friends can hardly 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 and talk to the racers during the event. always smiling. We will miss him.

    nhra robert hight scoop
    Nowhere else but in 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 weren’t for selfish accomplishments but rather for runners and a family he loved. He gave us the best running facility in the country, 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 accepted. “None of us saw that coming, did we? But then again,” he said, “Bill was doing it his way. He did everything his way.”

    And “Bill’s way” was the gold standard.

    “He made every runner feel important. He made fans feel important. He made every woman feel beautiful, because he hugged and kissed everyone. Everyone felt special, because he had this smile that was just wonderful. At the same time, he could do business like no one else. They (the whole Bader family) stuck to this “We’re going to build the Disney world of drag racing”. And they did – an incredible commitment. They made it look easy, but they worked so hard to make it happen. It was probably more profitable and better run than the NHRA ever was. Although it wasn’t the biggest dog and pony show, it was quickly becoming an amazing venue. »

    nhra mike salinas
    Mike Salinas won Sunday at Norwalk.

    NHRA/National Dragster

    His father’s plan for success, Bader Jr. said, was “hidden in plain sight. It’s not rocket science.

    Years ago, Bader Sr. said, “It was about analyzing my client. I divided them into four categories, starting with “the participant who does the show”. The second category is the fan, the customer who pays to see. Then the sponsor who uses these two marketplaces that I created to sell their wares. And then my fourth client is the promoter of the suitcase – you know, the NHRA or the guy who has some special little show (and) he takes it on the road and goes from track to track. By trying to analyze what each of these different categories wanted and providing what they wanted, we grew and we grew and we grew.

    Base runner and former IHRA employee Michael Beard recalls Bader having a sign in his office that read, “I don’t know what the secret to success is, but the secret to failure is to try to please everyone.”

    Bader Jr. said he never forgot to see his father sitting at his desk, holding a pencil. Dad said to the son, “I just want to remind you that you can’t always run a business like this with one of them.” So don’t worry about the end result. Take care of your guests. If your guest is satisfied, the net result will take care of itself. »

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

    Thomas said, “He never, ever, ever, ever, ever treated anyone (badly). You could take the worst drunk who probably snuck into the race and didn’t pay, and Bill would still treat him like a friend. It’s just Bill. It was her makeup.

    Carrie Weinert said Bader “was like a second dad – yelling at me when I needed it and praising me when I needed it. If we had a long run and we got tired and I missed a number car I’d be mad at myself He was yelling at me and for being so hard on myself He was saying “It’s okay you’re human but don’t do it again” She laughed at the memory and said said, “Bill was also our wedding best man. He was more than just a big boss. He was our best man in life.”

    Bader’s reach went far beyond Norwalk. The New family, owners of Firebird Raceway in Eagle, Idaho, have been close to Bader for more than 30 years. They said in a statement this week that during this period “there was never a time when he would not share or offer advice. His wealth of knowledge and practical expertise in all walks of life was simply astounding. Honestly, we could literally call any time day or night asking for advice or feedback. Our whole 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 all who knew him. Honestly, he embodied pride, dignity and respect.

    Perhaps the New Family summed it up best: “There will be only one Bill Bader. May Saint Peter offer him a last green light at the pearly gates of Heaven. Good luck, Bill.

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