NORWALK'S SWITCH TO NHRA

Many of us remember the important dates in our lives – a wedding anniversary, our children’s birthdays, the usual.  For Bill Bader, Jr. CEO of Norwalk Raceway Park in northern Ohio, one of those dates is June 20, 2004.  That’s when he first picked up the phone to call NHRA president Tom Compton to ask if there might be a full fledged POWERade Series national event in the track’s future.  Two years, two months and two days later that first conversation has become a reality with today’s announcement that the home of the IHRA World Nationals will next July 4th weekend host an NHRA POWERade Series national event.

Many of us remember the important dates in our lives – a wedding anniversary, our children’s birthdays, the usual.  For Bill Bader, Jr. CEO of Norwalk Raceway Park in northern Ohio, one of those dates is June 20, 2004.  That’s when he first picked up the phone to call NHRA president Tom Compton to ask if there might be a full fledged POWERade Series national event in the track’s future.  Two years, two months and two days later that first conversation has become a reality with today’s announcement that the home of the IHRA World Nationals will next July 4th weekend host an NHRA POWERade Series national event.

A FEW WORDS WITH FORMER IHRA PRESIDENT BILL BADER, SR. 

When Bill Bader purchased IHRA from the owners of Prolong Lubricants he really rescued the sanctioning body from the potential scrap heap. Had he not consummated the sale on January 9, 1998 its current owners were perfectly content to close the doors and call it a day. They had little choice at that point, as Prolong, their primary business, was hemorrhaging dollars like a shopping-mad Paris Hilton on the loose on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.[Read More]

 

A glance at a 2007 calendar shows that July 4th falls on Wednesday next year, so the question becomes, Is the race the weekend before or the weekend after July 4th?  Norwalk Raceway Park officials maintain that they don’t even know that answer, and NHRA officials refused our request for an early schedule release.  The 2007 NHRA POWERade Series slate is to be announced tomorrow, Wednesday, in Indianapolis, so until then anything we might suggest would be mere speculation.
           
Make no mistake about it, the decision faced by Bader and his father, Bill, Sr., was not an easy one.   For obvious reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the senior Bader was the president of IHRA through the late 90s and into the first years of the new millennium, and continues to hold a 25% ownership stake in the organization, this was not an easy move to make.  Regardless of how it might be perceived, Norwalk Raceway Park is now under the sole direction of Bill Bader, Jr., although he and his father are 50/50 partners in the property.


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Bill Bader, Jr. formally took over NRP for his father in 1998 when the senior Bader purchased IHRA. Despite the family’s close ties to the sanctioning body, their own study indicated a switch to NHRA sanction might produce additional revenues, making the decision to switch easier.

 

It’s not easy taking over for a legend, for that’s what Bill Bader, Sr. had become during his tenure at NRP, a property he acquired in 1974 when it was all but closed.  With a solid reputation for customer service, the senior Bader turned the place into what used to be referred to as a “nice little track.”  In recent years that statement has been shunted aside, as regular re-investment in the property has turned it into a first-class facility in every respect, with more positive changes already in the pipeline for the coming months.  The most obvious of these will be the new VIP suites and a massive new media center along with extensive paving in the pro pit areas, and along with those changes there’ll be new bathroom/shower facilities, more camping spaces and new scoreboards.
           
Bill Bader, Jr., 39, started working under his father’s direction when he was just 10-years old.  He did everything from mowing the grass to painting guardrails to basic electrical repairs before his father even considered handing him a microphone to announce his first race.  It’s safe to say that he has indeed come a long way, baby, and he’s a long way from finished.

There’s no question about how momentous this changeover is going to be.  It will impact both sanctioning organizations in various ways.  For starters, IHRA loses its stateside lynchpin race track, but steady advancements north of the border, plus successful races in San Antonio, Texas and a new venue in Tulsa, Oklahoma may help offset the loss.  On the NHRA side National Trail Raceway in Columbus will lose its national event date in favor of Norwalk, although the track will remain open and in heavy use.  Sources within NHRA report that it will continue to host its sportsman-only event.  Remember, the mere fact that National Trail is owned by the NHRA makes the cancellation of the track’s POWERade Series race all the more intriguing.

WHY NORWALK RACEWAY PARK?

by Jon Asher

Tradition means a great deal when it comes to certain activities. That first pitch by a celebrity or politician at a baseball game. The coin toss before a football game. The grand entry parade at a rodeo. In drag racing it’s the firing of the first pair of fuelers following the national anthem, among other things.
[Read More ]

 

Norwalk’s July 4th race will probably be title righted to Pontiac and Summit Racing Equipment as was the Columbus race, but that, too, remains to be seen.  Because no formal decision had been made, and the situation was still being discussed internally, General Motors executives declined to be quoted for this story.  While Summit Racing Equipment played an active role in the press conference today, they, too, are far from making a formal decision about participating as the event presenting sponsor, as they have yet to receive a formal proposal on the subject.
           
One thing we do know for certain is that the race will include all eliminator categories, including the four pro categories and a full slate of sportsman entries, including both Top Alcohol dragster and Funny Car.  In addition, if there’s a Pro Modified exhibition category next season it will also be included, and if not, the track is likely to have its own 8-car show of Pro Mods.  Remember, that eliminator was a major drawing card under IHRA sanction, with the track eager to continue to feature those crowd-pleasing entries.

When Bill Bader, Jr. took over the actual day-to-day operations of NRP in the mid-90s few noticed because no formal announcement was made.  His formal takeover came in 1998, but he’d been in charge for four years by then.  It wasn’t an easy transition for the young man because his father took three key employees with him when he took over IHRA, including Skooter Peaco, Paula Motolik and Jim Weinert.  And Bader knew he was going to be trying to fill very large shoes.  “I just didn’t know how large,” he says now.  “My father’s larger-then-life persona was hard to follow.  He could do it all, from being an almost Wal-Mart-like greeter to running the whole show.  I had to learn how to do a lot of those things, and I’ll probably never do them as well as he did.”

Here, in Bill Jr’s. own words, is how this change from IHRA to NHRA came about, and where he sees things going from here.


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Norwalk Raceway Park was once considered a “nice little track.” Under the direction of Bill Bader, Sr. it became IHRA’s most important venue, with this year’s final World Nationals once again drawing an exceptional field of cars for an outstanding event.

 

COMPPLUS:: 
During your father’s tenure as the president of IHRA did you ever have a conflict between you, the track owner/operator and he, the IHRA president?

BADER: (Laughs)  Twice.  Believe it or not, there were only two occasions.  The first was when we were launching norwalkraceway.com and I wanted to put together some pro teams to decorate them with those logos.  One was a fuel coupe and the other a jet car.  The whole world, at that time, identified Norwalk Raceway Park and IHRA as one and the same thing, so some tracks and IHRA racers were up in arms over what they saw as IHRA showing favoritism to one specific track.  That was the only time since dad left NRP that he told me I could not do something, because we argued about it.  I told him he was missing a marketing opportunity for the track, but he was looking at it from the IHRA perspective.  At that time I did not have an ownership position in the track although I was running it, so he did have the right to say no.

The other time, which was humorous as hell, was when Billy Matteo was in his last year of running his jet car, so I said, Let’s set an Ohio Land Speed Record, and as you know, there are definitely restrictions on how fast you can let those jet cars run.  Well, we did it, and did it with the lights off at the track during a night show.  Billy’s eyes were so bad I had a guy standing at the finish line holding a flare so he could see where the line was.  He ran something like 332 miles per hour, and I did get the threat of losing my sanction if I ever did something stupid like that again.

The senior Bader was the sixth owner and 10th president of IHRA when he took over the reins in 1998. The organization’s importance grew under his leadership, but his legacy is more likely to be his accomplishments at NRP.

 

COMPPLUS:: Since your dad gave up his leadership role of IHRA has your business contacts with him been more than before, less, or about the same?

BADER: I would say it’s been about the same.  The amount of personal time we shared before was virtually non-existent (because of the IHRA job).  Now that personal time is off the charts.  It is very difficult, when the Baders are together, to not talk about work on some level.  Even casual conversations end up about work.  Our father-son relationship is off the scale.  As far as decision-making and the like is concerned, I do use Dad.  He’s brilliant, he’s incredibly savvy, but he made it very clear to me after he stepped down that even though we are 50/50 partners he wanted nothing to do with the day-to-day operations of the track. 

COMPPLUS:: Do you think this change of Norwalk Raceway Park to NHRA sanction is going to be damaging to IHRA?

BADER: (Long pause)  In all honesty, I guess the answer is no.  I think the perception will be yes, but the reality will be no.  I remember when IHRA left Bristol, and people said, This is the tipping point, this is the beginning of the end and yet the sanctioning body, despite having struggles and difficulty with leadership, the sanctioning body moved forward and continued.  The reality is that IHRA has upgraded its facilities.  You look at places like Martin or Milan in Michigan, or the tracks in Canada where they’ve gone into markets like Calgary in Alberta and places like that.  They’ve very quietly been able to carve out niches for themselves with facilities that far and away are improved over what they were five or ten years ago.  IHRA will continue to develop those markets and continue to grow.  Obviously the inclusion of Nitro Funny Cars has been a big deal for them and has resulted in double digit increases at the spectator gates.  I really think, and particularly for my father’s sake, that IHRA will move forward.  You know, when he was running IHRA we hardly ever saw him.  Christmas was about it, because he spent so much time working.  I would like to think that that organization, with some of the foundation pieces that Dad put in place, would continue to grow, prosper and move forward.


The addition of hi-rise grandstands on NRP’s east side, plus additional seating on the pro pit side has turned the once “small-time” facility into a big league player. The Night Under Fire extravaganza in mid-summer regularly draws in excess of 35,000 spectators.

 

COMPPLUS:: How long have you been contemplating this sanction change?

BADER: June 20, 2004.  That was the day I picked up the phone and made my first call to Tom (Compton, NHRA president), and asked him the question.  What precipitated that was my feeling that we had achieved a certain level of success with IHRA, and I wanted the opportunity to introduce some of the stars of our sport who are not showcased at an IHRA event, to our fans, so I picked up the phone and asked the question.

COMPPLUS:: What’s your candid opinion of the current IHRA leadership?  Do you think Aaron Polburn has a view towards the future and obviously, if he does that must differ from your own or you wouldn’t be making this sanction change.

BADER: (Long pause again) Well, here’s a fundamental difference between the way I was raised and Aaron’s approach to the sanctioning body.  From the time I was 10-years-old my father always taught me the goal was to produce happy customers.  My dad always told me that if we had happy customers leaving the track, the rest of it would take care of itself.  So, my approach has been, Come to Norwalk Raceway Park, check your troubles at the gate, let us entertain you.  Scream and holler, have a pound of ice cream for a dollar, and go home happy.  A few years ago, at the Night Under Fire, I encountered a father and son at the gate, so I engaged them in conversation.  The father told me that he’d been diagnosed with cancer and had been given but a short time to live, and he wanted to come out with his son and enjoy the show.  I thought, My God, this is what it’s all about.  If we can entertain people for just one evening, and if that guy, knowing he’s going to be leaving this earth, yet he comes to our place, then that’s really meaningful to me.  The money, the profitability, the bottom line, all of that counts, but in the end it’s making your customers happy.

Former announcer Aaron Polburn’s management of IHRA has featured steady growth north of the border, along with some positive movement stateside, but the loss of NRP to NHRA will be a bitter blow.

 

COMPPLUS:: Are we to take from your comments that you don’t believe Aaron Polburn has the same philosophy in dealing with the customers that you do?

BADER: I think Aaron takes more of a business approach (than we do).  I think Aaron has a business plan and he’ll maximize profits for IHRA more quickly, perhaps, than Bill Bader, Sr. would have.  I was always raised with the credo that you build for the future, you look long term.  The reality of it is that in corporate America, and IHRA is a part of that, you can’t look long term.  They have stock holders and for them the thing is EPS – Earnings Per Share – and that’s what counts the most.  Their report card is published for the whole world to see very three months, and that’s not what built Norwalk Raceway Park.  We built NRP with a genuine care for people and with a genuine love of what we do.  I think that if you look at what we’re spending and at what we do, and the amount of hours we work, you have to wonder if what we’re doing makes financial sense.  I think that as a legacy to my father it’s to continue the vision he had when he took over this track in 1974.  In looking at and in contrasting the style (between Bill Bader, Sr.) and Aaron, I think the difference is that Aaron has stockholders he has to answer to every three months, so therefore the goal has to be to maximize profit.  This isn’t the NFL, this isn’t NASCAR, and hopefully one day we might be, but we don’t have that instant credibility, so we can’t charge the high dollar for tickets, or for sponsorships or suite rentals and everything else.  We are still, in our product life cycle, a baby.


Hard to fathom for those who’ve never been there, but a highlight of the “Norwalk Experience” is enjoying a full pound of home made ice cream for one thin dollar. And here you’ve been complaining about those $10 hot dogs, haven’t you? Loosen your belt and dig in!

 

COMPPLUS:: Let’s talk about ticket pricing.  Traditionally the IHRA/Norwalk Raceway Park policy has been to charge fair prices, but nothing exorbitant.  The NHRA policy will probably call for higher prices for your national event next year.  How do you think your fans will react to that?

BADER: I think we’re going to be okay, and I’ll tell you why.  Last year the ticket price for the World Nationals was actually $2 higher than it was to see the NHRA show in Columbus.

COMPPLUS::  What was the most expensive ticket price for this year’s World Nationals?

BADER: The basic price was $35 plus an additional $20 for Club Norwalk of which there were only 220 seats like that, so the top price was $55, but again, there were only a limited number of those seats.  The vast majority of the people paid $35 with free parking.

COMPPLUS:: What’s the projected ticket price for next year’s NHRA POWERade Series race?

BADER: I think it’s going to be a few dollars more, but that’s not confirmed yet.  The track has a real voice in what the prices will be.  When I look at the package and how we will embrace those fans, and how we will treat them – and we will ‘service’ the hell out of them – I think it will really be an immaterial amount of money when we compare it to what we will deliver to them.

COMPPLUS:: What’s your short term estimated investment in track improvements prior to next year?

By the time the pros arrive for next July 4th’s POWERade Series race the pro pits will be completely paved – and probably far more crowded than they were for the World Nationals.

 

BADER: Four million dollars over the course of the next 12 months.  Please bear in mind that regardless of our direction we were going to spend a good deal of that money no matter what we did.  We’re going to build, and pardon the cliché, a state-of-the-art suite complex that will house offices and a conference center on the ground floor, suites on the second and third floors with corporate hospitality opportunities on the fourth floor.  This is going to be a really trick facility.  It’s going to be all enclosed with internal hallways.  It has the sightlines and comforts of major stick and ball suites, with each suite having its own outside patio, so if you want to sit inside or out, you can do either.  There’ll be closed circuit TV coverage in every suite, with bathrooms and wet bars in each one as well.  

The architecture of the suite building is phenomenal and I believe these suites will be as good as any you can find anywhere in racing.  There will be 12 suites in the new building.

           

COMPPLUS:: What other improvements are planned for next year?

BADER: Paving.  We have a lot of paving to do, along with new scoreboards and other changes.  The pros will continue to pit on the west side of the track, and there’ll be a lot of new paving in that area.  We haven’t yet finalized our Manufacturer’s Midway area, but it’s undoubtedly going to remain on the west side of the track.  The east side will be completely devoted to the sportsman pits.  Remember, this is a 225 acre facility, and we utilize every square inch of that.  We put 1,620 cars in here for the Halloween Classic, so we really do have a facility that we can work pretty hard.  We put almost 1,000 cars in here for the World Nationals, too.

AN INTERVIEW WITH TOM COMPTON

Tom Compton on National Trail Raceway, Norwalk Raceway Park and the Future...
[Read More]

 

 

EDITORS NOTE: Since completing this interview with Mr. Bader just before the World Nationals began the situation has dramatically changed.  When the architectural plans were studied against the physical race plant it quickly became apparent that the proposed new tower was more than 30-feet too wide to fit the space designated for it.  Moving the massive east side grandstands was financially impractical, and “turning” the building slightly proved counterproductive, as the track sightlines from the suites would have been negatively impacted, so the new tower has already been scrapped.
           
In its place a state-of-the-art media center will be built atop the east side grandstands where the operations center now sits.  The media center will have elevator access and will provide drag racing and straight press journalists with one of the best views of the action they’ve ever enjoyed.
           
The twelve suites described by Bader will be built atop the west side grandstands, affording the VIPs an exceptional view of the action.  Elevator access for the suite level is still being discussed.
           
The shift of the media to the east side of the track is also likely to result in the pro pits moving to that side of the track as well, with enough new paving to accommodate a substantial number of entries.  By making the west side the sportsman pits much of the grass-covered areas can be retained, with these areas being highly sought after for many of NRP’s other events.
           
The track’s existing “tower” on the west side of the facility will be retained, gutted and rebuilt.  It will no longer house VIP suites, but will be totally dedicated to office and conference room space.

IHRA PRESIDENT AARON POLBURN ON THE LOSS OF NORWALK RACEWAY PARK

“Norwalk Raceway Park has been a huge track on our tour. There’s no doubt about it. Can it be replaced? Sure. If you look at our business this year and our plan this year, we’ve been planning for the inevitable. We have a very good plan in mind.


“I know this may sound odd, but I’m actually energized by the whole scenario. Am I sad about losing Norwalk? Sure. Can it be replaced? Sure.


“If you go back a year ago, we got an inkling in July with my last meeting with Bill and Billy. We wanted a three-year extension and they wanted a one-year. I felt I was just putting off the inevitable.

[Read More ]

 

COMPPLUS:: What plans do you have for, say, the next five years?

BADER: I would like to do everything we can for the customers, and that includes more new bathrooms and showers, expanded camping and motorhome areas.  We would actually like to have a year-round camping/motorhome area as part of Norwalk Raceway Park.  I hope the good Lord blesses us to the point where we have to put in more seats.  We’ll continue to build on what we have to make the facility more aesthetically pleasing to the customers.  We’ll plant more trees, do more landscaping, even plant more flowers.  We’ll build more hospitality areas for the spectators to get out of the sun, things like that.

COMPPLUS:: Because your race date is going to be July 4th weekend next year, is this going to be a three or four-day race?

BADER:  Four.

COMPPLUS:: What’s your plan for the Night Under Fire event, which has traditionally run on July 4th weekend?

BADER: That will move to the first weekend in August so there’ll be a 30-day separation between the two events.

COMPPLUS:: Because you’ll have John Force and the others competing in the national event, do you think the fans will come back to see him in August?

BADER: I think the national event is a very legitimate, very professional drag race.  I think the Night Under Fire is an entertainment package, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have some concerns about it.  Next year is the 30th anniversary of the Night Under Fire, and as far as I know, in legitimate numbers, it’s the largest single day event in drag racing worldwide.  We spend $100,000 on our 17-minute fireworks show.  You don’t need to be a drag race fan to enjoy the Night Under Fire experience. 

We did some research three years ago and found that the Night Under Fire customer and the World Nationals customer shared less than a 10 percent commonality.  It just blew us away.  In other words, our Night Under Fire customer is usually not our World Nationals customer.  One event is for the purists, and the other is strictly show business.

COMPPLUS:  Anything else?

           

BADER:: Well, I’m really excited about this, and about the future.  It’s exciting to take on new challenges. It keeps business fun.  I’ve asked Dad to come on board to help with the new improvements we’re going to make, so this will be the first time we’ve actually worked together since he left to take over IHRA, so that’s going to be fun.  I think we’ve got a good foundation to go forward, and I think the future’s bright for all of motorsports and for drag racing.

You know, early on Dad tried to get an NHRA national event here, but at that time Norwalk Raceway was a less than desirable facility and location, with no reputation and no history.  It took a long time to get where we are.  We approached IHRA, and they didn’t know us either, but they gave us a shot and believed in us, and for that we’ll be forever grateful.  But for me, as the next generation, to bring that all home and be able to get an NHRA national event has been a very rewarding experience, and I can’t wait for tomorrow much less next year.


 

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