Norwalk Raceway Park - IHRA's Woodstock

By Jim Luikens

How Norwalk Raceway Park Became IHRA’s Woodstock

Every major racing series has its headline venue. NASCAR has the Daytona International Speedway, The IRL has the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Formula 1 has the Monaco Street Circuit and the NHRA has Indianapolis Raceway Park. This is the story of how Norwalk Raceway Park became IHRA’s marquee track.

The story began in 1974 when Bill Bader purchased the dormant Norwalk Dragway. The track had originally been built in 1963 and was, in fact, one of the very first drag strips to utilize the Chrondek Christmas Tree. After being used for ten years the strip had sat idle during the 1973 season. The Goodyear Tire Company had damaged the track during truck tire testing and the original owner was reluctant to invest additional money to repair the track because the nation was in the throes of its first energy crisis at the time.

Bill Bader was the successful promoter of nearby Sandusky Motor Speedway, a Saturday Night-style circle track. Norwalk’s founder approached Bill with the suggestion that he lease the drag strip also. Bill said no thanks since he was already leasing the Sandusky oval track. If Bill was going to make a move to drag racing he would only do so as the strip owner.

Eventually a deal was reached and Norwalk had its new owner. During the years from 1973 to 1977 Bill operated both his drag strip and the leased circle track. However in 1978 he made the decision to focus all of his energy on the drag strip. Under his tutelage the drag program had grown quite nicely but not anywhere near like he felt it could. Bill decided that if his plans and dreams were going to become a reality he had to expand the drag program.

During the years from 1974 to 1977 Norwalk Dragway had operated as a typical weekly track with a few special events. Bill realized that the back gate (racers) could only fund so much of his growth. He knew he would have to develop a front gate (spectators and sponsors) if his plans were to be fully realized. Don Garlits became one of Bill’s first booked-in shows and Norwalk, as a future world-class facility, was on its way.

During those early years Norwalk had been sanctioned by the AHRA but for the 1979 and 1980 seasons Bill switched to the NHRA. After the 1980 season he approached both IHRA and NHRA about hosting a national event. He knew he needed the kind of spectator attendance figures that a national event would provide to fund his plans for the future. NHRA said no flatly and firmly. They already had the Springnationals in Columbus and they weren't putting a second event into Ohio.
IHRA said sure, we’d love to have you if you make a few improvements like scoreboards and such. Bill said no problem and signed a five-year contract with the IHRA even though he and his track were far from the IHRA’s traditional stronghold in the South. The World Nationals, then held in the spring, got off to a rocky start. The first two editions, after a big round of capital improvements, were affected by rain. But the ‘83 event went better and for 1984 the event was switched to its now familiar late summer date.

In 1985 Bill’s five year contract with the IHRA was up and he was a little weary of struggling with the then-leaders of the IHRA and their casual style of management. As a result he once again approached NHRA about a national event. Once again they gave him another firm no. Deciding that the IHRA appeared to be the only game in town he renewed his contract with them and vowed to do things his way, even if his way exceeded IHRA standards.

Bill’s way included a fastidious attention to detail and a commitment to offer affordable family entertainment. The fact that the entertainment happened to be drag racing was of minor consequence. You see Bill had decided that the world was going to be his audience and not just race fans. That was the formula he adopted then and that is the formula that continues to this day.

Every year since 1985 has seen a steady and continuous improvement in creature comforts at Norwalk because he wants the whole family to come to the track. And, having been there, he wants them to come back again once they have experienced it for the first time. Norwalk features some of the finest bathrooms ever seen at a race track. They even include showers. Norwalk also has a customer service counter that is always staffed with an employee and a lovely gift shop that is worthy of any NASCAR track. And then they have their staple. How about a pound (16 ounces) of quality ice cream for just a buck? Talk about a fan favorite.

Norwalk also had some of the first stadium-style grandstands to be seen at a drag strip, well lighted parking, user-friendly employees and much more. And then there are their shows. Even though the strip operates four days a week, Norwalk’s spectator season is built around five major shows. In addition to the World Nationals another highlight event is their fabled Night Under Fire. Headlined by John Force, the last two years have seen John drive a Mustang with a special Norwalk paint scheme. Naturally, die cast replicas of that car can be purchased in the gift shop. The original real body is there too, hanging from the ceiling.

Another major track event is the Summit (nee Halloween) Classic. This event is aimed at the racers and draws a phenomenal 1600 competitors for one full week of racing late in the season. Like every Norwalk event it features free power for the motorhomes, which is a not-inconsequential cost to the track.

Norwalk the track reached a major fork in the road a few years ago when Bill Bader had a chance to purchase the IHRA sanctioning body. A family meeting confirmed that his son, also named Bill, would be willing to carry on the family tradition at Norwalk if Big Bill went to the IHRA. With the line of succession settled Bill the elder moved on and leaving Bill the younger to develop a new team since dad took the best employees with him to the IHRA.

To the casual observer the transition has been seamless. Young Bill has worked 100-hour weeks to establish his own team and impart his own philosophy, which is not much different than his dad’s. As always the primary goal is to enhance the customer’s experience while they are there. He even stations employees at the exit gates to thanks the fans for coming and to invite them back another time. Like his father, he also believes in long-term investment versus short-term gain.

Also like his father he has no shortage of ideas for the future. You see he doesn’t just want Norwalk to be the best drag strip, or even the best motorsports facility. He doesn’t see why it can’t be the best sports facility anywhere hosting the biggest sporting event. Considering the phoenix-like rise that the former Norwalk Dragway has exhibited over the past 30 years there is no reason to doubt that this is not an achievable goal.