- Published on Thursday, 28 February 2013 03:25
NORWALK, Ohio -- A Golden Anniversary in 2013 stirs memories of early grungy days of drag racing at Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk, Ohio.
My, how times have changed from when the only visitors were hard core drag racers: a gang of guys with their tool boxes!
With a local economic impact calculated at $99.5 million a year, Summit Motorsports Park won a Track of the Year award in December out of 130 race tracks sanctioned by the National Hot Rod Association.
And last month, fans and racers voted Summit Motorsports Park their Track of the Year, this time in an online poll sponsored by CompetitionPlus.com.
Bill Bader Jr., president of Summit Motorsports Park, said the honors humbled and challenged him.
“The NHRA Track of the Year honor is something that is very prestigious and elite,” said Bill Bader Jr., adding that since Summit Motorsports Park joined the NHRA in 2007, the family-owned business hauled home the honor in 2008, 2010, 2011 and 2012.
Bader compared the NHRA award with winning the Oscars, because his peers -- race track owners, operators and racers -- vote on it.
The CompetitionPlus.com award lines up more closely with a People’s Choice award, Bader said, because anyone may vote.
Bader greatly appreciates both awards, he said.
“It’s a result of a lot of hard work by a lot of people who are committed mind, body and soul to a common cause,” Bader said.
The winning philosophy developed decades ago.
In 1963 at a time when automotive innovation created hot rods, muscle cars and altered vehicles, Norwalk Dragway opened at 1300 Ohio 18 east of Norwalk.
By the early 1970’s, the property needed new vision.
Bill Bader Sr. and his partners bought the business to supplement ventures at Sandusky Speedway, and opened in April of 1974 the first season as Norwalk Raceway.
Through the lean years, Bill Bader Sr. muscled the property into shape, moving piles of dirt by wheelbarrow and hand-digging fence post holes.
And by focusing on a different aspect of the park each year, the Bader family and the crew developed the award-winning guest service policies.
Then in 1997 when Bill Bader Sr. handed the keys to then Norwalk Raceway Park to his son, Bill Bader Jr., the park skyrocketed the entertainment value, especially at main events.
Patrick Martin, chief executive officer of Fisher-Titus Medical Center in Norwalk, Ohio,
recalls his early experiences at the dragstrip.
“I grew up on a farm by Wakeman,” Martin said, adding in his senior year at Western Reserve High School, his sister allowed him to borrow her 1967 Camaro to race at the dragstrip.
“That was the amazing part,” Martin said. “I broke a national record in M Pure Stock. I still have the trophy. It was unique for a high school senior to accomplish that.
“I used to take my date to Norwalk Raceway Park.”
Martin remembers meeting Bill Bader Sr.
“They were always a committed, dedicated family,” Martin said. “Back then Norwalk Raceway Park wasn’t much. The track was blacktop. The rest was limestone. It wasn’t very customer friendly.
“But it was fun,” Martin said, “for somebody who grew up on a farm, which I did, with tractors and equipment.
“Growing up in the area, one of the challenges of going to the fair -- and the raceway was the same way -- was using the restrooms,” Martin said.
New state-of-the-art restrooms at Summit Motorsports Park make the necessity so much nicer, Martin said.
Also, in the 1960’s and 1970’s, about 75 percent of visitors at the racetrack were men, Martin estimated.
“It wasn’t a family event,” Martin said. “That’s one of the things they have captured. They have taken the time to create this as a family destination.”
More recently, Martin attends big features such as the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals, part of the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series, which returns July 4-7, 2013 at Summit Motorsports Park.
“It’s a great experience,” Martin said. “It’s much more of a family event than it used to be, because the accommodations are so much better.”
Visit Fisher-Titus Medical Center on the Web by clicking on simply smarter care.
On each day of the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals, the population of Huron County almost doubles because of the crowd.
As a result, the track provides services normally associated with a municipality, such as police, fire, EMS, food, as well as trash and waste disposal.
While an ambulance remains on site as long as vehicles go down the track, most of the medical cases involve fans, not racers.
“Rarely is anybody injured in a race car,” said Don Ballah, executive vice president of North Central EMS. “We have more illness and attention to spectators, for example, with the heat.
“They will go 300 mph, and these people walk away from accidents because of the safety in the vehicles,” Ballah said. “After thousands and thousands of races, it’s a very safe sport.
“As a driver and a paramedic, it’s reassuring to me to know that if something were to happen, there’s someone there to assist if need be,” Ballah said.
Since 1985 a paramedic who was the first employee hired at North Central EMS, Ballah also enjoyed early experiences at the dragstrip, lining up to race a 1973 El Camino beginning in 1979, while a student at Edison High School.
“My wife and I went to that race track every weekend,” Don Ballah said. “I had four different racing cars; I was a track champion, and Sportsman of the Year, which was voted on by the other drivers.”
His wife, Lisa Ballah, also won a drag race in their 1972 Mustang Convertible, Ballah said, adding they sold their final car, a rear end dragster, trailer and all, in 2006.
“I sure do miss those times,” Ballah said. “I have great, great memories out there.”
Ballah described the changes at Summit Motorsports Park.
“It’s amazing,” Don Ballah said. “I remember the wooden bleachers with no railings on them and weeds growing up through them; the chain link fence in the back; the tower was a one-room structure looking over the race track; at the base of the tower they handed out trophies and payouts.
“In the early days they had motorcross for motorcycles on Friday nights on the Summit side,” Ballah said.
“Now it’s a world class motorplex,” Ballah said. “To have the amount of people in one spot, it becomes its own city. It’s a very incredible facility.”
Visit North Central EMS on the Web by clicking on emergency care.
A three-generation family heritage of local racing continues as 15-year-old Owen Hoover, Ridge Road, Norwalk, launches his fourth season in Bear Motorsports Junior Dragsters presented by Wiseco.
His father, Brian Hoover, 45, Norwalk, a drywall specialist at Janotta and Herner in Monroeville, said he prefers grassroots racing.
“It’s a good time,” Brian Hoover said. “I like the low budget racing. I like the guy who builds his car out of his garage, and goes out there on the weekend and has a good time with it.”
This year Owen also lines up in his father’s 1991 Camaro in season-long points meets on Saturdays called the Mr. Gasket $53,100 Super Series at Summit Motorsports Park.
In his third Junior Dragster, Owen learns how to care for the cars, such as checking tire pressure and fuel, and changing oil, as Brian passes responsibilities over to him.
“It’s just time for the boy to take over,” Brian Hoover said. “Being a Junior dad, and standing there watching your kid going down the track, it’s a feeling I love. It’s a natural high watching him go down.”
Hoover watched the dragstrip progress from stone pits to asphalt, and gain extra bleachers.
“It’s changed tremendously from the 1990s until now,” Hoover said. “It’s gone from a little race track to a big time show.”
Ballah also marveled at the transformation.
“Who would have thought a little town of Norwalk would have become a race track mecca that it is,” Don Ballah said. “It’s just amazing.”