Fresh off a successful 46th annual Cornwell Tools Night Under Fire, Bill Bader Jr. sits in an office chair at Summit Motorsports Park, reminiscing about the fan-favorite event.
“My father created a pure entertainment event – that’s really what Night Under Fire is. It is a pure entertainment event,” says Bader Jr., Summit Motorsports Park’s president and general manager, matter-of-factly. “You don’t have to be a drag race fan. You don’t have to be a car enthusiast. You just want an evening of good family-centric entertainment.”
[Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in DI #184, the State of Drag Special Issue, in September/October of 2023.]
Night Under Fire was conceptualized by Bader Jr.’s late father, Bill Bader Sr. It began with a wheelstander and a pair of jet dragsters, one driven by the legendary showman Bob Motz. It was the Bader family’s attempt at doing something outside the traditional box of drag racing. Much to their hard work and luck, the event caught on, and people began circling the date for the occasion on their calendars every year.
“As it grew, my father fed it,” says Bader Jr., who began working at the track at just 10 years old with his dad. “Instead of three performers, we would add a couple more jets and a second wheelstander. Then, some years later, Bob Motz moved from a jet dragster to a jet Kenworth, and Bob became kind of the exclamation point to the show. Some years later, fireworks were added, and the thing just took off.”
One underlying theme throughout the years was the Baders’ continued investment and marking of the event. Now, Bader says it’s the largest single-day drag race in the world, with this year’s Night Under Fire boasting a $125,000 firework show, complete with skydivers and a historic military aircraft flyby.
When fans aren’t focused on the sky, they turn their attention to the dragstrip. In addition to the stellar lineup of jet cars and sportsman racers, Bader is known for bringing big names in the sport to the event, like NHRA Funny Car champions Ron Capps, Cruz Pedregon, and Robert Hight. Sixteen-time NHRA Funny Car world champion John Force, whom the Baders adore, has been taking part in the event since 1995.
“I view the Night Under Fire as a Broadway show, [or] as a concert,” explains Bader Jr. “There is a production meeting on Thursday night. We probably had 40 people in that production meeting. We had sound, we had lights, we had pyrotechnics, we had show car coordinators, we had the race director, we had the starting line team, we had the head-of-staging team, and we had the rear staging team.
“We bring all the folks together that are an integral part of producing that event, and we do a script read, and timing is critical. We need to deliver this show in a timely, efficient, and exciting manner,” Bader Jr. says when asked why he puts the effort into scripting the event.
Of course, Night Under Fire has had its memorable moments for Bader Jr. Two that stick out are when Bob Motz burned the head-of-staging sign, and the other involves Force.
“One year, John Force was match racing. John, back in the day, did these monstrous, long burnouts. Well, he broke his reverser lever, which was a carbon fiber reverser lever. He banged a U-turn on the track, drove up alongside the car in the other lane, banged a U-turn in the water box, staged his car, and ran.”
Force also remembers the moment well, saying, “In the old days, you could do anything. I did a burnout, and it wouldn’t back up, so I just turned it around, dry-hopped it around and got it back so I could earn my money.”
Moments like this are a reflection of the enjoyment that Night Under Fire brings to the fans. “We recognize that we’re in the entertainment business,” Bader says. “My favorite moments are when you know you got [the fans] – when they’re ultra-responsive, when they’re stomping their feet, when they’re cheering, when they’re booing – they’re hanging on your every word.”
Not only does Bader Jr. play an intricate role behind the scenes, but he also announces Night Under Fire. “I’m the guy in the tux as the ringmaster in the center ring, so it’s just fun to entertain people, and it makes you feel good that you know that you’re making 40,000 people feel good. Whatever their problems are of the day, whatever personal problems, whatever family problems, whatever work problems, if we can get them to check those at the door, so to speak, and come in for an evening, and have the good fortune of being allowed to entertain them, that’s the best part of all.”
The past 46 years have been a journey for Bader Jr., one that he plans to continue because he believes the event is good for the sport as a whole.
“My dad left big shoes to fill,” Bader Jr. admits. “I wanted to build on what my father started here. I never wanted to maintain the status quo. I never wanted to be the kid that rode in on his father’s coattails. I never wanted to be accused of being the kid with the silver spoon.
“My goal was to maintain our core competencies, to maintain the things that got us to the dance, but make it bigger, make it better, grow the event, add seats, continue to reinvent the facility, continue to entertain, but do it in a bigger, better, more profound way,” Bader Jr. continues. “I’m not going to say that it wasn’t challenging because it certainly was, but it’s also been the fact that we’ve continued to grow all these years. Now, we have multiple generations of family members coming here. It’s been a very rewarding journey for sure.”
Another underlying theme is that Bader Jr. understands people want to be entertained. It’s also one that Force understands.
“I’ve met a lot of good promoters in my day, but they’re the ones that have the mindset, we’re here to entertain, not just to drag race,” Force says. “We entertain the people on their day off.”
“I think what sports is quickly recognizing is that we are in the entertainment business, not in the business of, in the case of drag racing, running cars up and down the track,” says Bader Jr. “I feel like we are missing the ball by not having an infusion of entertainment to go along with who’s winning and who’s losing, how it’s presented, how it’s packaged. Fans want to engage – they want to cheer for their favorite driver, and they want to stomp their feet. People want to be drawn into and ultimately be made part of the show.
“Drag racing is the last great American-made sport that is, as far as I’m concerned, in the infancy phase of its product life cycle,” Bader Jr. continues. “We have not done a good job of taking drag racing to where I think it can be. We’re so engrossed in the nuts and bolts of drag racing, and a finite number of people care about that. I think there are an infinite number of people that care about an evening of entertainment. If Night Under Fire is anything, it would help say, ‘Hey, you know what, this model works too.’”