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In all of drag racing, perhaps in all of sport, there exists no dynamic quite like the one between 16-time Funny Car world champion John Force and the Bader family.

Some of Force’s earliest memories as a driver involve working with Bill Bader and his son, Bill Jr. in some fashion through various events at Summit Motorsports Park. From the early days of the Night Under Fire, to the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals, Force and Bader have combined to create one of the most exciting duos in all of motorsports.

“We are circus people. He is PT Barnum, just without the elephants,” Force said. “We are entertainers. That is what we do. And that is why people keep coming back, because we put on a show.”

And it is that old-school, do-it-all-for-the-fans attitude, that immediately drew Force to Bader.

“When I got into professional drag racing back in the early days, there were a lot of track promoters, that’s how they made a living. Fireworks shows, jet trucks, but when I ran into the Bader family, a lot of that era had faded away,” Force said. “They had been doing it all along. And now he has passed it along to his kids, just like I passed racing on to my kids. Everybody thinks about money and the crowds. But before you see the crowds, you have got to spend the money. Spend it on grandstands, stadiums, they’ve always bought the fireworks show for $75,000, $100,000, and the good Lord always seems to bless them.”

Force got his first impression of the Baders and Summit Motorsports Park nearly two decades ago when he first began racing at the track during the popular Night Under Fire. Force began racing at the exhibition event alongside a few other NHRA regulars, which eventually led to the entire John Force Racing organization becoming involved in the one-night extravaganza.

And that is where the relationship between the two truly turned into magic. Hilarious starting line banter, long, smokey burnouts, constant fan interaction - even an appearance in a coffin. When Force and Bader are at their best, it is unlike any driver-facility relationship in the sport. 

“In the very first race John raced with us, I remember going up to him and asking him, ‘are you superstitious?’ John tells me, ‘I crash ‘em, I roll ‘em, I burn ‘em, I ain’t afraid of nothing.’ We move forward with the driver meeting and I am telling all of the drivers how things are going to go down, the parade, the autograph sessions, the pairings, and that is when I told him I am going to bring him out in a coffin. Of course, he says no damn way,” Bader recalled. “I have a driver with a big hearse with a Chevy big block in it and in the back is a coffin. I bring the parade out and tell John he has to get in the coffin. I tell him, we are giving you a microphone and when we open it up, you just say, ‘I’m your worst nightmare.’

“He gets in the coffin, I give him the microphone, and right before I turn it on he leans up to me and says, ‘is this in my contract.’ I told him, ‘you haven’t been paid yet, have you?’ When they finally come down the track, the place goes nuts. The script went perfect, the driver tells everyone he is here to bury Force. Just then Force comes out of the coffin, stands up, and says, ‘it is amazing what I will do for $50,000.’

“I almost hit the ground. I thought, ‘that son of a bitch got me again.’ Then he took off, driving up and down the track with the microphone, just talking about everything. That is my earliest memory of John Force.”

As the years passed by and the events continued to grow, eventually the northern Ohio track, formerly of IHRA sanction, outgrew the smaller sanctioning body and aligned with NHRA. That move led to the formation of the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals, now entering its 10th season, one of the more successful national events on the NHRA tour.

“I’ve been coming here for 16 years. First to the Night Under Fire, then the national event when they came to NHRA,” Force said. “Now look at where we are. Look at the crowds. We had a race in New England a few weeks ago and they were turning them away Saturday morning. I saw it. Sunday it rained out, but we had a bigger crowd on Monday. Why? It’s because of the promoters. 

“If they all promoted like the Bader family, it would be something. We’re still in a bad economy, people still have choices, so what has changed? Bader always puts on a great show and NHRA is learning it. They are bringing people in, not just for low E.T.s and top speeds, but to entertain them.

“I mean, what could be more brilliant than buckets of ice cream for a buck? He went out and put that kind of stuff together. They’re just a great family. The father taught the kids and he was a great teacher. But my kids are teaching me and maybe junior is now teaching dad something. Whatever they did, it works.”

While the relationship between Bader and Force began as a mutual understanding between two business-minded individuals looking to make a buck and entertain fans, that relationship has grown into something so much greater over the years.

“We got to know each other and he always told me, if you treat me fair like you want to be treated, I’ll treat you fair,” Force said. “If there’s something that goes wrong and it’s a total bath, we’ll split it. He always kept his word.

“They’re just real people. Our relationship grew and now I have that with the kid.We don’t argue. I look at him and we may be having a bad day, but it is never a bad experience.”

Today, Force says there are a lot of towns and a lot of tracks that he looks forward to visiting, but none has a place in his heart quite like the one in Norwalk, Ohio.

“This track is my career. I’ve made the most money here ever. I’ve come to every Night Under Fire event. It’s just special to me,” Force said. “A couple years ago, I had a woman come up to me holding a baby in her arms and asked if I could sign a photo of me holding a baby. I held up the picture and looked at it and thought, this baby isn’t a redhead or a picture of you, me and the baby. She said, no, you were holding me in that picture.

“I’ve been coming here for a long time. So the Bader’s, to me, truly, they are family. If anything were to ever happen to any of them, I’ll be there. I know if something ever happens to me, they’d be there.”

And Bader most certainly feels the same way about his longtime partner in crime.

“I still have hanging up on my wall a napkin from my first dinner with John,” Bader said. “We went to Macaronis, we order, and the girl writes on the tablecloth, which was a sheet of paper, her name and everything. So John takes a white linen and writes, ‘Bill Bader made me sing and do dishes for my meal.’ I had it put in a frame.

“John loves what he does. I love what I do. He knows why we are here and he never forgets how important the fans are. Ever since those days, it has been John, or Brittany, or Courtney, but that has been the magic between us. 

“I love the guy because he always shoots straight with me and I do the same with him. It has been a great partnership.”

Maybe PT Barnum had it wrong all along. All he ever needed was two entertainment-minded individuals and 10,000 horses.

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