Since 1953 the NHRA has been the nation's trusted source of drag racing competition. The popularity of the sport has waxed and waned in various timeframes, but generations of racing enthusiasts and car lovers continue to attend touring weekends all over the United States. In it's current adaptation, the NHRA Camping World Series is televised on Fox to fans in every major market. Headlining the calendar include events such as the US Nationals, season book-ends in Pomona, and Ohio's lone stop at Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk.
Racing on the grande tour in Norwalk has been an annual event since 2007 when NHRA struck a deal with the Bader family that transitioned racing away from National Trail Raceway for the first time in decades. With the exception of 2020 (due to Covid-19), Norwalk, commercially known as Summit Motorsports Park has hosted events every year on the national tour.
Fifteen years after a fanfare from the industry in its inaugural season, Norwalk is still celebrated by drivers, sponsors, and fans as being amongst the true elite events. There are some fans that miss what once was at National Trail, though. I had the opportunity to speak with some of the largest stars who once competed in Columbus to discuss with them their thoughts on a potential return or double-dip in the Buckeye State.
Tony Schumacher's first NHRA National event behind the wheel of a top fuel car was in 1996 prepared by his father Don's famed team. Schumacher, an eight time champion in Top-Fuel racing won at National Trail Raceway his first ever attempt, five years later on May 22nd 2005. "Trails? I love National Trails, I have the record there, don't I?" [He does.] Schumacher commented when asked about his favourite memories in Columbus, OH. "I'm from Chicago, I considered National Trail Raceway one of America's best because it was one of the people. It felt like home, all of these tracks in the midwest, including Norwalk make me feel like I'm at home." It made sense that Schumacher loved Ohio, he also won his first time at Norwalk. When I asked him if he was interested in a return to National Trail on the schedule, he laughed he was in favour, but only if they were adding more stops on the calendar.
Reigning champion in Funny Car Ron Capps spent a lot of time with the media as always this past weekend, his fast Toyota Supra earned him the No. 1 Qualifier title heading into a weekend at a track he has loved for many years. Separating his support for the Bader family and the Summit community, I inquired with the NAPA man himself about his fondest times in Central Ohio and if he thought the series should ever make a return.
"Yeah I , in fact we just had a conversation the other day that I would love to go to National Trails. I wouldn't want to step on any toes [on Norwalk] but I keep a big eye on the internet, and every time they have a big race I ask Woody at Jeg's, and I ask "...could we have a national event there?" And Jay who's took that place over there, I've known him a long time. He has done a great job." Capps said.
In regards to the time of year, he had a few thoughts.
"I would love to go back there really early in the year, a different part of the year. I have great memories. Racing against Don Purdome. Father's Day a lot of years. I had the chance of winning there. So, yeah I miss going there. I think it is a place we need to be, it is another market we need to be in, and I think there is so much history going back when I was a kid, reading about that race track. Yeah, I keep up with it, I actually asked at my appearance a couple of hours south of here, there was a family of NHRA Sportsman racers, they were about to race there and I asked em', "Do you think we could hold a national event there?" and they said 'Yes.' so that would be great."
When asked if Norwalk lives up to the prestige of the former placeholder, he answered proudly, with an opinion many fans seem to share.
"Oh yeah, back then [when Norwalk was added] the issue was that it was the other organization, right? But I knew the history of this place and you'd pick the magazines up and you'd read about what the Bader family had done and I first came here, well really the first national event was awesome and it was cool to be here, but the first Night Under Fire I attended, I looked around and I thought 'Ok, I get it....And I'll be back here in about a month at Night Under Fire. This place speaks for itself, there's a reason for why the fans come here and pack this place, ya know, you come here once and you're gonna come here again!"
John Force is synonymous with professional drag racing. While his industry mourned the loss of a wonderful friend in Bruton Smith, he attended, worked, and competed last week at Summit Motorsports Park, an annual event he's known for priding himself in victory, and entertainment. I was careful to speak to Mr. Force about a distinct separation in how he felt about National Trail Raceway, without asking him to challenge what the Bader's have done in Norwalk. Force answered candidly as he always does, offering support across the board.
"In the late 80's I won my first race at Montreal. And I got to the interview and there was nobody there...now I had won in other divisions, AHRA, and other places I'd raced, match races, but my first win in NHRA was in Columbus.
One of my daughters was being born, and they gave me a police escort to get me to the hospital. I wouldn't leave winner's circle until we were done. They kept telling me that I wouldn't make my plane but they took care of me getting back so I could [fly to his daughter's birth], so Columbus was special to me."
The Force family has more than one victory as a reason to call their sister city of Indianapolis home. John continued to explain why Columbus is significant to his heart. "The market is big. I'm an Ohio football fan because of Rahal, you know what I mean? My daughter married Rahal. He's a great kid and I love him, they got another baby on the way! I always tell people that I saw his dad [Columbus native Bobby Rahal] win the Indy 500, but I should probably stop embellishing, I watched it on the TV. I love Bobby and I love Graham, and they take good care of her."
We discussed more about his family and their story and returned to the legacy of Columbus within drag racing. "In the end, it's hard ya know to try to get enough people in one market, let alone two...and Bader Jr. isn't gonna quit, he loves it here. Of course, the Smith family does two races in Vegas and Charlotte, so...first of all, I want all the races we can get, but I'd just never want to hurt the Bader family, because like Bruton Smith they are my family. All of them."
Racing fans from Columbus Ohio miss what once was. The National Trail Raceway, regularly slurred 'Trails' in plural, has decades of history. It is still easily accessible from the nations highway I-70 East and amateurs and professionals compete regularly.
Speaking to the drivers this weekend, I learned that they have an authentic and unrehearsed appreciation for the old property when asked. For the time being, locals should continue to support both properties, and celebrate dollar ice cream up north.