Words & Photos Jon Asher
Forgive us for the theft of young Newt’s line from the unforgettable film Aliens, but when more than 40,000 people show up for a one-day show (okay, it was mostly under the lights) at a well-groomed facility like Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk, Ohio, you can pretty well assume they aren’t scared of the dark.
Down through its four decades of life the Kelly Services Night Under Fire has been referred to by numerous permutations of its real name, but it really doesn’t matter what you call it. You like Night Of Fire? That’s fine by us. Think Night On Fire is even better? Cool, use that one, because it doesn’t matter what you call it, this event is, without question, the single best one-day show in all of drag racing, and therein lies a very important point in today’s world of increasingly diverse forms of the sport.
A couple of years ago John Force dropped a few S-bombs during his pre-race interview with track manager, Bill Bader, Jr. Darned if he didn’t clean up his act this year!
It doesn’t matter whether you’re going an eighth of a mile, 1,000 feet or a full quarter mile, if you’re going from Point A to Point B in a straight line from a standing start you’re drag racing, and that’s what counts with us. Yes, the NUF featured competition at all three distances, too. The reality is that there are more permutations of drag racing than ever before. We could try to list them all, but there’s no need. You know all about them, from the nitro-burning excitement of an NHRA Mello Yello Series national event to that “No Prep” bracket race at the track across town on Saturday night. Purists of one form of competition over another may never be convinced that it’s a race without Pro Mod, but for every one of them there’s someone else who believes no car should ever race on tires wider than 9-inches. It doesn’t matter, because it’s all drag racing.
Not a seat left, and pre-race festivities haven’t even begun.
What the Night Under Fire does is somehow encompass numerous forms of drag racing, bringing them all under one umbrella for a show that’s like no other, and that word “show” is all-important. Sure, there’s plenty of racing at the NUF, but it’s the show that really counts. You may believe that winning is everything, but for most of the 40,000 fans in Norwalk, the burnouts, wheels-up starts and everything else that took place between those Points A and B counted far more than the win light. And thus we come to our final point before trying (we will not succeed) to delve into all the nuances of the NUF, and that’s the fans themselves. Just as there are myriad forms of drag racing, there are fans for all of them – and they are not one and the same.
The naïve among us may believe the same guy who loses his mind when John Force does a burnout in his Camaro Funny Car is the same guy who shouts himself hoarse when Ken Hall starts doing burner pops in his Jet Funny Car. Uh, no, they are not the same guy, and therein lies some of the beauty and appeal of the Night Under Fire, because there’s just enough, but not too much of, well, everything to attract fans of everything drag racing. The diversity of those fans results in a lot of interaction that’s interesting to witness, and we’ve seen plenty of it. When the Nostalgia Drag Racing League’s Pro 7.0 category comes up to run you’ll see the more knowledgeable fans explaining what’s going on to the neophytes. You’ll also hear fans explaining to one another what a holeshot is and how the “slower” car won the race – which the announcers also did a thorough job of doing. Don’t know what a burner pop is? You’ll learn at the NUF. You’ve heard of John Force, but have never seen him? The guy sitting next to you will show you where the autograph session is (which every driver participates in). Need an event shirt? The stand’s right over there. When do the fireworks start? Just wait!
Every race at Norwalk opens with the display of a giant American flag, which the fans love.
John Force continues to be the star attraction at the NUF, and, just like his 16 championships, he’s earned that position. But, while the NUF is a show, the racing is as legitimate as it gets. The Funny Cars are run Chicago-style, meaning that everyone runs the first round, with the two quickest returning to determine the winner (although everyone else runs that second round too, because this is all about the show). Force didn’t make the finale this year, but teammate Robert Hight did, facing off against former NHRA champion Cruz Pedregon. Hight won going away with a very credible 3.865/321.58 to the Cruzer’s 3.927/322.84.
A perfectly timed flyover by vintage WWII fighters crossed the starting line just as the national anthem ended. Good timing, cool planes.
We could certainly list every elapsed time and speed recorded by the likes of Ron Capps, already a six-time winner in ’17 with the NAPA Dodge, Tim Wilkerson with the LRS Mustang, Jack Wyatt’s Dodge, Dale Creasy’s Jr’s. Tek-Pak Mopar and Del Worsham’s Lucas Oil Toyota, but this is about the show, not the timeslips, and the show was killer, with lots of header fire and very competitive times.
Now this is how you do a patriotic burnout!
When we said the NUF has something for everyone we meant it. There was even a selection of young kids driving in three different invitational categories of Jr. Dragster. Now here’s a dose of reality: For most adults those cars don’t do much, but they are oh-so-important for drag racing’s future. When those cars began appearing in the staging lanes so did a significant number of other kids, dragging their parents along by the hand to show them the cars. Yeah, we saw a few dads blanching at the thought of yet another car in their garages, but we saw just as many smiling in anticipation of what might be.
Are you an older fan? Then you know a flag starter when you see one. He sends off every pair in the ScottsRods AA/GS show.
In days gone by jet cars were often considered circus-like by hard core aficionados of the sport, but here, too, there’s been a change in attitudes. The hard core folks have come around, ‘cause with every afterburner pop and every run we saw more and more people really getting into it. The culmination was, of course, Chris Darnell’s simply awesome triple-engined “Shockwave” Peterbuit – which bears as much resemblance to a real truck as this magazine’s editor does to, say, Brad Pitt. And really, “Shockwave” puts on a better show than does our editor, too!
Cars like this stunning ’33 Willys had the over-50 fans screaming for more.
Two years ago at the NUF (last year’s event was the only rainout in the event’s history) Darnell tore up the pavement behind the starting line with his afterburner pops, peeling back a 4-inch thick slab of asphalt like a ripe banana in the hands of a Minion. Management appeared less than pleased, but this time around track honcho Bill Bader, Jr. invited Darnell to blow down every building in the place on his last run. Sadly, he failed to do so, but the show he put on was memorable regardless of his inability to destroy brick and mortar buildings with a single blast.
Brian Spotts won the ScottsRods AA/GS show.
When it comes to drag racing, pure drag racing, there’s nothing to compare to the NHRA U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis over Labor Day weekend, but by the same token, nothing compares to the Night Under Fire in Norwalk in August. It’s the kind of one-and-only that you need to experience in person to truly understand. For example, you like ice cream? Summit Motorsports Park may be the only venue in the country where you can buy a pound of small batch ice cream that comes hand-packed in a Styrofoam cup for only a buck. Yeah, just one dollar. Hate ice cream, but love fireworks? The show that caps off the evening’s activities, with boomers, starbursts, spinners and gosh-knows what they call the others going off from at least three different locations around the track is stunning. It’s a bigger show than you’re likely to find in a city of several hundred thousand inhabitants on July 4th – and we aren’t exaggerating.
The Nostalgia Drag Racing League’s Pro 7.0 field was packed with interesting cars like this Anglia.
But fair warning: The Night Under Fire may be habit-forming. The reason we suspect it is is because we spoke with fans from as far away as upstate New York in one direction, and Georgia in the other. All confessed to having been to the NUF for at least 10 years, and all called it the best damn one-day drag racing show they’d ever seen. We agree.
You want wheelstanders? We got ‘em, including this spark-spewing pickup driven by (wait for it) 84-year-old Jim Brewer. He topped 120 MPH on two wheels.
Pro Mod cars? Yup, the NUF has ‘em.
Del Worsham’s all-black Lucas Oil Toyota ran in the threes, but didn’t make the finale.
John Force was the most popular driver on the grounds, but that didn’t help him make the finale.
Tuner Jimmy Prock (glasses, directly behind car) knew just how to attack the Summit Motorsports Park track, and thus led driver Robert Hight to the event title in three-point-eight-something seconds.
The new Queen of Diamonds, Sarah Edwards, gets ready to take off (not literally!) against the Beast From The East.
Are those people holding their ears? We can’t tell.
Chris Darnell’s jet almost defies description. The fans loved the show he put on.
A racer, who demanded anonymity, attempts bribing the tech inspector for the Jr. Dragsters. Okay, we made that up, but the dog enjoyed the evening as much as anyone with just two feet.
Nuthin’ like a jet Funny Car at night. Nuthin’!
Not an empty seat in the house.
Noise, flame and smoke. What more could any human being want?
Don’t laugh. One, or even both of these kids could grow up to be World Champions. Just ask Antron Brown or Erica Enders how that works.
Two-time IHRA World Champion Dale Creasy is a regular in the NUF. “The most fun I have all year,” he says.
Rahn Tobler was named Grand Marshall of the NUF for his 40-plus years of service to drag racing.
Defending NHRA champion Ron Capps has won six times already this year, but he couldn’t manage a seventh in Norwalk.
Cruz Pedregon’s Snap-on Toyota made the final round against Robert Hight.
Ready to fire, Force’s car is surrounded by fans.
How many autographs do you think John Force has signed during his career?
Sure, there’s a kid’s playground at Norwalk. Doesn’t every track have one?
You’d be smiling too with a pound of ice cream in your fist for just a dollar.
The brutal Bruiser Fiat, a favorite at Norwalk.
Don’t believe that smile. Seven-year-old Evan Clark of Brookpark, Ohio is not having a good time!
Best kid’s shirt at the NUF.
We are not responsible for the actions of any driver during the massive autograph session!