Tragedy can strike, and life can totally be turned upside down. That was the case for A/fuel team Michalek Brothers Racing.
At last year's Night Under Fire match race exhibition at Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk, Kyle Michalek and his wife, Stephanie, were on top of the world.
The couple was successful professionally, and doing what they loved — while privately they were expecting their first child. Then, on Feb. 23, life was forever changed for Kyle Michalek and his family. After Stephanie gave birth to their son, she passed away.
“We had planned on running four to six races,” Kyle said. “Once that happened, family needs come first. Everyone on the team understood that, so we decided to run just one race — and the Night Under Fire was the race that made the most sense.”
During the pre-race introductions as the participants were paraded down the runway on Saturday in front of a packed grandstands at the Norwalk dragstrip, Michalek thanked the Bill Bader family and the fans for the outpouring of support during the past year.
He then made a surprise announcement that will ensure Stephanie will never be forgotten. The Ohio University School of Nursing will be awarding an annual scholarship in her name each year.
“Stephanie already had created a legacy of her own that would never be forgotten by impacting people’s lives daily as a nurse and as a person,” Michalek said. “For those who were lucky enough to have known Stephanie, you immediately were impacted by her desire to help others. Her selflessness and her genuine compassion for the well-being of others was seen by all who she cared for and worked with as she was a truly great nurse.
“As of tonight, her legacy of helping others is cemented forever," he added. "Stephanie’s beloved alma mater will enable nursing students to pursue their own dreams of helping others. This endowment will be investing in the nurses that will help carry on Stephanie’s legacy as a skilled and compassionate nurse. We love you, Steph. Thank you for continuing to make the world a better place.”
Kyle presented Ohio University Dean Randy Leite with a check for $100,000, and they will be establishing an endowment to be paid out in perpetuity as the Stephanie Andrews Michalek Memorial Nursing scholarship.
Once the racing began, MBR successfully defended their championship by beating the Michigan-based Gutierrez Brothers Racing team by posting a 5.37 at 268 mph in the first round — and then a 5.31 under the lights in the night session.
While Michalek was the story of the night, the many familiar faces of the Night Under Fire tradition also showed on a picture-perfect night for racing.
The legendary 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion John Force was again on hand for the popular annual exhibition that takes place during an off-week from the Mello Yello Series tour. Force, who won a milestone 150th NHRA race on Aug. 4 in Kent, Wash., was recognized for the accomplishment prior to Saturday's festivities.
Force, who has 53 more victories than any other NHRA driver in any division, has been a yearly staple at the Night Under Fire fore more than four-plus decades.
Other top NHRA Funny Car drivers at Summit on Saturday included Ron Capps, Robert Hight, Ron Capps, Tim Wilkerson, Cruz Pedragon and Dale Creasy Jr. It was Hight, who along with Force sits 1-2 atop the NHRA standings, earning the victory among the FC drivers.
That set the stage for local legend Bob Motz and his jet engine Kenworth semi truck as 40,000 fans roared their collective approval.
In the most anticipated tradition of Night Under Fire, Motz again wowed the thousands in the crowd when he backed his truck up in front of the billboard — which is about 25 feet tall — at the start of the dragstrip, and fired up his truck and set the sign ablaze.
After the sign was done smoldering, Motz then fired down the dragstrip for a second time on the night, signaling the start of the second-most anticipated portion of the event: A fireworks show that carried a $125,000 price tag.
The start of the show also included a five-military plane flyover, and the AA/Gasser cars were once again brought back after receiving much fanfare during last year’s inaugural event at Summit. Many fans who had not been to a Night Under Fire for years made a special return trip to Norwalk just to see the popular event — thanks to word of mouth from a year ago.
Steve Donovan of Danville, Ark. trekked the 900-plus miles to see the nostalgic dragsters after more than 30 years since he last attended Night Under Fire.
“I attended college nearby at Oberlin, and it was one of things that we looked forward to each summer before going back to school,” Donovan said. “It kind of took away some of the sting from the summer ending and school resuming, you know? Back in those days, I was a big fan of Big Daddy Don Garlits, and those was the days. The place looked quite a bit different back then and I must say that they have improved it quite a bit."
Donovan said some of his old college friends contacted him about the Gasser cars from the 2018 Night Under Fire.
“When I heard they were going to have them again this year, I decided it was time to come back,” he said. “I’m glad I did. too. They have gone over the top and made this on heck of an event. It was worth all the time and money spent to make it back up to Ohio and relive some of my younger days.”
Some of the top events left this season at Summit Motorsports Park includes the 18th annual All-American Nationals (Aug. 22-25), the 27th annual Ten Grand Nationals (Aug. 30-Sept. 1) and the season finale Halloween Classic XLVI (Oct. 12-20).