NASCAR should catch the wave of motorsports success in St. Louis

NASCAR should catch the wave of motorsports success in St. Louis
Joe Skibinski

Jimmie Johnson noticed. 

So did Alex Bowman, Graham Rahal, Simon Pagenaud and Roger Penske. 

The 42,000-plus fans at World Wide Technology Raceway were not lost on NBC Sports’ Leigh Diffey, the affable broadcaster who has covered motorsports around the world. 

“I cover live sports 42 weeks each year,” Diffey posted on Twitter. “I watch live sports 52 weeks a year. Last night’s @IndyCar race at @WWTRaceway still has me buzzing. My first time there and the crowd, the enthusiasm of the fans, the general atmosphere, the promotion and then the race itself was  [👌] .” 

"A full house in St. Louis for @IndyCar," Johnson tweeted, including a shot of the crowd.

"Holy smokes... when are we going to go there with the cup cars?" Bowman responded in a retweet of Johnson's post.
Looks as if the ball is now in NASCAR’s court.

Since IndyCar returned to the 1.25-mile track just minutes from downtown St. Louis in 2017, the event has grown dramatically, thanks to the community outreach effort from the track. This year, ticket sales for the grandstand increased by nearly 35-percent over last year. 

Yes, one of the top U.S. sports markets—albeit traditionally a stick-and-ball town—has bought into Curtis Francois’ dream.

Francois, a gentleman racer from St. Louis, purchased Gateway—a true diamond in the rough—from Dover Motorsports in 2012. Seven years and $35 million later, the transformation has been nothing short of miraculous. To further his vision, Francois hired fellow race fan Chris Blair as general manager and executive vice president. The pair adopted a grassroots approach—a necessary strategy to attract potential fans from the Show Me State and around the region.

Whether through supporting area dirt tracks, local drag racing, SCCA events or go-kart outings, WWTR has earned not only the respect of race fans but sports enthusiasts as well. It’s not surprising that World Wide Technology—a long-time sponsor of both the 11-time Major League Baseball Championship Cardinals and the defending Stanley Cup-winning St. Louis Blues—bought into Francois’ vision and came on board as a partner in April. 

Francois and his team has turned World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway into a one-stop destination for IndyCar, NHRA and stock cars. Under Francois’ watch, the facility hosts Pro Mazda, Formula Drift and Americas Rallycross Championship as well.

From the first CART test in 1997, the sexy sound of the open-wheel engines attracted race fans who in the past had to make the three-hour trek to Indianapolis to see similar style cars.

NASCAR made its debut two months later with what was then the Busch Series at Gateway International Raceway. Trucks joined the party the following season for a stand alone.  NASCAR’s Triple A tour continued for 14 seasons. After a three-year hiatus, trucks returned in 2014 and have competed at WWTR ever since. NASCAR's K&N Pro Series East is part of the IndyCar weekend. 

But the buzz surrounding the IndyCar event has grown exponentially—and much of that success comes with Francois understanding the Metro St. Louis market. Defending race winner and media sweetheart Will Power made the rounds at the local TV and radio outlets on Thursday morning. That night, series points leader Josef Newgarten threw out the first pitch at the Cardinals game at Busch Stadium. 

On Saturday, Blues defensemen and race fans Colten Parayko and team Captain Alex Pietrangelo brought the Stanley Cup to the track for pre-race ceremonies as the crowd cheered. Parayko, who is a regular at the track and buddies with Rahal and Newgarten, capped off his day with a ride in the Honda two-seater.

“St. Louis is a great sports town and the interaction we have between the Blues, the Cardinals and now the race track is tremendous,” Francois said. “There’s so much interaction. We all are trying to do the right things for the city, so much cooperation there.

“You can see it in the results. So many people are helping us pull this rope together. We don’t have success like we’ve had in this city, promoting this as quickly as we have with engagement across the city if we don’t have fans, participants, community leaders and IndyCar stepping up to make this a world class event.”

Francois has not minced words when expressing his desire to host a NASCAR Cup race. It wasn’t by accident that the most iconic figure in NASCAR—seven-time champion Richard Petty—showed up with Bubba Wallace in tow for the Stanley Cup Playoffs in June. World Wide Technology, Inc., founder and chairman David Steward, part of the Blues ownership group, already has a sponsorship relationship with Richard Petty Motorsports.

With the results Francois has produced for IndyCar—the Cup Series would benefit from landing in a major market within a four-hour drive to underserved areas such as Memphis, Little Rock and Nashville, which has joined the conversation as another potential Cup market but has shown nowhere close to the enthusiasm to embrace a major league stock car event.

“Our long-range goal is to fully utilize the facility,” Francois added. “The facility is capable of hosting a Cup race, an Xfinity race, IndyCar — and really this city can support all of that type of racing.

“As this race has shown, we were able to get behind a race and make it happen. Right now, we are focussed for the next couple of years on making sure that we provide a great experience for IndyCar here, a great experience for the fan. But nothing is off the table. As we’ve invested in the track, it’s ready to host the biggest and best racing.”

World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway has the capacity to hold 57,000 fans. On Saturday night, the track had an equal number of people through the turnstiles as Busch Stadium did for the Cardinals/Rockies game. 

If NASCAR wants to think outside of the box, WWTR, which is 10 minutes tops from downtown and boasts 2.8 million people throughout the metro area, could easily support a race during the week. Think one-day show, practice, qualifying, happy hour and feature. Francois has established the infrastructure to support a smoothly flowing traffic pattern. 

NASCAR President Steve Phelps also attended a Stanley Cup Playoffs game and has seen first-hand the buzz surrounding the Gateway City, which recently won a new Major League Soccer franchise. 

Phelps has said all options are on the table for the 2021 Cup schedule. World Wide Technology Raceway deserves to be at the top of the list.

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