St. Louis to host NASCAR’s best series at revised Gateway
Curtis Francois was introduced to racing in much the same way as Roger Penske, who raced his first Indianapolis 500 as a kid with his dad and now owns Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
For Francois, his father took him to St. Louis International Raceway Park, a drag strip built in 1967 that introduced Francois to fast, adrenaline-pumping cars and eventually briefly pursued his own racing career.
The drag strip was eventually renovated into a multipurpose racing venue which enjoyed decent success until an economic downturn led to its closure in 2010. The facility began to deteriorate and plans were put in in place to dismantle the stands to sell them for scrap.
St. Louis native and real estate developer Francois stepped in before the freeway became an abandoned eyesore.
He bought the track called Gateway in 2011 and has spent the past decade preparing it for its crowning glory: World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway will host NASCAR’s inaugural Cup Series for the first time on Sunday.
His first day as owner was a challenge.
“The first thing I had to do was find a way through the parking lot because the weeds were six and eight feet tall,” Francois said in an interview with The Associated Press. “And so that’s what I did first, focus on improving the capital assets needed to stabilize the property.”
The end result made Gateway the only new points-paying venue on the 2022 Cup schedule and Francois expects a sold-out crowd of 80,000 on Sunday.
“I really felt like I was put in a position, for some reason, the fact that my background was in real estate was key,” Francois told AP. “But I also had some racing experience and so I drove a lot of tracks, I had a view behind the wheel and there really wasn’t anyone else around St. Louis who had those skills.
“It wasn’t something I took lightly, but I felt I was probably the right person to take on the task.”
Gateway had hosted CART and IndyCar over the years, NASCAR’s second-tier Xfinity Series from 1997 to 2010, and the Truck Series from 1998 until its brief closure. IndyCar returned in 2017 and NASCAR followed the following year with its trucks.
François never stopped spending, fitting out and renovating. He’s spent at least $50 million on renovations so far — just $15 million in the 10 months since IndyCar’s presence last August — and expects to eclipse $100 million in property renovations by 2025.
Among the improvements made by François since his purchase in 2011:
— New track surface around the 1.25 mile oval.
— Adding 450 acres in an expansion that extended Gateway’s footprint to nearly 700 acres. The property now includes an adjacent 18-hole golf course, 1,200 new campsites and additional parking areas.
— A revamped suite tower and grandstand, a new fan zone that provides an on-pitch experience, and a walkway for spectators to observe the active garages.
– The “Confluence Festival: Crossroads of Concert & Community,” a live entertainment showcase that will feature a diverse musical lineup throughout the weekend headlining everyone from Old Dominion, Nelly and Cole Swindell at the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.
For his efforts, Francois received the Innovator Award from the St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission, and following the close of his Sunday show’s Cup Series, Gateway will be the only motorsports facility in the United States. to host NASCAR, IndyCar and NHRA all within a year.
Francois, who halted his preparations for this coming weekend to attend the Indy 500 on Sunday at the invitation of Penske, has high hopes of turning Gateway into an elite motorsport venue. During his brief racing career, Francois made exactly one start in the Indy Lights series – at Gateway. He started third and finished fifth in his lone appearance in 2002 at the track he now owns.
“Anyone who knows me recognizes that I always sing the praises of St. Louis, and I have a deep commitment to St. Louis and truly recognize what a gem this circuit is,” Francois told AP. “I think it can be hard for people to understand why we’re investing so much, but that’s what it takes to make the facilities vibrant. It took $40 million in investments to even start a conversation to get a Cup date, and there was certainly no guarantee that I was going to get a return on that investment.
“But it comes back to my belief in the strength of the NASCAR, IndyCar and NHRA brand and what they can bring to the city and how we can showcase St. Louis.”