MADISON — Curtis Francois was sitting in his office just steps from his racetrack last spring when he got a call from Daytona Beach. He was the big one.
World Wide Technology Raceway was in the running to host one of NASCAR’s premier events. The France family, who founded and still own the sport’s sanctioning body, used to come to town. Francois hung up and called Jason Hall, the head of the St. Louis area business development organization.
“We’re going to do a shot with the whole family,” François told him. “How are we going to sell Saint-Louis? »
Today, the region is making final preparations for a weekend on the road to victory. NASCAR is bringing its high-profile cup series to the Metro East. The Enjoy Illinois 300 is scheduled for next Sunday.
This almost did not happen: the previous owners tried for years to mark such an event. They eventually gave up, closed the trail and left it for dead.
Francis engineered a comeback for the ages: He had a bold plan. He built a wave of local fan support. He took advantage of fortuitous timing – a crash in NASCAR’s ratings and attendance. But, in the end, it all came down to a half-day of private meetings with big-name CEOs and the most powerful people in the sport in St. Louis.
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“It was a huge deal,” said Hall, CEO of Greater St. Louis Inc. “You get that and it’s like having a World Series every year. It’s like a big festival wrapped up in a premier sport. plan.
Twelve years ago, the old track, on Interstate 55, 10 minutes from downtown St. Louis, was headed for scrap.
In November 2010, Delaware-based Dover Motorsports defined Gateway International Raceway, as it was then known, as three things: a “great facility”, one in a “great racing community” – and one that didn’t win. enough money and had close.
But François, a racing driver turned real estate developer, saw a golden opportunity. He, too, thought Gateway was an excellent facility. And he was from Kirkwood, with roots in the local racing community that Dover didn’t have.
With a little patience and a lot of investment, he figured he could do what they couldn’t.
Crowds bigger than any oval outside of Indy
At the end of the summer of 2011, François met Tom Compton, the president of the National Hot Rod Association. Compton loved St. Louis, had been sad to leave when the track closed, and made him an offer: if Francois took control of the track, he could at least count on a drag race.
A few days later, François and a group of investors made it official. Francois took his Corvette Z06 – 200mph top speed – to the drag strip a few times to celebrate, then got to work. He first repaved the strip to accommodate the hot rods. Then he started rolling out the red carpet for everyone.
His idea was simple: the more people he could have between race days, the more people there were on race days.
He began to upgrade the facilities for racing enthusiasts he had known for years and invited them back to the track. He has set up an infield go-kart course to attract more kids and families each week. And he took the old Friday night drag races, those open to almost anyone with a car and basic safety gear, to a new level by building a pavilion and hiring DJs.
“We wanted to make it clear that everyone was welcome on the circuit and having fun,” Francois said. “These people have become our best ambassadors.”
Jim Fiss, president of the local Porsche club, saw more people showing up to his club’s events on the track, then classes where he taught them to drive like the pros. And they hung on. “It piques interest,” he says. “You appreciate more what the drivers are doing there.”
François didn’t stop at motor sports: he organized 5K races and obstacle courses. He put up Christmas lights in the winter and let people pass by and see them.
The plan, on the whole, was working. Hot-rod racing drew crowds. Important people have begun to notice this. Shortly after the hot-rod race, Francois met then-NASCAR executive Jim Cassidy at the speedway in Kansas City, Kansas. Cassidy had seen previous owners struggle trying to get the track running from Delaware. Francois was different. “As soon as I met him, I wanted to know more,” Cassidy said Tuesday.
It didn’t take long for NASCAR to host one of its truck races, a minor league series, here in 2014. “And the next thing we know, we have the biggest crowd for a truck race ever. other than Daytona,” Francois said. IndyCar returned in 2017, after a 14-year absence, with similar results. Francois bragged about being more present than any oval outside of Indianapolis.
He landed his first big sponsor, Bommarito Automotive Group, for IndyCar racing, then sold the naming rights to the track to Maryland Heights-based tech giant World Wide Technology in 2019.
“It’s a huge growth story”
NASCAR badly needed the magic of François.
The association had spent the past decade fraying dramatically. In 2018, television audiences for the races were less than half of what they were in 2005. Tracks across the country, including crown jewels Daytona and Talladega, shed tens of thousands of seats as the in-person attendance was dropping.
And, for the first time in years, NASCAR was able to try new venues. Multi-year contracts with state-owned companies, which had resisted circuit schedule changes, were coming to an end. The Frances had engineered a $2 billion takeover of one of the biggest, International Speedway Corp., to control future race dates.
The Saint-Louis track was an attractive target.
For years, fans have complained about too many races on big, generic ovals, like Kentucky Speedway in Sparta and Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, which has taken away the close quarters combat that once defined the sport. St. Louis, on the other hand, was a shorter track with a few tricky turns.
“It’s high-speed with variable turns, and it’s not too big so you don’t lose sight of where everyone is,” said Cassidy, the NASCAR executive, who now works as a consultant.
St. Louis also had a rich motorsport history to sell. Cassidy said people in Daytona Beach tell stories of how legendary runner Barney Oldfield helped birth the sport there by trying to set land speed records on the sand. But before Oldfield reached Daytona, he was running at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.
And dirt tracks are still active in the area, Cassidy noted, such as I-55 Raceway in Pevely and Tri-City Speedway in Pontoon Beach.
At the same time, NASCAR had seen renewed interest in Illinois and Missouri.
“It’s a tremendous growth story,” said Ben Kennedy, the NASCAR founder’s great-grandson and the association’s point man on modernizing the sport. “I think it’s important for us to continue to engage our fans in these markets – and in big markets like St. Louis.”
“I don’t know how they could say no”
In 2020, NASCAR announced three new tracks, in Austin, Texas; Nashville, TN; and north of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
In 2021, officials called Francois.
The meeting was set for the Tuesday following Memorial Day, and staff at Greater St. Louis worked all weekend preparing.
“We took out the heavyweights,” said Hall, the organization’s CEO.
The guests of honor met at Live! by the downtown Loews Hotel, a short walk from Busch Stadium, and hid in a conference room for a series of signs designed to sell St. Louis.
The corporate heavyweights went first, breakfast and coffee. Andy Taylor, executive chairman of Enterprise Holdings, Suzanne Sitherwood, CEO of Spire, and Ken Cella, executive of Edward Jones, kicked things off by reviewing the business community’s support for the sport. Taylor was living proof of that: his company name is on the Blues hockey arena just down the street.
Later, the Frances joined Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt III and St. Louis City SC leader Carolyn Kindle Betz for lunch to talk about how St. Louis has presented at sporting events. “It’s something that the France family called unique,” Hall recalled recently. “They had never seen this kind of cooperation between sports in a market before.”
Kindle Betz told them how a few months ago his team started taking deposits on tickets to football games two years from now and sold 30,000 in 15 minutes, breaking a league record. “I thought, ‘I don’t know how they could say no,'” Kindle Betz said on Wednesday.
Kitty Ratcliffe, chair of the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission, outlined hotel packages and restaurants families could use to make a weekend of the event. Illinois officials explained how they would handle logistics, such as traffic.
Emphasis was also placed on diversity. It was a priority for NASCAR officials: they had been trying to diversify their sport and its fanbase for years, and just a year before, following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, NASCAR had banned all Confederate flags at race tracks. Then a noose was found in the garage of Bubba Wallace, the Cup Series’ only black driver.
Greater Saint-Louis talked about its acceleration program for women and minority entrepreneurs. The Urban League described its vocational training program for young black men, built on the site of the QuikTrip burned down amid the Ferguson unrest. The leaders also spoke about the region’s just-released 2030 jobs plan, a 10-year roadmap to reduce the region’s racial disparities.
On Wednesday, nearly a year later, Kennedy publicly explained why the circuit chose St. Louis.
“I know the fans are going to show up,” he said.
It only remains to prove it. Francois said ticket sales are buoyant and trending toward sold-out.
“These are perhaps the most anticipated motorsport events ever in this region,” he said. “I think we’re going to see the stands full of NASCAR-hungry people.”