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  • Meet them in St. Louis

Meet them in St. Louis

The drivers won’t be able to see it. They’ll be too busy concentrating on the track in front of them to let their eyes drift to the St. Louis skyline. But as I rode shotgun in Kenny Wallace’s pickup at World Wide Technology Raceway, I had no obligation to watch where we were going, so I can report that the view of the Gateway Arch from Turns 3 and 4 is spectacular.

In advance of this weekend’s inaugural NASCAR Cup Series race at WWTR, Wallace gave me a tour of the facility, just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. As he drove, he said there’s no track like this one. With wildly different corners, both in banking and radius, it brings to mind Darlington. Turns 1 and 2 are similar to New Hampshire and 3 and 4 are reminiscent of Phoenix.

Wallace, the longtime NASCAR driver and personality who grew up in St. Louis and lives in Arnold, Missouri, a 15-minute drive from the track, narrated as we turned laps on the 1.25-mile layout.

“We’re going to come down this back straightaway …”

… I simultaneously listened and gaped at the Arch. I’m fascinated by how different it looks depending on the angle at which you face it; from the side it looks like the Washington Monument … from straight ahead it looks like a croquet wicket …

… “You’re battling for position. I enjoy this …”

… Even after seeing the Arch hundreds of times, I still marveled at its perfect symmetry, even as that perfect symmetry stands in stark contrast to the oddly shaped track I was riding over …

… “I’m going to show you my groove. I would come right down in here,” and he put the left front tire of his Toyota on the apron. “I would drag my left front around this damn thing. This is an art.”

The track like no other will offer a view like no other in a season like no other.

And the city that Wallace calls home — a city with a personality as quirky as the track itself — is ready for it like no other.

Dilip Vishwanat | Getty Images
Dilip Vishwanat | Getty Images

• • •

I have lived in St. Louis in two stints for half of my adult life. If there is one characteristic that stands out among St. Louis sports fans, it is the pride they take in being fans. They think they are good at it. They say they are good at it. They exult when others say they are good at it. They wear it as a badge of honor that outsiders have frequently called them the best fans in baseball, and they see no issue in repeating that honorific, and sometimes they drop baseball and just call themselves the best sports fans, period.

When the St. Louis — ahem, Los Angeles — Rams left town at the end of the 2015 season, fans seemed as mad that owner Stan Kroenke insulted them on the way out as they were that he moved the team away. When the St. Louis Blues won their first Stanley Cup championship in their 52nd year of existence, the fans reacted as if all of them finally, collectively and individually, reached an un-summited mountaintop. They love their teams regardless of the win-loss column, but they were overjoyed that love was finally rewarded.

“St. Louis is a great sports town,” says Drew Blickensderfer, crew chief for Aric Almirola, who grew up in southern Illinois and cut his teeth on dirt tracks in the region. Blickensderfer remains a huge Cardinals fan. His dad pulled him out of school so he could attend World Series games in St. Louis in 1982, 1985 and 1987. “They support all the local teams.”

Having the big boys in town is going to be pretty neat. St. Louis brings out a crowd for their sporting events.

The city’s support for stick-and-ball sports was part of the reason NASCAR rewarded it with a Cup race, said Ben Kennedy, NASCAR’s senior vice president for racing development and strategy. “This is an important and strategic move for the future of our sport,” Kennedy told reporters and community leaders who gathered for the announcement that the race was coming. “The one sport you guys were missing was NASCAR.”

By NASCAR he means Cup. I covered a handful of Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series races at WWTR in the 2000s. In one, I worked on the pit crew for Bobby Hamilton’s trucks team. I moved tires and fetched gas and tried to stay out of the way. During an Xfinity race, the sky turned green as a brutal storm rolled through. For safety’s sake, track officials ordered everyone in the pit area to gather in a concrete building.

Back then, a Cup race wasn’t even a dream. There was no talk of it because the surrounding infrastructure couldn’t handle it, there wasn’t enough grandstands or parking, and the schedule was ironclad. But now, as NASCAR has reimagined its schedule in recent years, the sanctioning body has unshackled itself from the old way of making decisions.

Gone is a devotion to massive markets with pre-existing fully developed facilities. In its place is a “what the hell, let’s try it” schedule-making joie de vivre that suggests any idea is worth considering — even racing at a track that a decade ago was deserted and left to rot.

While putting a Cup race in St. Louis is not quite the big, bold swing that holding the Clash inside a football stadium in Los Angeles was, it still fits neatly in the “wouldn’t have happened 10 years ago” category. In this year of everything new — new car, new owners, new schedule — the sport is free to tap into new markets, too.

Brian Lawdermilk
Brian Lawdermilk

Before this race was announced, I would have said St. Louis was not much of a racing town. Wallace tells me I was wrong, and indeed, there’s a buzz about the race that I wasn’t expecting. Because of St. Louis’ passion for traditional sports, its status as a racing town is underrated, Wallace tells me. There’s so much talk about baseball, hockey and a soon-to-launch soccer team that there’s room for little else. “Auto racing gets lost,” Wallace says. “However, this is one of auto racing’s best areas in America.”

History backs him up. In the early 2000s, four drivers at the Cup level grew up in the St. Louis area — the three Wallace brothers (Rusty, Mike, Kenny) plus Ken Schrader. Throw in Carl Edwards, who won 28 Cup races and grew up 90 minutes away in Columbia, Missouri, and Xfinity stalwart Justin Allgaier, who grew up 90 minutes away in Spaulding, Illinois, and the region’s bona fides get even stronger.

There won’t be any hometown drivers in this race, but that won’t blunt the allure. As much as St. Louisans talk about their fandom, they will see this race as a chance to show their claims have merit. By moving a race here, NASCAR showed confidence that St. Louis fans will turn out to support stock-car racing. Therefore, St. Louis sports fans will show up to prove them right, even if they aren’t already big NASCAR fans. St. Louis fans would be ashamed of themselves if TV showed empty seats.

“Having the big boys in town is going to be pretty neat,” says Blickensderfer, who as crew chief for Edwards won twice at WWTR in the Xfinity Series. “St. Louis brings out a crowd for their sporting events.”

Especially one like this — big, much-hyped, first. At the announcement of the race, Andrew Taylor, executive chairman of Enterprise Holdings and a key player in wooing both NASCAR and Major League Soccer to town, read a list of major events in St. Louis recently and asked: “How does it feel to be living in the best sports town in America right now?”

• • •

Every city loves an underdog, and that is baked into St. Louis’s sports identity more than others. The city is forever jockeying for a place at the table, eager to prove it belongs in the conversation about major cities, whether the topic is sports or parks or philanthropy or zoos or great places to live.

But not pizza. Definitely not pizza. One day 11 years ago, as I waited to interview Dale Earnhardt Jr., I listened as he recorded a radio ad for a St. Louis-style pizza franchise called Imo’s that is woven into the city’s restaurant scene. I overheard him asking his staff how to pronounce the name — eee-mos or eye-mos? I interjected with eee-mos. I neglected to tell them that St. Louis-style pizza, from Imo’s and everywhere else, tastes like saltines soaked in ketchup and salt.

Anyway: The city’s two most beloved sports icons in the last 25 years both lived incredible underdog stories. Kurt Warner was stocking shelves at a grocery store before he became the ringleader of the Greatest Show on Turf and led the Rams to one Super Bowl win and another appearance in a Hall of Fame career. Albert Pujols was a little-noticed baseball player near Kansas City drafted in the lowly 13th round, and yet he emerged as not just a superstar but an all-time great with the Cardinals, winning Rookie of the Year in 2001, three MVP awards and two World Series. And the year the Blues finally won their first Stanley Cup, they roared back from having the worst record in the NHL as of Jan. 2 that season.

WWTR’s rise from shuttered to hosting the premiere racing circuit in the country is equally unlikely. Originally a drag strip, WWTR has been home to racing since the late 1960s. A road course was added in 1985, and in 1997, the Xfinity Series debuted on the oval track as it exists now. Trucks followed in 1998, but the downturn in the economy and subsequent drop in attendance hit hard. The track closed in 2010.

That looked like the end of big-time racing in St. Louis.

But Curtis Francois bought the track in 2013 with plans to revive it, plans that have become grander and more expansive as the track has found success. Early in his tenure as owner, he called Wallace to set up a meeting to pick his brain. “I was really honored,” Wallace says.

Wallace and Francois talked over lunch at a restaurant owned by broadcaster Joe Buck, who was raised in St. Louis and whose late father, Jack, was the Cardinals play-by-play man. The restaurant was near Busch Stadium, home of the Cardinals, and not far from a statute honoring baseball Hall of Famer Stan Musial. That couldn’t be more of a St. Louis meeting unless they ate toasted ravioli while sitting atop Anheuser-Busch’s Clydesdales.

“They wanted to know everything I thought about this facility,” Wallace says. “I told them the race track is fantastic.”

As a track to drive on, yes. As a track to visit, less so. The facility needed work to make it a world-class facility; the track is working on $40 million in renovations. Officials believe the biggest problem — traffic — has been solved. In covering Xfinity and Truck Series races there, I waited in lines that were Cup-esque. To fix that, the track bought property to fit more cars, and the state of Illinois agreed to aggressive traffic alteration plans.

• • •

There are many reasons NASCAR tabbed WWTR to host its first Cup race. Big sports town. Strong regional racing legacy. Hard work by the owner, promoters and supporters like Kenny Wallace. And good old-fashioned creativity.

Since Francois purchased the track, WWTR has hosted trucks (2014-present) and Indy Car (2017-present), which now seem like auditions for the Cup Series. The key for WWTR was to make sure a) they nailed the auditions and b) the right people saw them.

That required subtlety, which, frankly, is not always this region’s strong suit. This is a city where everyone asks each other, “where did you go to high school?” because they believe the answer tells them everything they need to know about the person.

Chris Blair, the track’s executive vice president and general manager, concocted a less ostentatious way to get noticed. Before an Indy Car race in 2018, Blair knew from ticket sales that he was going to have a packed house. He already was quietly lobbying NASCAR brass to pay attention to what was happening at WWTR. He knew that a packed house would impress NASCAR brass, and that NASCAR brass had to learn of that packed house on their own and not be told about it by him, because if he told them about it, he would no longer be quietly lobbying he would be openly lobbying.

Gateway St Louis Arch

Before the race, he texted driver Alex Bowman and asked him to tweet about the race. If Bowman’s tweet got retweeted and bounced around NASCAR’s echo chamber, the right eyes would see it.

“We’re sneaky like that,” Blair says.

“You’re a promoter!” Kenny Wallace says.

“I’m a bull—- artist,” he replies.

Maybe 10 laps into the race, Bowman texted Blair to ask him if he still wanted him to tweet considering what Jimmie had said.

“Jimmie who?” he replied.

Unbeknownst to Blair, and without his having anything to do with it, Jimmie Johnson — NASCAR’s seven-time champion and one of the sport’s most followed voices on Twitter — saw the crowd and tweeted about it approvingly.

“It got a lot of people’s attention,” Blair says.

Mission accomplished even if the tweet that accomplished the mission wasn’t even part of the mission. Later, NASCAR brass — Kennedy, Jim France, Lesa France Kennedy and Steve Phelps — toured WWTR. On the wall was a picture of the Indy Car race from the next year, just as full as the one that captured Johnson’s eye. They couldn’t miss it as they walked by.

“It was totally an accident that it ended up there,” Blair says. “I swear.”

And by “totally an accident” he means not an accident at all.

As Kenny Wallace says: “They’ve earned this by making NASCAR look and ask, ‘What is going on over there?’ ”

And now St. Louisans get to answer that question. They won’t be shy about it.