When Curtis Francois announced his intent to revive the former Gateway International Raceway in 2011, his task seemed daunting. A redevelopment plan was in its infancy, and a handshake deal with NHRA’s drag racing tour was all that went along with a starter one-year lease.
Nearly 10 years to the date later, the former racer and real-estate developer with deep ties to the St. Louis area can add a signature event to those bold plans — a NASCAR Cup Series date next June.
The 1.25-mile oval, part of a sprawling motorsports complex now called World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway, will join the Cup Series schedule in 2022. The news, announced by NASCAR and track officials Wednesday morning, marks the culmination of Francois’ vision for the facility he has revitalized during the last decade.
“You know I think with any business venture of this magnitude, there’s always going to be a challenge. I mean, in this case there were lots of challenges,” says Francois, who raced in IMSA and other sports-car tours plus Indy Lights. “But of all the business ventures I’ve been involved with, this has been the most satisfying and rewarding of anything that I’ve ever done. And I can tell you why: It is amazing to see how our community of racers and fans have come together to pull the rope with us. We never felt like we were in it alone, and there were so many people, really, just as part of the team making it happen.
“We’re just elated for the area, for the fans, and for all those that’ll benefit from having a Cup date here.”
The asymmetrical oval has hosted other NASCAR national series races in the past, but the June 5 event will be the first for NASCAR’s top division. The Xfinity Series ran 15 races at the Madison, Illinois, track from 1997-2010, and the Camping World Truck Series competed at Gateway from 1998-2010 before renewing its association with the track in 2014 to the current day. The venue has also hosted IndyCar events on the oval, and NHRA meets on the adjacent drag strip.
The gap in NASCAR’s tenure at the Gateway track came due to the change in ownership. Dover Motorsports group had operated the track but closed it in the fall of 2010, and Francois took over nearly 10 months later, staving off the facility’s demolition. The road back to hosting NASCAR events would be a difficult one, as Steve O’Donnell — NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer — indicated after Dover did not seek race dates for Gateway in 2011.
“It’s fairly challenging to get back on the schedule,” O’Donnell said then. “NASCAR is not in the business of pulling dates from someone. So once someone opts out, we fill those venues with what we feel like are going to do a good job and have done a good job, Once that schedule is full, it’s quite difficult to get back on there.”
Shortly after Francois’ one-year lease turned into full ownership, Gateway was back on NASCAR’s radar with an annual date for the Camping World Trucks that’s held steady since 2014. IndyCar racing returned three years later.
“It wasn’t until much later that I understood that it would be as big of a challenge as it would be,” Francois says. “I did not know that Steve had made those comments, and it was probably for the best, because I just went about it as saying we’re gonna work as hard as we can every single day, put on great races, provide a great place for fans to come out and enjoy racing, and really do the best that we can to integrate ourselves into the racing world. Certainly, you know, it’s just great to see that that has come now full circle, and coming back to seeing that a Cup date is coming to St. Louis.
“Frankly, the way we went about our business was pretty straightforward. We just put forth our best effort for more than a decade now and letting the results of hard work signal the most clear resounding message that can be heard, that really that the message is one of validation that the Cup Series belongs in St Louis. It just took a long time to really set the stage to make that happen.”
The hard work that Francois references often has come in the form of investments in the track’s facilities. For fans, that’s meant renovated concession areas, restrooms and seating, plus a calendar full of events on the grassroots level. On the competition side, both the oval and drag strip were repaved in 2017, and safety upgrades have been a continual focus.
“The facility’s made a lot of strides,” said Ben Kennedy, NASCAR senior vice president of strategy and innovation. “They had a repave a few years ago to the track, and I know Curtis has some plans as you think about the future of the track in the next two to three years. So, they certainly believe in the track and they believe in the market, and I think one of the great things about it is you’re so close to St. Louis area, only a five-minute drive from the arch and downtown St. Louis, and I think it’ll be a great crowd once we go out there. The truck crowd is always really impressive.”
Start times have not been released for the 2022 Cup Series schedule, but Francois says he anticipates a daytime start for his race-day Sunday. The track plans to take deposits on next year’s race tickets starting in the fall.
Track officials formally unveiled its place on the Cup Series schedule at a media event Wednesday morning in St. Louis’ Ballpark Village, between the home of baseball’s Cardinals and the iconic Gateway Arch. There’s plenty to do before NASCAR’s premier circuit arrives in 2022, but Francois’ vision extends beyond that June debut.
“I think this is just really only the beginning,” Francois says. “We followed our mission, and our mission really has been leading with authenticity. Our model has been to go right back to the grassroots racing fan, and to make sure that they found a home at World Wide Technology Raceway, and we anticipate that we will continue to deliver that going into the future. You know, just really being good listeners to the fans and delivering the best possible experience that we can, we’ll be certainly rock-solid stewards of the community. I think most importantly, while we’re doing all these things, we’ll have some fun doing it.”