BY BRUCE MARTIN
SPEED SPORT MAGAZINE
The key to any new successful race begins with the partnership between a racing promoter and the sanctioning body. With those in place, INDYCAR and Gateway Motorsports Park believe they have the makings of a winner with the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Valvoline.
The Verizon IndyCar Series race on August 26 marks the return of high-speed IndyCar Series action to the 1.25-mile Gateway Motorsports Park for the first time since August 10, 2003 when Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves won the Emerson Indy 250.
St. Louis real estate developer and former professional racer (Indy Lights) Curtis Francois saw value in the facility after it was shut down by Dover Motorsports in 2010 and began mapping out the renaissance of the facility.
Francois believed an updated facility could successfully host the Verizon IndyCar Series. He tried to get on the IndyCar schedule in 2016 as an in-season replacement to a Boston street race that was canceled by the promoter because of political obstacles in the city of Boston. INDYCAR officials replaced that event with a return to Watkins Glen International.
Francois, however, continued to make improvements to Gateway and continued an on-going dialogue with INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles and INDYCAR President of Competition and Race Operations Jay Frye. Through a lot of hard work, diligence and persistence, Francois convinced INDYCAR to sanction the track for testing purposes in 2016. When the 2017 schedule was released last year that included the framework for 2018, Gateway Motorsports Park was given a late August date for a Saturday night race.
“Curtis has done a phenomenal job and we’ve been working with him the last couple of years,” Frye said. “He’s done everything he said he would do and then some. Certainly, that is what we are looking for in a partner and he has been a great partner already.
“This process has been going on for two years with Gateway; it just didn’t happen. Part of when you do business is you want to be careful who you do business with. We are very comfortable with Curtis. He has exceeded all our expectations at this point and done everything he said he would do and then some. That is all you can hope happens.
“We have a local guy who is well-respected in the community. It is set up to succeed and we are glad we are a part of it.”
Miles is the president of Hulman & Company, the owners of INDYCAR and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Among his responsibilities, he serves as the INDYCAR CEO.
He was impressed with Francois and the effort he has made to make Gateway Motorsports Park a major-league facility capable of hosting the series on a long-term basis.
“Curtis Francois has assembled a great team,” Miles said. “They are absolutely committed. They are investing. I can’t say enough about him stepping up to pave the track at a really late hour to make sure he has done everything he possibly can to have the best possible race. They have really insinuated themselves into the St. Louis metropolitan area, which is the hallmark of a great promoter. I think he has a lot of good will in the community.
“Hopefully, he gets a great crowd to start and stays at it and can build it year after year.”
When the Verizon IndyCar Series tested at Gateway Motorsports Park in early May, it was obvious the track surface had weathered and aged over the years. After consulting with INDYCAR, Francois immediately began a repaving process that has made the once rough surface one of the smoothest ovals on the schedule.
“Not a lot of people would put in the commitment to help us put in an IndyCar race, so we’re appreciative of (track owner and CEO) Curtis (Francois) and (GMP Executive General Manager and Vice President) Chris Blair and everyone,” Graham Rahal said after testing at Gateway on August 3. “It will be the best short oval race of the year. There will be good drafting and a lot of passing in this one.”
Ryan Hunter-Reay of Andretti Autosport won the 2012 Verizon IndyCar Series championship and the 2014 Indianapolis 500. He can’t wait for the oval race under the lights at Gateway.
“I think Gateway is going to be one of my favorite (tracks) again,” said 2012 IndyCar Series champion and 2014 Indianapolis 500 winning driver Ryan Hunter-Reay. “The track is perfectly smooth and it only took me a couple of laps to get up to speed. I really felt comfortable with the car. We were able to go testing right away. We got a lot done. I’m very happy with the new surface, absolutely, it’s great.
“Hopefully it’ll make for some great racing.”
It also gives the Verizon IndyCar Series another race in the Midwest, where most IndyCar Series fans reside. Gateway is the closest track to INDYCAR’s home base of Indianapolis.
“I think it is helpful to us,” Miles said. “We’ve thought a lot about that because we have a fan base and we have a lot of races in the Midwest. There are still some regions where if we had great opportunities we’d have to look pretty hard at them. We believe this is the best choice among the options we have available to us right now.
“St. Louis is a good market for the Indy 500 in May and we think Indianapolis regional fans will make the trip to see a short oval race in St. Louis.
“Once we pick them, as long as they want to be with us and are performing and they are a quality race we want to stay.”
INDYCAR officials are also impressed with Gateway’s strong roots within the local community. It quickly signed the Bommarito Automotive Group to sponsor the race and brought in longtime sponsor Valvoline as a presenting sponsor of the contest.
“That is something that is very important to get local businesses and community leaders involved and Curtis has,” Frye said. “We are very excited about the Bommarito Group. It’s great to have Valvoline back. There has been a lot of promotion going on in St. Louis and we are looking forward to going back for the race.”
With the unique shape of the oval, it’s known as a “paper-clip” because of its tight turns. But Turns 1 and 2 are different than Turns 3 and 4 and that means race teams will have to be creative setting up the race cars.
“The track is different now so it will be a clean sheet for everybody but with the two ends of the track shaped different adds some different techniques and setups,” Frye explained. “It’s a driver’s track where the drivers move around some so I think it should be a great race.
“Gateway is a short oval but it’s 1.25 miles so it’s very fast. It’s a very unique, paper-clip, different bank, different terms. It will create some challenges. Some teams will hit it and other teams maybe not. We’ll have practice, qualifying and practice Friday night so we will have good apples to apples comparison of the surface by practicing the same time we will be racing. We are excited to see. There are a lot of unknowns but the unknowns are also exciting.
“We did another test there on August 3 with a smaller group of cars to make sure we come back there and put on a great show. From what we saw from our test in May the track looks very racy and I think we will put on a really good show.”
Momentum appears to be on INDYCAR’s side lately with improved television ratings and on-site attendance that has increased at some venues and held steady at others.
“We have some momentum,” Frye said. “The racing product is outstanding. We have to keep doing what we are doing. We are chipping away at it every day. St. Louis is a big market and this is as close to a downtown venue as we run in.
“We are excited going back.”
Bruce Martin begins his 35th year of motorsports coverage. Martin provides exclusive content to the Verizon INDYCAR Mobile App and is the host of the Honda IndyCar Report radio report and podcast. He also covers the Verizon IndyCar Series for Autoweek and SPEED SPORT Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500