Return: How St. Louis Landed One of NASCAR’s Biggest Races | local business

MADISON – Curtis Francois was sitting in his office steps from the racetrack last spring when he got a call from Daytona Beach. It was great.

World Wide Technology Raceway was in operation to host one of NASCAR’s marquee events. The family of France, who had founded and still owned the Sports Punishment Authority, was coming to town. François shut down and called Jason Hall, president of the St. Louis area business development organization.

“We’ll have one shot with the whole family,” François told him. “How are we going to sell St. Louis?”

Today, the area is in final preparations for the weekend at Victory Lane. NASCAR brings its First Class Cup Series to Metro East. The Enjoy Illinois 300 is set next Sunday.

This almost did not happen: the previous owners for years tried to record such an event. They eventually gave up, closed the track and left him to die.

François designed a return for the ages: he had a bold plan. He built a wave of support from local fans. He took advantage of chance timing – a crash in NASCAR viewing and attendance. But, in the end, it all ended in private half-day meetings with the CEOs and the most influential people in St. Louis sports.

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“It was a huge deal,” said Hall, CEO of Greater St. Louis, Inc. “It was a huge deal, you got this and it’s like hosting a world championship every year. It’s like a big festival wrapped in a leading sport.”

Twelve years ago, the old track, off Interstate 55, was 10 minutes from downtown St. Louis, bound for a junkyard.

In November 2010, Delaware-based Dover Motorsports defined the International Racecourse, as it was then called, as three things: a “huge facility,” one in a “great racing community” — and one that wasn’t making enough money. And it has to close.

But Francois, a racing car driver turned real estate developer, saw a golden opportunity. He also thought Gateway was a great facility. A native of Kirkwood, he had roots in the local racing community that Dover did not have.

With a little patience and a lot of investment, he thought he could do what he couldn’t.

Crowds bigger than any oval outside of Indy

By the end of the summer of 2011, François was meeting with Tom Compton, president of the National Hot Rod League. Compton loved St. Louis, was sad to leave when the track closed, and made him an offer: If François would dominate 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 – top speed 200 mph – under the tow bar a few times to celebrate, then got to work. First, he repaved the bar to welcome the hot sticks stick. Then he started rolling out the red carpet for everyone.

His idea was simple: the more people he could get between race days, the more people he would get on race days.

He began upgrading the facilities to the racing fans he had known for years and invited them back to the track. He set up a go-kart tournament in the playground to attract more kids and families on a weekly basis. He has taken the old Friday night drag racing, one that’s open only to anyone with a car and basic safety gear, to a new level, building a booth and hiring a DJ.

“We wanted to make it clear that everyone was welcome on the racetrack and had fun,” said Francois. “These people have become our greatest ambassadors.”

Jim Fiss, president of the local Porsche club, saw more people attending his club’s events on the track, then lessons where he taught them how to drive like a pro. They are attached. “It’s interesting,” he said. “You appreciate what the drivers do there the most.”

Francois didn’t stop motorsport: he hosted 5Ks and ran an obstacle course. He put on Christmas lights in the winter and let people pass by and see them.

The plan, all in all, was working. Hot stick races were attracting crowds. Important people are starting to notice this. Soon after the hot rod race, Francois met Jim Cassidy, who was a NASCAR executive, on the highway in Kansas City, Kansas. Cassidy saw the former owners struggle trying to run the track from Delaware. Francois was different. “Once I met him, I wanted to know more,” Cassidy said Tuesday.

It didn’t take long for NASCAR to bring one of its truck racing, minor league series, here in 2014. “And the next thing we know, we have the largest truck racing audience other than Daytona,” Francois said. IndyCar returned in 2017, after a 14-year absence, with similar results. François boasted a better attendance than any oval outside Indianapolis.

He secured his first major sponsor, Bommarito Automotive Group, to race IndyCar, then sold the track naming rights to Maryland Heights giant World Wide Technology in 2019.

Huge growth story

NASCAR was in dire need of Francois’ magic.

The Association had spent the past decade burning in an astonishing fashion. By 2018, television ratings for the races were less than half what they were in 2005. Tracks across the country, including the Crown Jewels Daytona And the TalladegaTens of thousands of seats were withdrawn as the in-person attendance rate declined.

And for the first time in years, NASCAR was in a position to try new places. Multi-year contracts with public companies, which resisted changes to the circuit’s schedule, were about to expire. Frances had engineered a $2 billion acquisition of one of the largest companies, International Speedway Corp. , to control future race dates.

The St. Louis Trail was an attractive target.

For years, fans have complained about the many races on large public ovals, such as the Kentucky Speedway in Sparta and Chicagoland Speedway at Joliet, which kept away from the close combat that once represented the sport. On the other hand, the St. Louis track was shorter with some tough turns.

“It’s high-speed with variable angles, and it’s not a big deal to lose track of where everyone is,” said Cassidy, NASCAR’s executive director, who now serves as a consultant.

St. Louis has also had a rich history in motorsports for sale. Cassidy said people in Daytona Beach are talking about how legendary racer Barney Oldfield helped the sport be born there in an effort to set speed records on sand. But before Oldfield reached Daytona, he was racing at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.

Cassidy noted that dirt tracks are still active in the area, such as the I-55 racetrack in Pevely and Tri-City Speedway in Boonton Beach.

At the same time, NASCAR has seen an increase in interest in Illinois and Missouri.

“It’s a huge growth story,” said Ben Kennedy, the great-grandson of the NASCAR founder and responsible for modernizing the sport. “I think it’s important for us to continue engaging our fans in those markets – and in big markets like St. Louis.”

“I don’t know how they can say no”

In 2020, NASCAR announced three new tracks, in Austin, Texas; Nashville, Tennessee; and North Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

In 2021, officials contacted Francois.

The meeting was scheduled for the Tuesday after Memorial Day, and Greater St. Louis staff worked over the weekend.

We pulled out the heavy hitters,” said Hall, the foundation’s CEO.

The guests of honor gathered in the live broadcast! Adjacent to the downtown Loews, just steps away from Busch Stadium, immerse yourself in a meeting room for a series of paintings designed for the St. Louis sale.

Heavyweight companies went first, for breakfast and coffee. Enterprise Holdings CEO Andy Taylor, Spire CEO Susan Seatherwood, and Edward Jones CEO Ken Sella started matters by reviewing the business community’s support for the sport. Taylor was living proof: his company’s name is on the blues hockey rink down the street.

Later, Francis joined Cardinals President Bill DeWitt III and St. Louis City President Caroline Kendall Beetz for lunch to talk about how St. Louis appears at sporting events. “This was something the France family said was unique,” Hall recalled recently. “They’ve never seen this kind of cross-sport collaboration in the market before.”

Kindle Betz told them how her team just a few months ago started taking deposits on football tickets two years later and sold 30,000 in 15 minutes, breaking a league record. “I was thinking, ‘I don’t know how they can say no,'” Kendall Betz said on Wednesday.

Kitty Ratcliffe, chair of the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Committee, offered hotel and restaurant packages that families might use for a weekend from the event. Illinois officials have talked about how they handle logistics, such as traffic.

There was also a huge focus on diversity. It was a priority for NASCAR officials: They had been trying to diversify their sport and its fan base for years, and just a year ago, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, NASCAR banned all Confederate flags in truck racing. Then the noose was found in the garage booth of Bubba Wallace, the only black driver in the trophy chain.

Greater St. Louis spoke about its accelerator program for women and minority entrepreneurs. The Urban League has described its career training program for black youth, which was built on the QuikTrip site, as it burned down amid the Ferguson turmoil. The leaders also spoke about the region’s recently released 2030 Jobs Plan, a 10-year roadmap to reduce racial disparities in the region.

On Wednesday, nearly a year later, Kennedy spoke publicly about why the circuit chose St. Louis.

“I know the fans will be attending,” he said.

All that remains now is to prove it. François said ticket sales are active and on sale.

“This could be the most anticipated motorsport event ever in this region,” he said. “I think we’ll see the stands full of hungry NASCAR people.”