The comeback: How St. Louis landed one of NASCAR’s biggest races | Local Business

MADISON — Curtis Francois was sitting in his office just steps from his racetrack last spring when he got a call from Daytona Beach. It was the big one.

World Wide Technology Raceway was in the running to host one of NASCAR’s marquee events. The France family, which founded and still owns the sport’s sanctioning body, was coming to town. Francois hung up and dialed Jason Hall, the leader of the St. Louis region’s business development organization.

“We’re going to get one shot with the whole family,” Francois told him. “How are we going to sell St. Louis?”

Today, the region is in final preparations for a weekend in victory lane. NASCAR is bringing its top-tier Cup Series to the Metro East. The Enjoy Illinois 300 is set for next Sunday.

It almost didn’t happen: Previous owners tried for years to score such an event. They eventually gave up, closed the track and left it for dead.

Francois engineered a comeback for the ages: He had an audacious plan. He built a groundswell of local fan support. He took advantage of fortuitous timing — a crash in NASCAR viewership 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 St. Louis sports.

“It was a huge deal,” said Hall, CEO of Greater St. Louis Inc. “You get this and it’s like hosting a World Series every single year. It’s like a major festival wrapped in a premier sport.”

Twelve years ago, the old track, off Interstate 55, 10 minutes from downtown St. Louis, was headed for the scrapyard.

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

But Francois, a racecar driver turned real estate developer, saw a golden opportunity. He, too, thought Gateway was a great facility. And he was a Kirkwood native, 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.

Bigger crowds than any oval outside of Indy

By the end of summer 2011, Francois was meeting with Tom Compton, the president of the National Hot Rod Association. Compton liked 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, Francois and a group of investors made it official. Francois took his Corvette Z06 — top speed 200 mph — down the drag strip a few times to celebrate, and then got down to business. First he repaved the strip to welcome the hot rods back. Then he started rolling out the red carpet for everyone else.

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

He started upgrading facilities for the racing enthusiasts he’d known for years and invited them back out to the track. He set up a go-kart course in the infield to draw more kids and families on a weekly basis. And he took the old Friday night drag races, the ones open to just about anyone with a car and basic safety equipment, to a new level, building a pavilion and hiring DJs.

“We wanted to make clear everyone was welcome out at the racetrack and they were having fun,” Francois said. “Those people became our greatest ambassadors.”

Jim Fiss, president of the local Porsche Club, saw more people showing up to his club’s events at the track, and then classes where he taught them how to drive like the pros. And they got hooked. “It piques the interest,” he said. “You appreciate more what drivers are doing out there.”

Francois didn’t stop with motorsports: He hosted 5Ks and obstacle course runs. He put up Christmas lights in the wintertime and let people drive through and see them.

The plan, altogether, was working. The hot-rod races were drawing crowds. Important people started taking notice. Not long after the hot-rod race, Francois met with Jim Cassidy, then an executive at NASCAR, at the speedway in Kansas City, Kansas. Cassidy had seen the previous owners struggle trying to run the track from Delaware. Francois was different. “As soon as I met him, I wanted to know more,” Cassidy said Tuesday.

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

He landed his first big sponsor, Bommarito Automotive Group, for the IndyCar race, and then sold the track’s naming rights to Maryland Heights-based tech giant World Wide Technology in 2019.

‘It’s a huge growth story’

NASCAR was in sore need of Francois’ magic.

The association had spent the past decade burning out in spectacular fashion. By 2018, TV ratings for races were less than half what they had been in 2005. Tracks across the country, including crown jewels Daytona and Talladega, were yanking out tens of thousands of seats as in-person attendance plummeted.

And, for the first time in years, NASCAR was in a position to try out new venues. Multiyear contracts with public companies, who had resisted changes to the circuit’s schedule, were expiring. The Frances had engineered a $2 billion takeover of one of the largest, International Speedway Corp., to control future race dates.

The St. Louis track was an appealing target.

For years, fans had complained of too many races at big, generic ovals, like the Kentucky Speedway in Sparta and the Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, which took away from the close-quarters combat that once defined the sport. St. Louis, on the other hand, was a shorter track with some tricky turns.

“It’s high-speed with variable corners, and it’s not too big that you lose track of where everybody’s at,” said Cassidy, the NASCAR executive, who now works as a consultant.

St. Louis also had a rich motorsports history to sell. Cassidy said folks in Daytona Beach talk about how legendary racer Barney Oldfield helped birth the sport there trying to set land-speed records on the sand. But before Oldfield hit Daytona, he was racing at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.

And dirt tracks are still active in the area, Cassidy noted, like the I-55 Raceway in Pevely and Tri-City Speedway in Pontoon Beach.

At the same time, NASCAR had seen a boost in interest in Illinois and Missouri.

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

‘I don’t know how they could say no’

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

In 2021, officials called Francois.

The meeting was set for the Tuesday after Memorial Day, and the staff of Greater St. Louis worked through the weekend preparing.

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

The guests of honor gathered at the Live! by Loews hotel downtown, just steps away from Busch Stadium, and ducked into a conference room for a series of panels designed to sell St. Louis.

Corporate heavyweights went first, over breakfast and coffee. Enterprise Holdings Executive Chairman Andy Taylor, Spire CEO Suzanne Sitherwood and Edward Jones executive Ken Cella kicked things off with a review of the business community’s support for sports. Taylor was living proof: His company’s name is on the Blues’ hockey arena right down the street.

Later, the Frances joined Cardinals President Bill DeWitt III and St. Louis City SC chief Carolyn Kindle Betz for lunch to talk about how St. Louis showed up for sporting events. “That was one thing the France family said was unique,” Hall recalled recently. “They hadn’t seen that kind of cooperation across sports in a market before.”

Kindle Betz told them about how just a few months prior, her team had started taking deposits on tickets for soccer games two years away and sold 30,000 in 15 minutes, breaking a league record. “I was thinking, ‘I don’t know how they could say no,’” Kindle Betz said Wednesday.

Kitty Ratcliffe, president of the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission, ran down the hotel packages and restaurants families might use to make a weekend of the event. Illinois officials talked about how they would handle logistics, like traffic.

There was also a heavy emphasis on diversity. It was a priority for NASCAR officials: They’d been trying to diversify their sport and its fan base for years, and just a year before, in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, NASCAR had banned all Confederate flags at racetracks. Then a noose was found in the garage stall of Bubba Wallace, the lone Black driver in the Cup Series.

Greater St. Louis talked about their accelerator program for women and minority entrepreneurs. The Urban League described its job training program for young Black men, built on the site of the QuikTrip burned amid the Ferguson unrest. Leaders also talked about the region’s just-released 2030 jobs plan, a 10-year roadmap to reducing the region’s racial disparities.

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

“I know that the fans are going to show up,” he said.

All that’s left now is to prove it. Francois said ticket sales are brisk and trending toward a sellout.

“This may be the most highly anticipated motorsports events ever for this area,” he said. “I think that we’re going to see the stands full of people hungry for NASCAR.”