NASCAR heads to new and improved Gateway for its first Cup race
By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer
When Gateway International Raceway closed following the 2010 NASCAR season, it didn’t appear to have much of a future.
The 1.25-mile oval track, located just across the state border from St. Louis and owned at the time by Dover Motorsports Inc., wasn’t in the best of shape. It had played host to Xfinity and truck races, but it seemed almost as if NASCAR put races there to give Anheuser-Busch, which had sponsored for decades what is now the Xfinity Series, a "home" race.
But more than 11 years later, the track will have NASCAR Cup Series cars on its racing surface, as Cup teams will compete for 240 laps (300 miles) on Sunday.
Curtis Francois, who bought the track from Dover and whose investment is expected to reach $100 million by 2025, landed an annual truck series race starting in 2014 and repaved the surface in 2017. For Sunday, all 57,000 seats are sold at a facility that now covers 700 acres, instead of 150 acres as it did prior to the Francois purchase.
"The emotions are just really one of gratitude more than anything else," Francois said. "We're just so thankful for all of the people that have worked with us along the way over the last decade to bring this date to fruition.
"It's just been an amazing journey. It continues to be an amazing journey. And I think when we see how things shape up on Sunday, we will all recognize that this was a great choice for the NASCAR brand."
Getting to this point hasn’t been without some issues. The truck race was temporarily suspended last August because of a power outage (a race in 2010 was postponed a day because of a power issue). The track wasn’t always embraced by the St. Louis area, as it sits on the Illinois side of the state border. Summer races there can feature brutal heat.
Francois said the power grid has been upgraded to have triple redundancy. And the hope is that the early June date won’t be as sweltering as some past visits to the track in July and August.
"I was very bullish on the St. Louis market," said Francois, who is from the area. "I really feel that in the St. Louis market, we’re a great sports town — period. And to bring something entirely new to the marketplace was more of a matter of educating the sports fan versus whether they would necessarily have a desire to come to the race.
"Once they understood what NASCAR Cup racing was all about, ticket sales have just been brisk. ... It’s been just a real blessing to see how the community has surrounded us and really embraced what we’re doing at the racetrack."
Francois hopes to avoid the pitfalls of some other tracks and their first Cup events when it comes to parking and traffic. He said his staff has had weekly meetings with the state departments of transportation the past four months.
"Every reasonable measure has been taken to address the logistics of the big race," he said.
As for the racing? It is a narrow, flat track that will potentially race like the one-mile Phoenix. Turns 1 and 2 are banked 9 degrees; Turns 3 and 4 are banked 11 degrees. Expect the Cup drivers to have to shift.
"I have always thought Gateway was a great track, and it is a great facility, and they do a great job," Team Penske driver Ryan Blaney said. "I think they are very deserving of a Cup race with the way they have grown.
"They have always hosted good events with IndyCar and Truck and stuff like that. We have been going over some of the Gateway stuff on the sim, and I think there are some heavy braking spots, and it is a track where you will see us downshifting."
Several Cup drivers have won races at Gateway: Kevin Harvick (Xfinity in 2000, 2001 and trucks in 2010), Martin Truex Jr. (Xfinity in 2004), Kyle Busch (Xfinity in 2009), Brad Keselowski (Xfinity in 2010), Bubba Wallace (trucks in 2014), Cole Custer (trucks in 2015), Christopher Bell (trucks in 2016), Justin Haley (trucks in 2018) and Ross Chastain (trucks in 2019).
There are 12 Cup drivers entered who have not raced in a NASCAR national series event at Gateway: Kyle Larson, Corey LaJoie, Chase Elliott, Parker Kligerman, AJ Allmendinger, Chris Buescher, Ty Dillon, Alex Bowman, Cody Ware, Josh Bilicki, BJ McLeod and Daniel Suarez.
"It's produced some decent racing in trucks and Xfinity ... back when they were running there," Larson said. "With this car, we already downshift at a lot of these tracks.
"I know the trucks do downshift there, so we'll probably be the same way. I've heard that they've invested a lot of money into the facility. So I'm excited to go there, and I expect it to be a big event."
Because it is a new track for them, Cup drivers will get 50 minutes of practice Friday and be able to make adjustments prior to going through tech Friday night for qualifying Saturday morning (cars will be impounded after qualifying).
"Just being able to run there before and knowing the racetrack itself would give you a little more [knowledge] than somebody who has never been there before," Kyle Busch said. "But honestly, having a normal practice weekend, everything will kind of shake out pretty evenly at the end of the day.
"I’m looking forward to getting back there. It has been a long time."
Francois hopes that drivers such as Busch like what they see after not being there for a long time. The track has a long list of corporate sponsors (local company World Wide Technology owns the naming rights) from the St. Louis area, and there is a three-day music festival on the track grounds. There is also a new suite building and a new fan area in the infield.
"You won’t recognize much but the grandstands," Francois said for those who haven’t been to the track in more than a decade. "The grandstands are the same as they were. ... [The track] is located in the same place, but practically everything has been changed other than just the grandstands and the racing surface.
"The racing surface was redone in 2017. It's aging perfectly. We really expect to have good grip, and great racing."
What to watch for
As mentioned, drivers will be shifting — likely twice going into Turn 1 and once going into Turn 3. That’s six shifts per lap. At 240 laps, that’s 1,440 shifts (maybe fewer than that because of caution laps, but close to it) for drivers to get right.
Will any of them make a mistake shifting with the new sequential shifter they have this year? Sure, they've used it all year, but Kevin Harvick recently missed a shift. And will shifting be used as much for defense as it is for offense? That is NASCAR’s biggest frustration with shifting, as it can allow a worse-performing car to stay ahead of a faster one.
Thinking out loud
This isn't a new topic, but with NASCAR announcing that the 2023 championship will be at Phoenix, the site of the championship since 2020, it brings up the issue of whether the championship should move.
Phoenix has already sold out the 2022 championship race — granted, there are only 42,000 grandstand seats — and that makes for a great atmosphere. Plus, the weather can’t be beat in November.
But with a one-race championship format in which the top driver among the four championship-eligible drivers wins the title, it's best to move the championship. That would prevent a driver who is great at Phoenix from having an advantage year after year, and a driver who is not good at Phoenix from being at a disadvantage time and time again.
They said it
"I didn't really get bothered by the heat at all. I'm just starving." — Denny Hamlin after his win in the Coca-Cola 600, the longest race (by miles) in NASCAR history
Bob Pockrass has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s. He joined FOX Sports in 2019 following stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @bobpockrass. Looking for more NASCAR content? Sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass!