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IndyCar ready to return to St. Louis area after long layoff

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MADISON, Ill. (AP) The return of IndyCar after a long layoff to the St. Louis region is welcome news for area racing fans.

St. Louis is still dealing with the election last month, where a bond issue failed that would have provided money for a stadium for a Major League Soccer team.

And also of course the NFL’s Rams, who moved to Los Angeles after the 2015 season.

But the return of the IndyCar racing open-wheel series to Gateway Motorsports Park, the 1.25-mile oval in this small city five minutes from downtown St. Louis has brought high hopes to a track that six years ago was 24 hours away from the grandstands being sold for scrap.

That’s when St. Louis real estate developer and former open-wheel racer Curtis Francois came up with money to help revitalize the once-failing 340-acre facility.

“We’ve been working really hard over the last five years to re-energize the fan base and motorsports in general,” said Francois, whose track will host its first IndyCar series race since 2003 on Aug. 26.

“I think they understand that we’re sincere and that we’re going to keep at this until we get this figured out in a way that they understand that motorsports is here to stay.

“And motorsports is a great opportunity to take your family out for a great afternoon. It’s important to engage them and make them understand that we are trying to give them what they’re after.”

That showed on Tuesday when several hundred fans showed up for two IndyCar test sessions, which surprised the drivers, IndyCar officials and Gateway management.

So much so, that the drivers held an impromptu autograph session during a break.

“This is not very common when we’re going to a place like this and having practice and people are coming over,” said three-time Indianapolis 500 champion Helio Castroneves and the last winner of the IndyCar race at Gateway.

“It’s like a qualifying day. That is great. It shows that we do have a market here. I’m happy. This is the way it started when you’re going to new places. You start to practice and people start coming to watch. I feel this is going to be the same.”

On Saturday night, the series raced at Phoenix International Raceway in front of only about 10,000 fans. It was the second time returning to Phoenix after a 10-year layoff.

While the low attendance figure bothered drivers and officials, they also know it’s hard to win back fans after a long layoff.

“It’s only the second year (in Phoenix),” said 2013 Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan, who was second at Gateway in 2003.

“To me it seemed like it was as good, or as bad, whatever you want to call it. Honestly, I think everybody tried there are just some places that has better attendance than others. But I don’t have an answer.”

As for coming to Gateway, Kanaan said “these are the types of places we need to come back to. I’m excited to come back and come back here. We just need to keep pounding on social media that we’re coming back. That’s the best thing to do.

“Then when we come back here and put on a good show for them and the people that didn’t come, they regret it.”

IndyCar president of competition and operations Jay Frye said the series will have to reintroduce itself to St. Louis-area race fans after a 13-year layoff.

“The Midwest is great. There’s a lot of race fans,” Frye said during a break during two test sessions.

“We’re excited to be coming back. Curtis Francois and (general manager) Chris (Blair) have a vision. We understand it’s going to take a couple of years to build it back up. That’s OK.

“As long as we’re lined up together and they have a vision and a plan with where they’re going, we’re partners. We’re excited to be back.”

Toyota No. 8 car wins the 24 Hours of Le Mans for third consecutive year

24 Hours of Le Mans
JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER/AFP via Getty Images
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LE MANS, France — Toyota Gazoo’s No. 8 car comfortably won the 24 Hours of Le Mans by five laps Sunday to secure a third straight victory in the prestigious endurance race.

It was also a third consecutive win for Swiss driver Sebastien Buemi and Japan’s Kazuki Nakajima driving. Brendon Hartley was the other driver, having replaced two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso.

Buemi and Hartley sat on the side of the car as Nakajima drove toward the podium. Hartley won for a second time after tasting success with the Porsche LMP Team in 2017 before an unhappy season in Formula One.

The Swiss team’s Rebellion No. 1 featured American driver Gustavo Menezes and Brazilian Bruno Senna – the nephew of late F1 great Ayrton Senna.

It finished one lap ahead of Toyota Gazoo’s No. 7, with Rebellion’s No. 3 finishing in fourth place.

For much of the race it looked like Toyota’s No. 7 would win after leading comfortably from pole position. But late into the night the car encountered an engine problem and the 30-minute stop in the stands proved costly.

The race was first held in 1923. A total of 252,500 spectators attended in 2019, but there were none this year when the race started three months late because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

“We miss the fans,” New Zealander Hartley said. “I look forward to seeing all the fans again.”

In other divisions:

United Autosports won the LMP2 division with the entry of Filipe Albuquerque, Paul Di Resta and Phil Hanson.

–In LMGTE Pro, the victory was claimed by Aston Martin Vantage AMR of Maxime Martin, Alex Lynn and Harry Tincknell (who drives for Mazda in the DPi division of IMSA).

–TF Sport won the LMGTE Am class.

The Toyota No. 7 took pole after former F1 driver Kamui Kobayashi narrowly edged out the Rebellion No. 1 team in qualifying.

In damp and humid conditions Mike Conway got away cleanly from the start, while Senna held off Buemi.

After nearly seven hours, Toyota’s No. 8 fell back after a 10-minute stop in the stands to fix a brake-cooling problem on Kazuki Nakajima’s car. Rebellion’s No. 1, driven by Frenchman Norman Nato, took advantage to move into second place behind Toyota’s No. 7.

Then came the decisive moment at 2:40 a.m. as the No. 7 – also featuring Argentine Jose Maria Lopez – encountered a turbo problem. When the car came back out it was back in fourth.

“We had a few problems early in the race,” Nakajima said. “Later they had a bigger issue than us.”

Rebellion’s No. 1 encountered a problem on the hood at around 9 a.m. and the change took six minutes, allowing the Rebellion No. 3 (Nathanael Berthon-Louis Deletraz-Romain Dumas) to close the gap.

It was becoming a tight battle between the two Rebellion cars behind Toyota’s No. 8.

At 12 p.m. Rebellion No. 3 with Dumas behind the wheel was only one second ahead of No. 1 driven by Menezes. Then both cars came in for a driver change with Deletraz swapping for Dumas on a lengthy stop, and Nato for Menezes as Rebellion No. 1 suddenly moved ahead of its team rival.

Dumas, a winner in 2016 with Porsche, appeared unhappy at the strategy decision to bring his car in first and the length of the stop. There were tense explanations in the team garage.

Colombian Tatiana Calderon, an F1 test driver with Alfa Romeo, was in the Richard Mille Racing Team in the LMP2 category. She was joined by German Sophia Florsch – an F3 driver – and Dutchwoman Beitske Visser. They placed ninth out of 24 in their category.