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.”