Gateway making improvements ahead of IndyCar arriving…

Owner Curtis Francois and vice president/general manager Chris Blair listened to the fans and the IndyCar teams after last year’s rousing return to Gateway Motorsports Park for the IndyCar series, and right now they’re in the process of trying to make things better for everyone come August 25.

In addition to paving pit lane, pit in and pit out, they’ve added 6,000 parking spaces and installed a three-lane highway from the front to the back gate of the 1.25-mile oval in the shadow of St. Louis.

“The asphalt was getting old so it was time to repave the pits,” said Blair. “The drivers seemed happy enough with the track during the recent test, but we plan to start dragging on track next week with tire rotators to get a good base of rubber all built up so hopefully they can try some different lines. It worked for our NASCAR Truck race, and we’re hoping it helps the IndyCars.”

One of the main areas that the track wanted to improve was the inbound and outbound traffic flow for the fans. There is a two-lane roadway leading out of the major parking areas, but the Gateway boys wanted to improve the existing areas and to plan for future growth.

“Curtis looked at it and said, ‘let’s build a three-lane highway all the way around this place to make getting out easier and a better experience for everyone’,” continued Blair, whose promotional savvy served Gateway well in 2017 when an estimated 35,000 people showed up.

“So we moved some fences and dirt and made a 4,400 foot by 36 foot wide road that goes to the end of the drag strip and feeds out to Illinois Highway No.3. And what we’ll do for the NHRA race in September and for IndyCar next year is run a metro transit bus system so people can park off-site and be driven right to the front gate. The [St. Louis] Cardinals have been doing it and getting 1,500-3,000 people a game [to use it].

“The easier we can make the experience for fans to leave their house and get to their seat and back home again is one of the main things we focus on. We are trying to eliminate as many obstacles as possible to get people off the couch and into the track.”

A major factor in last year’s successful show was title sponsor Bommarito Automotive Group and Jonathan Bommarito’s gung-ho attitude towards IndyCar, with advertising campaigns in and around St. Louis.

“He’s the best,” said Blair of Bommarito. “He can help twist some arms with our promotions because he advertises so much in St. Louis on television, and he’s as fired up today about IndyCar as he was a year ago. All of his TV spots have IndyCars and drivers in them, and he’s done a great job in getting our fans to associate his dealerships with the sport. It’s an excellent activation.

“We’ve got 186 radio stations advertising our race, including Q-95 in Indianapolis, and some cool promotions like KMOX (1120 AM) which is offering $11.20 discounts on tickets if you buy them through their web site.

“We’ve got a 30-minute special on the race airing on FOX Sports Midwest that will be shown in Kansas City, St. Louis and Indianapolis a week before the race and we’ve got Graham and Courtney Rahal coming in to promote the IndyCar and NHRA race week.”

Francois and Blair also responded to the long lines for concessions at last year’s race.

“We doubled the midway vendors, opened up a big area in the infield so we can offer more concessions inside Turn 4 and we’ve added a beer garden and food trucks as well,” said Blair. “We’ve also got a pre-race pit party with DJ and all the beer you can drink for $20 between 3-7pm for the younger crowd, and we’re only selling 1,000 tickets and already sold 500.”

But what these guys understand that needs to be copied by other oval track promoters is how to give the paying customers a day’s worth of activity.

“We’re telling our fans to get here by 2pm for the best experience,” said Blair. “We’ll have a one-hour autograph session with the drivers from 3-4pm and Curtis shakes hands with every fan that comes through. We did a customer service survey after the race, where we scored a 92 percent favorability rating, and one of the things fans asked for was vintage cars. We teamed up with Mike Lashmet and Ron Nelson of Vintage Indy Registry and they’ve assembled some amazing cars to run both Friday and Saturday. Those cars, along with Pro Mazda and Indy Lights, will keep the track busy from noon to race time.

“We also wanted to make sure that Friday was jam-packed for fans traveling from out of town so we added a NASCAR K&N race after IndyCar qualifying and final practice in hopes of attracting a different group of fans to the venue.

“We’ll have a Monster Energy motorcycle stunt team in the midway and a seven-minute air show between the conclusion of the National Anthem and the time drivers are rolling off the grid. And we’ll have our three-wide parade lap again.”

Besides Josef Newgarden’s hip-check to teammate Simon Pagenaud to win last year’s race, the best thing about Gateway’s first IndyCar show in 14 years was the attendance and atmosphere. The main grandstand, which holds 35,000 if everyone is squeezed together, was packed, in addition to the suites and hospitality. It seemed like half the crowd was from Indianapolis (and there are already two buses of fans booked from Indy and a third is likely). Ticket sales are steady, according to Blair.

“We started with a holiday ticket package last November, then we’ve been hitting it hard since May and it’s been tough lately because the city is in PGA golf fever right now,” he said. “But I think we’ll be fine as long as the weather cooperates.

“IndyCar, Jay (Frye) and his staff have put on some great races this season, and we intend to be one more of them.”