By Jerry Bonkowski
As NASCAR prepares for its first-ever Cup race at World Wide Technology Raceway in Madison, Illinois (just a short burnout from St. Louis), there will be a lot of eyes upon Sunday’s event and the track itself.
While some may think WWTR – otherwise still known to this day by many as Gateway International Raceway, or simply just “Gateway,” – is a relatively new track, the fact is it’s been around for 25 years.
Between NASCAR’s Xfinity and Truck Series, IndyCar and other series, the 1.25-mile oval at WWTR has hosted dozens of significant races to date. There is also a road course and dragstrip in the multi-purpose facility.
But WWTR has never held a Cup race until this weekend.
The grandstands at the track reportedly hold 78,000 seats, around a racing surface that can be best described as being similar to Darlington Raceway, an egg-shaped oval.
The sightlines in any of those seats are excellent. The area in and around St. Louis is a NASCAR hotbed, including being the home of the famous Wallace brothers: NASCAR Hall of Famer Rusty, plus Kenny and Mike.
In fact, while Rusty and Mike still call the Charlotte area home, Kenny moved his family back to the area a year ago after more than 20 years of living in the Charlotte area.
While I wish the folks at WWTR all the best in this weekend’s event, I have to admit I’ll be watching this race closer than usual. Sure, I’ll be watching from a competition standpoint, but more importantly, from an attendance and popularity standpoint.
There’s a lot riding on the NASCAR Cup Series coming to WWTR. The track and its owner, Curtis Francois, have lobbied NASCAR for years to bring the Cup Series there.
Those lobbying efforts finally paid off – and here we are.
One Cup race will not determine the future of the racing series at WWTR. It will take probably at least 3-5 races over the next few years to determine whether the Cup Series stays at WWTR or not.
Let me explain:
Roughly 250 miles to the north sits a still outstanding facility, Chicagoland Speedway, CLS for short, which is less than 50 miles from downtown Chicago in the blue collar town of Joliet, Illinois.
CLS started out its NASCAR life as roughly a 90,000-seat track. After years of consolidation and removing seats, it currently holds about 65,000 seats.
But not for long.
No, racing will not be returning to CLS any time soon. In fact, racing will never return to CLS, as the facility, as well as its sister track, Route 66 Raceway, and the Dirt Track at CLS are all slated to be demolished, most likely sometime this year.
Various rumors and reports over the last couple of years questioning the future of CLS have arisen, with the most likely scenario that the entire CLS/Route 66 area will be turned into either a massive Amazon distribution center, or will join more than a dozen other warehouses in an equally massive industrial park that already exists across the street from the two racing venues.
That’s right, warehouses! It’s embarrassing to know that one day, folks will say, “Hey, there used to be a racetrack here, and now it’s just a damn warehouse!”
CLS and Route 66 were owned by a couple of entities in their lifetime, most recently International Speedway Corp., which is now under the NASCAR corporate umbrella.
Built as a twin to Kansas Speedway, the 1.5-mile CLS brought racing to a race-hungry area. In addition to NASCAR, it also held a number of some of the closest races the IndyCar Series has ever seen.
And of course, NHRA drag racing was king at Route 66, and various sprint car and dirt racing series called the Dirt Track home.
All that’s left now is memories. In fact, while waiting for the wrecking ball to strike, CLS today has become nothing more than a parking lot holding several hundred cars for various new car dealers who wanted a secure area to keep their cars before being brought to the dealership proper for selling purposes.
That’s right, one of the best tracks on the NASCAR circuit has been reduced to being a parking lot.
Heck, even NASCAR teams – or teams from any racing series – don’t even come back to CLS for testing, even though the venue is a great place to test.
Or, should I say, it WAS a great place to test.
I say all this about CLS and Route 66 as somewhat of a warning to WWTR: after years of hoping, wishing and praying you’d get a Cup race, the long-term sustainability will be key.
NASCAR competed at CLS from 2001 through 2019. The place has been vacant ever since. Ditto for NHRA and all other racing series.
WWTN needs to do what CLS rarely did, namely, promote the heck out of its Cup race – as well as the other events it still hosts, including IndyCar. Lack of promotion and an inability to get much media attention from the Chicago area, less than 50 miles away, contributed to several nails in CLS’ coffin.
WWTN cannot make the same mistakes as CLS, lest it also will eventually lose its much-coveted Cup race.
It won’t be easy, as the St. Louis metro area is roughly one-third the size of the Chicago metro area. Which means WWTR will have to work 300 percent harder than CLS to keep NASCAR coming back year after year.
I admit, I still feel burned about CLS, which is only 25 miles from my home. There was so much anticipation and positive hope for the place. And now it’s no longer because of the afore-mentioned lack of promotion, numerous mismanagement moves and just a general malaise that track officials did so little to keep the coveted event.
Remember how CLS hosted the kickoff race for the NASCAR playoffs for several years? Even that couldn’t keep the track from being salvaged.
And what makes it even more surprising is the fact that ISC owns the place. Apparently, selling out to corporate builders showed ISC had lost total faith in CLS and wanted to get rid of it and move on.
I hope Francois and WWTR do not suffer the same eventual future. What’s more, they’re faced with a Catch-22 situation: because WWTR is not owned by either NASCAR or Speedway Motorsports Inc., an independently-owned facility already has significant challenges.
Then again, not being owned by NASCAR or SMI provides a level of autonomy that actually can provide independence and the ability to do things the way Francois and his staff want to do them, rather than being dictated to by a major corporate entity such as NASCAR or SMI.
One other point I’d like to make: WWTR almost went the route of CLS. Francois purchased the track from SMI just days before it was destined to go on the scrap heap and be knocked down.
But through methodical improvements and a philosophy of continuing to add or enhance things every year or more, WWTR has now become a great facility as both a racing venue, but also for the folks that pay the freight, the fans.
Who knows, maybe WWTR may one day host two Cup events in a season. But for now, the future starts this weekend, and hopefully the fan turnout and TV ratings will prove NASCAR was right to bring its premier series back to the Midwest.
Now, go out and support WWTR, NASCAR fans. Don’t make the same mistake you made at CLS.
Follow Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski