Q&A with Curtis Francois, owner and president, Gateway Motorsports Park, Madison
IBJ: You’re a former professional racer. How much did that influence your decision to reopen Gateway back in 2012?
Francois: My racing background was a big help. I’ve traveled the country and seen the facilities around the country, and when it came time to run and operate a racetrack, I certainly understood what the racetracks looked like from behind the wheel. Now, operating a racetrack and owning a racetrack are a completely different challenge, but I’m certainly glad I had the opportunity.
IBJ: What are some things that struck you in your learning curve as a manager?
Francois: Really the complexity of operating a racetrack. There are so many things that go on behind the scenes of a major entertainment venue, let alone a racetrack. We have significant infrastructure needs, staffing needs and resources to pull off these events.
IBJ: What kind of staffing do you have now?
Francois: A little over 100 in full-time equivalents during the summer. We staff over 500 for the big events.
IBJ: What kind of improvements have you made in the years you’ve been in charge?
Francois: Over the last six years I’ve really been preparing the track to host racing at the highest levels. We’ve got a new oval track, a new dragstrip, additional grandstands. We’ve quadrupled the parking capacity. We’ve doubled the footprint of the facility. And many, many other improvements. We’ve added the Kartplex, the Dirtplex, conference centers and several new fan-engagement zones. If you come to the facility you will see an entertainment venue that is really one of the best in the country now.
IBJ: You’ve said all along that you wanted to have new events at the track and you’ve kind of stuck to that. What have been some of the major achievements, race wise? I know NASCAR, IndyCar and NHRA events are all on the calendar now.
Francois: Gateway Motorsports Park is one of the most vibrant tracks in the country, without a doubt. It’s well-managed, well-funded, well-positioned for growth, and it’s really grown into a national powerhouse of racing. At a time when there are struggles across all sports we’ve kind of bucked the trend in being able to grow the facility and our audience. We hosted the second-largest NASCAR Camping World Series truck race this year, which was a great achievement. We were blessed to have the largest oval track Indy crowd in years, second only to the Indianapolis 500. That was a huge accomplishment for the area, the race track and the fans. And then, our NHRA drag-racing event has grown to be the largest in the Midwest other than the iconic U.S. Nationals at Indy. We’ve come a long way since 2012.
IBJ: You held your first Gateway 500 last year. How did that go over?
Francois: It went over great. We’re preparing again for the race (Verizon IndyCar Series Bommarito Automotive Group 500) on Aug. 25. It’s our largest event now, and all the IndyCar stars are coming back. Our IndyCar race was the standout event of the year, a spectacle the likes of which St. Louis had never seen. We had a near-sellout crowd. We showed the country that we have a great time and put on a great show. There were a lot of people that missed it last year, and I don’t think they want to miss it again.
IBJ: Curtis, what’s the difference in the way you operate Gateway vs. the way it was operated in the years leading up to its closure (in 2010)?
Francois: Really, with the benefit of hindsight and my experience, I identified the issues the track faced in the past, and I systematically went about solving those challenges. Primarily, we started catering to the grassroots racing fan and participant and built a solid base. From there, we’ve grown to a level that we’re at now, which is certainly nationally recognized as a track that is doing a lot of things that others aren’t doing. I’m at the racetrack every day and I want to make sure it’s the best it can be. We have a staff that loves racing — loves the mission, loves being part of bringing something back and being part of our success. You take all those together and you really have the perfect formula for a vibrant racetrack.
IBJ: You’ve commented on the importance of the casual fan and getting them there. Explain your logic and what you’re doing to address that.
Francois: In any market, you have the fans that are your core fans. They’ll come to any event that they can go to. But we also like to find new fans, the ones who want to come out and experience something different. Racing is such an event. It requires your on-site participation. There are so many sights and sounds and experiences that you can only get in person. We’re continually searching for new ways to engage the fan, whether it’s our “Rumble Before the Roar” program that we started at our Camping World Truck Series and will continue at IndyCar. Or whether it’s giving people the opportunity to get on the racetrack. We’re going to do whatever it takes to get people out to experience it. Then, you’ll win the fans.
IBJ: It seems you’ve got some pretty extraordinary support from local leaders. Am I right?
Francois: You are reading that correctly. It’s been a partnership from the beginning. I think at the end of the day, we do what we say we are going to do and have proved ourselves, that we have the best interest of the community at heart. Community leaders have stepped up and really supported our efforts. Fans have also demonstrated great support, and they do more than just come and spectate at a race. There are so many people pulling the rope together with us. Gateway is perfectly situated to be a top candidate in the country for any race now. We have a challenging track that today’s fans are demanding.
IBJ: You repaved that track last year, didn’t you?
Francoise: I did, yes.
IBJ: What has been the result of that? Are the speeds faster?
Francois: Yes, the new paving has resulted in fabulous racing. The first racers on the track were IndyCar and we had a great race. This spring, when the NASCAR trucks were on the track, they were able to race on the track in ways they’d never been able to race before. It really is a state-of-the-art pavement project that has not been duplicated yet. I believe it’s the best in the country right now.
IBJ: What kind of investment has been made during these last six years?
François: We’re well over $25 million at this point, and it continues. We had such a great starting point. Our track is a picture-perfect shape and design and our seating capacity is just right for today’s racing. Some of those I inherited, but now through the enhancements we’re positioned to be a top-tier racetrack. We’ve addressed a lot of the issues I inherited. We have all the parking we need — and we’re five minutes from downtown St. Louis and all the amenities.
IBJ: You said you’ve doubled the footprint. How much acreage?
Francois: We’re over 300 acres now.
IBJ: How much is for parking?
Francois: Probably over 200 acres now. It’s a great thing to see people come, and we want to be mindful of their time. We want to make sure the experience of getting in and out is as easy as we can make it.
IBJ: What kind of new events are coming up?
Francois: The AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals will be here Sept. 21. And we’ve added an event called Formula Drift, sponsored by Monster Energy. That’s coming up Aug. 9, 10 and 11.