Eleven years ago, Curtis Francois watched, absolutely crestfallen, as the Metro East’s world-class racing venue, Gateway Motorsports Park, sat idle and on the cusp of closing. The situation was not of the raceway’s making; the park had been a success from a racing standpoint, attracting crowds and capitalizing on the area’s robust motorsports culture, but it was a victim of corporate restructuring circumstances with no obvious way forward. The thought of losing such a premier sports complex was heartbreaking for Francois, for the area racing community and for the St. Louis region as a whole, but it seemed like a lost cause. The track was shuttered, the gates were locked and the grandstands were set for demolition. Soon, the place would be leveled.
Now, a little over a decade later, that world-class venue, now known as Worldwide Technology Raceway, is on the cusp of hosting the racing world’s most prestigious spectacle, when it welcomes the NASCAR Cup Series to town in June 2022. The event, which is the result of years of efforts by Francois and his team to cultivate the St. Louis metropolitan area’s reputation as a top-tier racing market, will have tremendous economic benefits for the region – estimates put the dollar value of its impact at $60 million. However, for Francois, it’s the unquantifiable benefits that make hosting a cup event so meaningful.
“When you look at the size and scope of what a NASCAR event does for the region, it just transforms the area,” says Francois. “The event will bring new jobs, new prestige, new opportunities and vibrancy to St. Louis and the Metro East, and even more, it represents a huge win for collaboration between St. Louis and southern Illinois to deliver something major for our city.”
For Francois, the NASCAR Cup Series event is particularly satisfying given how far Worldwide Technology Raceway has come during his tenure as owner and CEO. Back in 2011 when he took over the venue, he was less focused on securing such a massive sporting spectacle as he was on its sheer survival. Though he was an accomplished businessman in his own right with a successful career in real estate development, Francois had never owned a racetrack and admits he did not know the first thing about such an undertaking. From parking to ticket selling to concessions, he was out of his element when it came to the particulars that went into the daily operations of the park.
He did, however, have an important background to draw upon. A former professional racer who spent years navigating the Gateway Motorsports Park track, Francois knew enough about the area’s robust racing culture to know that the venue could be successful with the right leadership. He also understood the importance of community buy-in, and he took over the track, focused on building up those relationships to make the park about much more than racing.
“When I dug into the opportunity, I knew that this was something that had to be done for the city and the region,” Francois says. “I knew that if I took on the risk of this project, I would have to have the backing of the community – and I received that. Looking back, there have been so many partners, from community to friends to family and media who came together to grow this track. It happened organically and it’s been a really neat journey.”
As soon as he took over the park, Francois knew that he needed to turn around its business model. By looking at the operation from every angle, he saw where he could make changes to make the track more financially viable, which he believed boiled down to engaging fans at the grassroots level. His vision for the track was that of a fan-focused venue – a track for racers of all levels, whether that is the professional, or the hobbyist who sees racing as a part of their family’s culture. He wanted to make the track a place where racers would want to race, so he invested right out of the gate in improvements such as repaving the drag strip and building a kartplex, which serves as a training facility for racers. He also repaved and reconditioned the entire oval track – infrastructure improvements that, while perhaps not technically necessary at the time, felt important to send the message that the park was a place for racers.
“We wanted to make sure that fans and racers realized this track was for them – not a corporate track, but a track for our community, racing fans and racers to come and enjoy and call home,” says Francois. “That was something so critical, to make sure that when the racers and the fans and all of our supporters came out, they realized this was a place they could take pride in and call their own.”
Francois knew that this community engagement went well beyond what happened on race days, and he made serious investments in establishing relationships with area organizations that would find the track beneficial to the missions. In 2013, he partnered with the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Foundation in East St. Louis on STEM programs, such as the iRacing League, that allows area youth to learn about science and engineering in a fun environment. That partnership with the Center also led to the creation of the Junior 500 IndyCar event, where kids from the metro area are invited to the track to build and race go-karts.
“We wanted this track to be multifaceted so that we would have more people coming through on a regular basis, so that they would be familiar with the region and realize that coming across the river wasn’t a big deal,” Francois says. “We saw this as a training ground for racers to move up and get involved in other types of racing, but we also realized this was an opportunity for families to engage in activities that make great memories. Some kids take part in Little League, soccer or hockey, but some kids’ skills lie behind the wheel.”
Francois credits his friendship and partnership with Worldwide Technology founder David Steward for much of the track’s success. Much more than a name – which Worldwide Technology obtained the rights to in 2019 – Steward’s involvement has buoyed Francois’ efforts with community engagement and outreach, particularly around diversity and inclusion, which both men are particularly passionate about. As a result of their work, the track was the recipient of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity award in 2020, an honor that proves to Francois that what he is doing with Worldwide Technology Raceway goes far beyond the track. And it hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“It didn’t take long for many sanctioning bodies to notice that there was something going on in St. Louis that wasn’t going on anywhere else in the country,” Francois says. “The racetrack is growing its crowds and has new events that demonstrate the vibrancy of the market. What’s really important is that we are telling the story that this is a region that every sanctioning body should be looking at.”
And now, as Worldwide Technology Raceway prepares to welcome the racing world’s premier event, Francois can’t help but reflect on just how far the track has come over the past ten years, not just in becoming a thriving destination for racing fans, but as a symbol of pride for the region that is woven into the fabric of the community that has touched people’s lives well beyond sporting. He knows he would not be standing where he is today – announcing such a high-profile sporting event coming to town – had he not taken that path, but that was never the goal. For Francois, and for everyone involved in Worldwide Technology Raceway, that prestige is just icing on the cake.
“I think this journey has been about civic pride from the very beginning,” says Francois. “I’m a lifelong St. Louisan, and I love St. Louis. We can take pride that we are a city moving forward, and we continue to dig deep where necessary to make great things happen – and certainly this is a great thing for St. Louis.”