The Bommarito Auto Group 500 at Gateway Motorsports Park is proof that good things can happen to the IndyCar Series with the right kind of effort.
You can count me among those who didn’t see much sense in returning to the St Louis market, to a not especially glamorous venue in an unattractive industrial area. The events that CART and the IRL ran between 1997 and 2003 were generally forgettable as car races, leaving Gateway as just another venue that fell victim to the politics of the era.
My own memories of the races I attended at Gateway are dominated by those from 1997 and ’98, when I was the PR director for PacWest Racing in the CART series. Motorola was a major sponsor in the team, as well as the title sponsor of the Motorola 300 race at Gateway, so I was heavily involved in scheduling driver appearances and coordinating photo shoots like this one from 1998 featuring the Motorola sponsored drivers in CART, Indy Lights and Toyota/Atlantic.
But new track owner Curtis Francois believes in Indy car racing’s ability to be successful in the heart of its fan base in the Midwest. Thanks to a lot of hard promotional work and an effective media blitz funded by Bommarito, Missouri’s largest automotive retailer, Gateway sold all of the grandstand tickets it made available for the Saturday night race and pulled in a crowd reported as 40,000. That doesn’t sound like much, but for an Indy car race at an oval in 2017, it’s a very solid number.
Bommarito didn’t just market the race locally, buying radio ads in Indianapolis – an easy (but extremely boring) three-hour drive from greater St. Louis, and the epicenter of Indy car racing’s fan base. Certainly a significant percentage of the audience for the race came over from Indianapolis, but what’s wrong with that? Their money is worth just as anyone else’s and they’re willing to travel within the Midwest to spend it. You’d have to think that other tracks within a 3-4 hour drive of Indianapolis like Kentucky, Michigan, Chicagoland and even Milwaukee could replicate what Gateway achieved with the right kind of effort.
After the excellent IndyCar Series race at Pocono, Gateway – especially the start – was a bit of a letdown. I watched the first two stints from the exit of Turn 2, exactly where Tony Kanaan crashed on the warm-up lap and Will Power lost it in front of the pack once the green flag finally waved. But even though the race was most processional, the crowd loved it, reacting with animation to every incident and roaring approval when Josef Newgarden made the winning pass on his Team Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud.
Newgarden’s bold, wheel-banging move saved what was actually a pretty dull race, and Pagenaud’s anger in the aftermath showed that intra-team tension within the Penske organization could be a developing storyline as the IndyCar Series championship unfolds over the next three weeks at Watkins Glen and Sonoma.
I don’t think Pagenaud had much to complain about. He was defending the position pretty aggressively and when Newgarden saw the slightest opening, he didn’t hesitate to put a wheel inside. It’s bound to result in a couple frosty team meetings, but Simon was just mad because he got beat.
On a personal note, I had a very relaxed and enjoyable weekend that was still productive on a professional level. Since I wasn’t really working at the race in terms of writing anything, the kind of late start time that I normally complain about worked out well. Certainly I miss some elements of writing to a deadline (and the paycheck that comes with it), but I’ve also enjoyed being able to watch many of the races this year for pure enjoyment rather than looking for content or an angle.
I made my traditional visit to the Bean Blossom Blues Festival on Friday night. This is a fun event that I encourage anyone who enjoys the blues genre to check out. The Bill Monroe Music Park and Campground is about an hour from Indy, a few miles north of Nashville, Indiana in the heart of scenic Brown County. Nashville gets a bit touristy, but the Blues Festival draws a nice mellow crowd. It’s cheap – $50 for a three-day pass, and it’s even more fun with a modestly priced rental golf cart. Good food and a nice selection of reasonably priced craft beers. I’ve never camped, but some friends from West Lafayette were there trying it out for the first time and I’ll be interested to hear about their experience.
The music is a blend of established blues artists and hungry up and comers, and more often than not, I enjoy the 6 and 8 p.m. sets more than the 10 p.m. set by the so-called headliner. Toronzo Cannon played a blistering 6 o’clock set with his modern take on “The Chicago Way,” the title of his first major label release on Alligator Records. His original songs mixed in plenty of humor with the blues and he’s also a talented guitarist.
While Cannon will turn 50 next year, Samantha Fish, the 8 p.m. performer, is just 28. She’s got a big voice, and she’s equally comfortable in the role of guitarist, leading a tight 4-piece band fleshed out with a small horn section. This girl rocked – I was really impressed.
I stayed for about 30 minutes of the 10 p.m. set and instead of making the hour drive home to Indianapolis to face 240 miles of Interstate 70 tedium and traffic in the morning, I drove an hour in the direction of St. Louis and spent the night in Bedford. Then I took U.S. 50 across Indiana and Illinois to Gateway, a thoroughly pleasant run on lightly travelled two-lane roads, avoiding Interstates for all but about the last 20 miles of the trip.
Again wanting to avoid I-70 on the return trip, I travelled north on I-55 before cutting up to Decatur on Illinois 127 and 48. From there, I planned to follow US 36 into Indiana and back to the west side of Indianapolis, but a bridge across the Wabash River in the far western part of Indiana forced me to make a 20-mile detour to I-74 near the Covington Beef House. It made for a longer drive than I expected, but it was far more relaxing than I-70 and that’s what matters to me.
Next week, I’m driving in a different direction – to Darlington for the Bojangles Southern 500. I realized that there are only two NASCAR tracks that I’ve never been to – Bristol and Darlington. And Darlington is by far the most appealing of the pair to me. In the three years I did about a third of the NASCAR schedule, my favorite tracks were the old ones with a bit of history and character – places like Martinsville, Richmond, and Talladega. So for a number of reasons, I’m really looking forward to visiting Darlington – and the interesting roads that will take me there and back.