It’s been a long, patient wait for Gateway Motorsports Park Owner and President Curtis Francois.
It appears that his wish is very close to becoming true.
According to RACER Magazine’s official website Monday, Gateway’s 1.25-mile oval will be added to the Verizon IndyCar series when the governing body releases its 2017 tentative schedule in a few weeks. Senior writer Robin Miller published online that the event will be held next August.
The magazine has covered IndyCar, NASCAR, Formula One and other motor sports since 1992 and Miller, a 48-year media veteran, is currently an IndyCar correspondent for the NBC Sports Network.
The Verizon IndyCar series, whose crown jewel is the yearly Indianapolis 500, is currently in the final quarter of its 16-race 2016 schedule.
In Miller’s report, Hulman & Company CEO and President Mark Miles, who oversees IndyCar operations, hinted that the governing body would possibly add a race to its 2017 docket. Hulman & Company is a Terre Haute, Indiana-based company that owns the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
If projections pan out, Gateway’s inclusion next year will end a 14-year gap of open-wheel racing in Madison and will be the first under Francois’ management.
Local racing historians are familiar with Gateway’s past and most-recent connections to the sport. Operating as Gateway International Raceway, then-owned by Dover Motorsports Inc., the oval hosted its inaugural major event, the Motorola 300, on May 24, 1997.
Although the race attracted over 56,000 spectators to Madison and received televised exposure world-wide, the event’s governing body, the now-defunct Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART), suffered harsh criticism within the industry for holding the event the day prior to the 1997 Indianapolis 500, then-sanctioned by rival group Indy Racing League (IRL).
Under CART’s umbrella, the Motorola 300 continued at Gateway over the next three years but saw its attendance sharply decrease in 1998 and 1999 as it continued to compete against the more-established Indy 500 within the same Memorial Day weekend. In 2000, CART moved the Motorola 300 to September but ticket sales continued to decline and the governing body dropped Gateway from its ensuing calendar.
Capitalizing on a now-empty oval, CART’s aforementioned rival, the IRL, added Gateway to its 2001 schedule and presented the shorter-in-length Gateway Indy 250 on August 26, 2001. The trickle-down history of attendance saw only 28,000 spectators at the inaugural event, the lowest turnout for the IRL’s 14-event campaign that season. However, a nice rebound occurred the following year as the 2002 event drew 35,000.
In 2003, a settlement between the IRL and CART over use of the term “Indycar” had expired and the IRL re-branded itself as the IndyCar Series and held its third race at Gateway, the Emerson Indy 250, in August. The race, won by Helio Castroneves, became the last open-wheel race held in Madison as IndyCar afterwards dropped the event from its schedule. With CART going bankrupt following its 2003 season, there was no other major open-wheel option for Gateway to align itself with.
Dover Motorsports ceased all racing operations at Gateway International Raceway in November 2010 and remained closed until Francois, a real estate developer by trade and former driver that competed in both the Indy Lights series and the NASCAR Grand Am Sports Car series in 2002, re-opened the facility, complete with venue name change, for a 2012 season.
Tantamount to the potential future success at the time was a long-term deal made with the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA), which presented the NHRA Midwest Nationals in September of that year.
Francois officially purchased the 150-acre facility in May 2013 and its oval was put back into the national spotlight with the appearance of the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series event, the Drivin’ for Lineman 200, held in June 2014.
With the track now fully in play, and with drag operations providing Gateway stability, the seeds for a return to open-wheel racing were planted. Carpenter Fisher Hartmann Racing driver Ed Carpenter tested at the oval during the 2015 IndyCar off-season and, as a result of the positive feedback combined with Francois’ commitment to facility improvements, the governing body later that year announced that Gateway would be classified as an official IndyCar testing facility in 2016.
“The conversations between Gateway Motorsports Park and officials at IndyCar have been very encouraging,” stated Francois in October 2015. “There is mutual interest from both parties to bring an IndyCar race to Gateway Motorsports Park, and we are taking a methodical approach to exploring the possibilities. Our revitalization efforts and fan-centered business strategy have positioned the track as an excellent venue for a future IndyCar race.”
That almost came to fruition, albeit on an emergency basis, for both earlier this year. When IndyCar officials announced the cancellation of its Grand Prix of Boston event in early April 2016, Gateway was one of many potential replacement options, which included the road course at Watkins Glen International in New York, to host the scheduled Labor Day weekend event.
However, Gateway’s showcase drag racing event, the aforementioned NHRA Midwest Nationals, was set for September 23-25 and scheduling the two high-profile events within the same month might have been potentially overwhelming for the facility. The IndyCar brain trust also wanted to receive additional opinions from those that were testing at the oval.
“Gateway obviously wants to have an IndyCar race and I’ll call them, but I don’t want to do anything to jeopardize their re-entry into the series,” said Miles to RACER Magazine in late-April. The Watkins Glen road course was inevitably chosen as the rescheduled venue and its race will be held in a few weeks.
In hindsight, the Labor Day weekend exclusion could play into Gateway’s future IndyCar inclusion. In the current governing body’s 16-event complexion, five tracks are ovals: Phoenix International Raceway, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Iowa Speedway, Pocano (PA) Raceway and Texas Motor Speedway.
IndyCar’s addition of Gateway Motorsports Park can potentially begin a balance between oval and road courses for future events. The positioning of the August IndyCar event, which would fit nicely between Gateway’s NASCAR June event and the NHRA September event, is also ideal.
If RACER magazine’s report comes to fruition, Christmas will come early for Curtis Francois and Gateway as an open-wheel package with a big, red ribbon will be delivered by IndyCar later this month.
For more information on Gateway Motorsports Park, go to this link.