Crowds pack the St. Louis area for first NASCAR Cup Series Race — more likely to follow
MADISON — A sold-out crowd roared to life when fans saw the green flag marking the start of the Enjoy Illinois 300, the first NASCAR Cup Series race ever to come to the St. Louis area.
The shouts from nearly 60,000 people at World Wide Technology Raceway were instantly overwhelmed by 36 cars on the track, each speeding by at more than 130 mph.
It was the moment some local fans of the sport have waited decades to see.
“We’ve always wanted to have one here,” said Mark Noe of Glen Carbon. “We’ve all been NASCAR fans for 30-plus years, we’ve traveled all across the United States to watch races.”
Noe said he and the three friends who joined him at the raceway weren’t going to pass up a chance to see the inaugural event.
“This track is awesome to watch racing on, and we got really good seats to see all the action,” he said. “It’s been a lot better than some of the venues we’ve been to. The track itself is competitive, and that’s what really matters in racing.”
Other locals felt a similar draw when they heard NASCAR’s top-tier racers would be in their backyard.
“I ordered tickets the very next day,” said Ballwin resident Everett Bantz.
Sunday’s race drew many from beyond the St. Louis region, too. Organizers said they sold tickets to people from every state except Rhode Island.
“The weekend has gone unbelievably well,” said raceway owner Curtis Francois. “It was an event that will go down in history as the biggest and best racing event ever in the St. Louis region.”
For Francois, the weekend’s race, won by Joey Logano, was the culmination of a decadeslong effort to rehabilitate the track, which was set to be demolished before he bought it. He added that this is just the beginning.
“We’re going to be racing for a long time to come here. This is the success we thought was going to happen,” he said. “I’ve been around for a long time in racing, and I knew there was a special part to the racetrack here shown only when the best of the best showed up. It was certainly on display today.”
Millions in economic impact
Successfully hosting the highest level of NASCAR racers represents a significant economic opportunity for the region in being able to regularly tap into the millions of NASCAR fans in the country and world, Francois said.
A study from Maryville University estimated the three-day event would draw 83,000 people and could generate an economic impact of as much as $60 million.
“We had all the components to be able to host a NASCAR event, but it’s the person who leads the track and knows their industry well that really put us over the top,” said Kitty Ratcliffe, president of Explore St. Louis. “This is a must-do for someone who is a NASCAR fan.”
Ahead of the weekend, she said her organization saw busy hotels, restaurants and other venues in downtown St. Louis, which is about five miles from the Madison raceway. That was the case in Ballpark Village, said Mike LaMartina, its chief operating officer.
“It doesn’t always have to be baseball that drives activity, that’s for sure,” LaMartina said. “From just an activity standpoint, tickets sold and travel, it’s right up there with some of the biggest things we do in this city.”
A sold-out crowd this year bodes well for the future, especially in terms of economic development and activity, LaMartina said.
“This becomes another stake in the ground on the annual calendar that you can plan around and know what kind of influx we’re going to get,” he said.
Connecting with the local Latino community
The race was also significant for communities near the raceway beyond the dollars that flowed into them from it. On Friday, NASCAR’s only Latino driver, Daniel Suárez, visited Fairmont City to share his life experience with members of the majority-Latino community of 2,265.
“When it comes to kids, I’m always for it,” he said. “But when it’s about kids and about Hispanics, I want to be there because that’s my people, my community, and I’m the only one that can connect with them.”
Suárez, who is from Monterey, Mexico, said he immediately felt welcomed and expects he will return.
“Speaking Spanish to me, they made me feel at home, simple as that,” he said. “We go to many racetracks where I see a lot of Mexicans, we are everywhere. But to go to a place where the majority are Hispanics is quite special.”
The feeling was mutual for those in the small Metro East community, said Fairmont City Mayor Michael Suarez (no relation). He explained many children in the village can connect to Daniel Suárez’s story of leaving family in Mexico to seize a dream.
“They know that story from their household,” Mayor Suarez said. “Whether it’s mom or dad living here, sending money home to grandma and grandpa. Or grandma and grandpa coming here, working seasonally and going home to take care of family. They know this story.”
Friday’s event at the Fairmont City library demonstrated to Suarez how the local raceway and owner Francois have values beyond making money, he said.
“It was genuine,” Suarez said. “It was real.”
These are the kinds of interactions Francois wants and expects to have the next time a NASCAR race is in town, he said. He expects many more NASCAR races to come to the track.
Many of the attendees over the weekend were already thinking about returning, even before the marquee race began.
“We’re already making plans for next year and making our crew bigger that’s going to come down to the race,” said Kim Baumgartner, who flew in from Minneapolis. “As many that will chip in on a large motor home so we’re camping in the infield next year.”
Eric Schmid covers economic development for St. Louis Public Radio. He previously covered the Metro East.