Photo by Diane Cox
Chip King smokes the tires of his modified Strutmasters.com Dodge Daytona during warmups for Saturday’s qualifying at the third annual AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals at Gateway International Raceway. King, racing in the Pro Modified division, failed to reach Sunday’s finals.
The roar of the engines and the raw power of the NHRA charged fans during last weekend’s Midwest Nationals at Gateway Motorsports Park in Madison.
Owner Curtis Francois welcomed the drag racing crowd with open arms. After all, it should be considered Gateway’s signature event of the year. The NASCAR Trucks rolled through the Southwestern Illinois facility earlier this year. Yet when the hot rods start rolling, rumbling and thundering, it’s something special, Francois said.
“I’m so excited when we have NHRA competition because it’s the best racing in the racing industry,” he said. “It’s fierce and there’s always a great group of talented racers.”
Thousands of fans descended upon Gateway for three days of smoke-filled, pedal to the metal racing. Whether it was Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock or Pro Stock Motorcycle racing, patrons passionately followed the competition and created their own buzz.
Francois said, “Ticket sales were up this year and people have involved themselves in what’s going on at the track.
“That’s part of the plan in bringing Gateway back to life.”
The Midwest Nationals attracted an estimated 50,000 fans for the three-day event, including 20,000 for last Sunday’s finals.
“It was a dynamite weekend and we were very pleased with the turnout,” Francois said. “We knew we would have a record crowd and we couldn’t be happier with the way the weekend unfolded.”
The NHRA fans are a different breed, but their loyalty is unquestioned, Francois said. Drag racing is what makes Gateway shake, rattle and hum.
“Fall is synonymous with drag racing in this area,” he said.
Pro Stock motorcyclist Hector Arana Jr. said the drivers strive to succeed while entertaining the fans. The Gateway Experience makes it worthwhile for the participants on the track and in the stands.
“We want to thank Curtis for getting Gateway going again,” Arana said. “It’s one of the best tracks in the business.”
Erica Enders-Stevens has enjoyed ample success in Gateway’s Pro Stock class and she relishes the annual opportunity to race at the facility. Enders-Stevens won here in 2012-13, then was eliminated in the semifinals last weekend.
“It’s one of my favorite tracks — seriously,” she said, emphasizing the point. “The racetrack has been really good to me. It’s definitely a lucky track.”
Robert Hight, a Funny Car driver, likes the way local fans take part in the festivities, including last week’s pre-race Fan Fest in downtown St. Louis. Ballpark Village served as the backdrop for it.
“It’s very competitive racing here and (St. Louis area) has the greatest fans in motor sports and baseball,” he proclaimed. “And this track is a state-of-the-art one.”
Del Worsham finished first at Gateway in 2003 and 2009 and the Funny Car driver makes it a point to return to the track. He said Gateway’s revival in 2012 caught everybody’s attention in NHRA.
“Curtis and his people have turned around the facility and it’s a great place to run,” Worsham said.
Francois, 49, purchased the 200-acre facility at the juncture of Madison and St. Clair counties in 2011. His restoration project, a labor of love, continues to emerge as a steady work in progress.
“Our goals at Gateway are to treat everybody like family, make the fans feel welcome and give them a good experience every time they are at the track,” he said.