In May, eight racing teams visited Gateway Motorsports Park to test the oval track in advance of the IndyCar Bommarito 500 presented by Valvoline, set for Aug. 26.
But the 20-year-old pavement was showing its age. It was bumpy to begin with, but the ground beneath was saturated by spring rains and forced asphalt patches to heave above the normal surface.
About 10 laps in and some shredded tires later, the test was aborted.
“I wasn’t able to do anything. Every time I went out I had to stop and cut tires,” said Ryan Hunter-Reay, the 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner and 2012 IndySeries champion. “I basically did a few exploratory laps then the test was canceled.”
The drivers returned again Thursday, this time to test a brand-new surface they say should make Gateway a regular and welcomed stop on the IndyCar circuit.
A multi-million dollar investment by track owner Curtis Francois — who purchased the shuttered raceway in 2012 — not only salvaged the first open-wheel race at Gateway since 2003, it may have opened a new future for St. Louis motor sports.
“Without a doubt, we now have a national reputation as a track that is moving forward,” he said. “We are now set for all kinds of racing at the highest level and we can run any type of oval race.
“It sets the stage to put on a really good IndyCar race and it also sets us up for future development.”
This is a really great race tracks that they spent a lot of time and money to make happen. For sure, open wheel should be here to stay. No question about it.
Helio Catroneves, three-time winner of Indianapolis 500
The new track surface was already part of a three-phase plan to upgrade the facility that also included upgrades to catch fences and additional impact-absorbing barriers on the track walls. May’s testing just expedited work on the 1.25-mile oval.
A consultant was hired to formulate a special asphalt that can stand up to the combination of the summer heat and friction generated off the race car tires, an issue when the track first opened in 1997. IMPACT Strategies of Fairview Heights was the projects’ general contractor. Lebanon’s Christ Brothers Asphalt installed the new surface, which should last at least 15 years.
Team Penske driver Helio Catroneves, a three-time winner in Indianapolis, doubts the Bommarito 500 could have been run as scheduled without the upgrades.
“It would be a problem. This change was definitely necessary,” said Catroneves, the last driver to win an open-wheel event at Gateway. “Putting this together in a short period of time and being that precise ... this is now comparable to a surface in Indianapolis, Pocono, Phoenix. This is a really great race tracks that they spent a lot of time and money to make happen.
“For sure, open wheel should be here to stay. No question about it.”
Without a doubt, we now have a national reputation as a track that is moving forward ... It sets the stage to put on a really good IndyCar race and it also sets us up for future development.
Curtis Francois, Gateway Motorsports Park owner
The IndyCar Bommarito 500 already is the biggest event the raceway has ever hosted, Francois said. The race will feature six Indianapolis 500 winners including Castroneves, Hunter-Reay, Takuma Sato, Alexander Rossi, Tony Kanaan and Scott Dixon.
Drivers last week ran their cars on the Gateway pavement for more than four hours, measuring the wear on different sets of tires and adjusting the front and rear wings. Representatives from Firestone were on hand to gather the specifications from each of the teams so that special tires can be manufactured for the race.
“It’s always the trade off in IndyCar with those big wings to try to get the right down force and go as fast as possible down the straights, but then to have the grip in the corners as well,” explained Hunter-Reay, who drives for Andretti Autosports.
Tickets for the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 can be purchased online at www.gatewaymsp.com/indycar, or by calling the Gateway ticket office at 618-215-8888. Tickets start at $35. Kids 15 and younger receive free general admission with a paid adult.