With its first open-wheel race since 2003, Gateway Motorsports Park did everything it needed to do to prove the St. Louis region a worthy stop on the IndyCar circuit.
It started with 1-1/4 miles of new asphalt to replace the cracked and buckling surface that was nearly as old as the once-shuttered oval that opened in 1997.
Mostly, though, it was the 35,000 fans packed into the main grandstand who came to their feet for the thrilling — though somewhat controversial — finish to the Bommarito 500 in August 2017. It’s an atmosphere drivers hope to duplicate for the second running of the race since its 14-year hiatus.
The race begins Saturday at 7 p.m.
“Gateway is right in the heart of the Midwest, so we knew there were race fans here, but it was received, I think, in way that was beyond what we expected,” said defending Bommarito 500 champion Josef Newgarden. “The energy of the crowd was special. They have really achieved something here.”
“So I’m excited to be back in year two. We hope to replicate what was done here last year and make it bigger.”
It’s little wonder Newgarden would proclaim such affection for the short oval at Gateway. His win there last year was his fourth of the 2017 season and pivital to his eventual IndyCar points championship.
Newgarden, 27, took the lead with 30 laps to go, then held off Scott Dixon, his Penske teammate and this year’s Indianapolis 500 winner, to the checkered flag. He finished off his championship just 21 points ahead of Dixon in third place.
Newgarden arrives in Madison this season placed third in the standings, 66 points behind Dixon, the leader and four-time champion.
The race for the season championship has been made all the more interesting by Alexander Rossi, 26, and his back-to-back victories at Mid-Ohio Honda 200 July 29 and the Pocono Grand Prix last Sunday. He’s well positioned for his first IndyCar points championship, just 29 points behind Dixon in second place.
Races remain Sept. 2 at Portland International Raceway in Oregon and at the Grand Prix of Sonoma, California Sept. 16. Newgarden knows his shot at a repeat title depends on his performance at Gateway Saturday.
“We’ve got to make up a little ground and, ideally, go into Sonoma with 15 or 17 points to make up,” Newgarden said. “Then, if you win that race, you win the championship. But it starts by getting a little closer here the next two weekends.”
There will be some added heaviness this weekend at Gateway because of the spectacular crash Sunday in Pocono that has left rookie driver Richard Wickens in a Pennsylvania hospital with a spinal cord injury (see related story). Drivers arrived in St. Louis less than a week later, shaken but resolved to keep their schedule.
Ryan Hunter-Reay and Wickens bumped wheels at a turn to set off the crash.
“It is a quick turnaround,” the 2012 Indianapolis 500 winner, told the Associated Press. “It’s been a tough week.”
Weather shouldn’t be an issue. Early forecasts from Accuweather show mostly clear skies and a 25 percent chance of showers.
Fans will note further improvements at Gateway, including widened roads in and out, additional concessions and 6,000 new parking spaces.
Otherwise, Newgarden says, the added drama of a tight points race should help the Bommarito 500 match its breakout success of a year ago.
“Gateway is a great model for IndyCar. It’s a template and a model for other places,” Newgarden said. “They’ve shown you can revitalize a fan base. It’s a success story. I think fans this weekend are going to get a really good show.”
INDYCAR POINTS STANDINGS
10 a.m. - Parking lots open.
11 a.m. - Spectator gates open; Kartplex open.
Noon-1 p.m. – Vintage Indy Registry Open Wheel Icons.
2 p.m. - Verizon IndyCar Series garage opens.
2:45-3:30 p.m. - Vintage Indy Registry Open Wheel Icons.
3-7 p.m. - Rumble Before the Roar pre-race party.
3-4 p.m. - INDYCAR Bommarito Automotive Group 500 driver autograph session.
3:45 p.m. - Pro Mazda Championship Presented By Cooper Tires race (55 laps).
4:45 p.m. - Indy Lights Presented By Cooper Tires Series race (60 laps).
6 p.m. - INDYCAR Bommarito Automotive Group 500 warm-ups.
7 p.m. – The show starts at 7 p.m.! Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Axalta and Valvoline (248 laps, 310 miles, 500k).
9:40 p.m. - Post-race fan invasion and track scavenger hunt.
10 p.m. – Kartplex closed.
Schedule is subject to change.