How Curtis François brought NASCAR to an Illinois circuit

About 50 years ago, as a kid on a dirt bike, Curtis Francois honed an appetite for speed that gradually progressed to motorcycles and then professional race cars.

“Really, I guess I had a need for speed from an early age,” Francois said.

This lifelong love for racing as well as his experience as an entrepreneur and real estate developer has melded into François’ own motorsports ground in the metro-east of François, known now as the the World Wide Technology Raceway.

Francois, the owner and CEO of the track where he raced Indy Lights long before he bought the place, will host the nation’s top stock car drivers in the sold-out NASCAR Cup Series race in the first Enjoy Illinois 300 at 2:30 p.m. Sunday in Madison.

“We promise a world-class event and I think the fans will be blown away,” Francois said.

NASCAR legend Richard Petty, St. Louis rapper Nelly and more than 30 other musical artists will be part of the weekend.

It will be the first time that the the highest level of NASCAR racers will compete in a sanctioned event in the St. Louis area.

These drivers and the more than 80,000 fans who flock to the circuit over the three-day weekend will see what Francois has built since taking over the track in 2011 after the previous owners closed it.

Francois said he is already well into a nearly $100 million investment plan for the speedway which includes a 1.25-mile oval track formerly known as Gateway Motorsports Park. The first phase of $50 million has been completed and another $15 million has been invested in the second phase.

The Enjoy Illinois 300, along with Saturday’s NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and Friday’s pre-race events, are expected to produce an estimated $60 million in economic impact for the region, according to a University of Maryville study.

“It’s something we’re proud of and I think it will make a difference to the community,” Francois said.

Land the best NASCAR drivers

Francois described securing NASCAR Cup Series hosting rights as something opposed to a racer taking off from the starting line.

He was “built on a measured pace” to show runners that his group would deliver on what was promised.

“So we didn’t take huge swings in 2012 when we reopened,” Francois said. “We never took too big a bite.”

Early highlights include hosting dragstrip events for the NHRA and hosting both the INDYCAR Series and the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series at the Oval Super Speedway.

The truck race has been a staple of the track’s annual calendar since 2014 and returns at 12:30 p.m. Saturday.

NASCAR announced last year that its top racers would compete at the St. Clair County track, and Francois said he looks forward to hosting “many more” NASCAR Cup Series races in the years to come.

“World Wide Technology Raceway has been on our radar for several years now,” said Ben Kennedy, NASCAR’s senior vice president for race development and strategy.

Kennedy said NASCAR executives have been impressed with the “great energy of the fan base” participating in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series since 2014.

“I know the fans will definitely show up,” he said.

Indeed, all 57,000 grandstand tickets for Sunday’s Enjoy Illinois 300 race have been sold. There are tickets available for Saturday’s truck race and a pre-race event Friday when Petty, 84, will drive the ceremonial opening car laps of the NASCAR Cup Series. If you can’t make it to the races, both events will be broadcast nationally on FS1.

The investment in improving the track is designed to satisfy racing fans, Francois said.

He also purchased additional land to increase the size of the tracks from around 170 acres to around 700 acres. This means fans can park on World Wide Technology property. The track also has 1,200 parking spaces for campers.

François had this to say about his philosophy of welcoming racing fans: “Make sure that when the fans show up they see that we care about them and that’s by making sure that from from the moment they walk in the doors, to the moment they’re in their seat or the moment they leave, they’re entertained, they feel their investment has good value and they’re entitled to something that creates memories that last a lifetime.

Development of the racecourse

While Francois raced professionally in a variety of cars and races, including the 24 Hours of Daytona, he still had to work a “regular job”.

“Much to my frustration, I would have preferred to run a lot more,” he said, “but I was very busy.”

In his non-racing days, Francois, 57, said he spent 10 years developing franchises for Dent Wizard and more than two decades developing subdivisions in the Metro East.

“I had the racing experience, then I had the real estate experience,” Francois said. “I also mainly did all my real estate business in the east metro. The next thing you know, we have this opportunity coming our way.

This “opportunity” was to purchase the racetrack along the Madison and St. Clair county line near the intersection of Illinois 203 and Interstate 55-70. Most of the property is in St. Clair County.

“I was very well prepared,” he said of the 2011 purchase. “I didn’t have a crystal ball for all of this to happen. .

François said he drew on his experience as a driver on the various tracks he raced.

“And so, behind the wheel, I was watching the racetracks. …” he said. “I had no idea at the time, but it was definitely educational to get involved with this racetrack.”

After purchasing the track, Francois worked to increase the size of the property to improve parking.

“When I took over in 2011, I recognized that we needed to identify and resolve the challenges of the past,” he said. “One of those challenges was that there just wasn’t enough land contiguous to the venue to park fans and really manage traffic in and out effectively.”

Francois said he wanted to get ownership of the land under the track first.

“It was not an easy problem to solve,” he said. “There were 14 different plots under this race track.”

And those parcels were controlled by seven different owners.

Francois said it was a “complicated” process and “not for the faint-hearted to jump in” and get back on the then-closed track. The landowners had already agreed to have the stand demolished with the intention of selling its parts as scrap.

“These are really important conversations I had with these land owners to really explain my vision, but ultimately I needed to own the land if I was going to get involved and try to be successful,” said said Francis.

He said that without their cooperation, the track would not have flourished as it did.

Francois said that in total he had done 25 to 30 different closures on the property for the trail complex.

To complement all the improvements to the property, Francois has been able to attract sponsors interested in supporting the track and its races.

Governor JB Pritzker took note of Francis’ investment in racing and the Metro East, and this week hailed the $60 million in economic impact a University of Maryville study is expected to generate in the region by the Enjoy Illinois 300 and its related events.

“Entrepreneurship is what it is the definition of,” Pritzker said. “The idea of ​​taking a risk that others might not have wanted to take, having a vision of the track and the region, and then making the necessary investments to make it all happen.

“He has been a great ally for the local people and is also very committed not only to this success, but also for the years to come for the track and the whole region.

François, who grew up in Kirkwood, Missouri, particularly noticed the support of two local businessmen: David Steward and John Bommarito.

Steward is the founder and president of World Wide Technology, based in Saint-Louis, which provides technology services to businesses. His company purchased the naming rights to the racetrack.

Bommarito is president of the Bommarito Automotive Group, which owns auto dealerships in the St. Louis metro area. He has pledged to sponsor events and races at the track, including Richard Petty Day on Friday and an IndyCar Series race in August.

Francis’ future

Ten years passed between the first scheduled events at the Francois Racetrack and NASCAR’s first performance in the St. Louis area. A lot has happened in the meantime.

Francois said he has worked to schedule race-related events at the track year-round. One popular activity is the racing events at the Kartplex which attract families full of racing enthusiasts.

“We’ve got so many different things going on that we’ve built that basic fan base,” Francois said.

These long-time fans, as well as area residents who have never attended the NASCAR Cup Series event, will be able to see what Francois is building.

“It will just be an opportunity for this region, for the metro-est to say, ‘Hey, you know what? We plant our flag in the ground and we are a great place to visit,” said François.

And Francois said he wanted to keep improving the track for years to come.

“We will always seek and strive to be one of the best race tracks in the country from an agility standpoint, we continue to look at all types of developments that help fans enjoy racing,” did he declare.

“That’s our mantra. It’s been that way for 10 years. And I think over the next 10 years you’re going to continue to see big changes that improve people’s ability to enjoy racing.

But for this weekend, François has his eyes on a more immediate target:

“The first thing I look forward to is seeing the Cup cars slam into my Turn 1 for the very first time,” he said.

“I think this will just be a moment for me and my family that really validates the last 10 years, of all the work, sacrifices and investments that we have made.”

This story was originally published June 2, 2022 5:00 a.m.

Mike Koziatek joined the Belleville News-Democrat in 1998 as associate editor and is now a reporter covering the Belleville area. He graduated from Marquette University in Milwaukee and is a native of St. Louis.