Ill. track draws 'walking wallets'

September 15, 1997|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

MADISON, Ill. -- It was 102 degrees and humid. But the cars arrived in a steady stream at 5-month-old Gateway International Raceway, just five minutes from downtown St. Louis. People piled out of cars and onto trams that would haul them through parking lots to the track entrances.

The fans were headed for a Busch Grand National stock car race. But they could just as easily have been about to spend a day at an amusement park.

"It's my Disneyland, that's for sure," said Mark Westhoff, president of the Southwestern Illinois Tourist Bureau. "St. Louis had the 1904 World's Fair and then sat back and literally everything passed it by. What this track is doing is opening up the world to this side of the river.

"And do you know what all these people are? Walking wallets. Walking wallets, that's exactly what they are -- and if you're lucky enough to get your hands on one of these tracks grab on with both hands."

One of those tracks -- a $100 million speedway -- has been proposed for the Middle River area of Baltimore County. While that project is opposed by many area residents, St. Louis' Gateway has been welcomed by the small town of Madison, across the Mississippi River from downtown St. Louis.

"There wasn't a lot of resistance," Madison Mayor John Ham said of the $25 million racetrack. "It started popping out of the ground in eight months."

Track owner Chris Pook promised jobs, promised to use local contractors and promised noise would not be a problem.

"He committed to use the people and businesses within our community, and that's exactly what he has done," said Ham.

"There weren't a lot of race fans in this community when the idea first came up, but there are now. It's brought new life. I want to see this thing here for the next 50 years."

Madison is a community of approximately 4,700 about three miles from the new track. Like Middle River, which has suffered from cutbacks at Lockheed Martin Corp., General Motors Corp. and Bethlehem Steel Corp., Madison is hurting for jobs.

Ham viewed the speedway project as an economic catalyst. In the first five months the track has been operating, he can point to progress.

"I just think it's going to boom," said the mayor, ticking off projects already under way: a 27-hole golf course with a $1 million clubhouse being built across from the racetrack; an $800,000 hotel and restaurant under construction; three other hotel chains considering nearby sites.

Across the river, St. Louis officials also are quick to point to the positive impact.

"I don't think St. Louisians knew enough about auto racing to know what kind of an impact to expect," said Frank Viverito, president of the St. Louis Sports Commission. "In terms of new dollars visibly brought into the area, [the track is] having more impact than football, hockey or the [Saint Louis University] Billikens."

Viverito says tourism is already a $2 billion industry in the city. Hotels in the area generally operate at about 84 percent capacity. On the three weekends when major events have been scheduled at the track, the hotel industry reported 100 percent occupancy.

"St. Louis is a very good sports town, probably not unlike Baltimore in that regard," Viverito says. "It's one of the reasons they wanted football back, like Baltimore wanted football back. They're very loyal and supportive of their sports teams, and that extends to Gateway."

Gateway has a quarter-mile drag strip, a 1.6-mile road course and a 1.25-mile oval. At this point, it is not a fancy track, not fancy like the structure being talked about in Middle River.

Gateway has 30 luxury suites in a first-turn high-rise and seating for about 50,000 for Championship Auto Racing Team and Busch races. Next year, seating will expand to 60,000, the year after that to 88,000. When all seats are installed, Gateway will handle 100,000 fans.

What it already has are a National Hot Rod Association event on its drag strip and CART and NASCAR Busch races on its oval.

What it hopes to get, eventually, is a race on NASCAR's Winston Cup circuit, the major league of stock car racing.

"We've been very lucky," said Pook, track president and chief executive officer. "But when we put this together, we did it with a plan for survival that did not include major races, because there are no guarantees you're going to get one."

The deal

Pook, 56, is a charismatic Englishman who came to the United States in 1963. He has made several fortunes since then, one in the travel and tour business and another in motor sports.

His motor racing business began 23 years ago, when he persuaded Long Beach, Calif., to turn its streets over to him for an Indy-Car, European-style street race. Today, that race is the second-biggest Indy-Car race in the world, attracting more than 200,000 spectators, and Pook and his race are credited with starting Long.

Beach's revival.

Now, he hopes to be the catalyst for a similar renaissance in Madison and St. Clair County.

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