You don’t have to go to Charlotte, Talladega or Daytona for a great auto race. To get in gear, you need only venture across Southern Illinois, from the burgs of Madison to Highland to Flora.
Of course, ladies can start their engines, too. And they don’t have to be named Danica Patrick. Gateway Motorsports Park provides plenty of opportunities for bona fide racers to neophytes—say, a kindergarten teacher or a British squash team—to get behind the wheel of a race-prepped Camaro. Many corporate team-building getaways are held here. Not including karting, 230 events will be held this year at Gateway, within sight of I-55 and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.
Curtis Francois is a racer who’s parlayed his time behind the wheel to owner of the radically refurbished track and stands. Much more happens here than cars speeding around a 1¼-mile paved oval.
“The idea is to make it an entertainment,” says Francois, “and sometimes a race breaks out.”
And the karting is in a different league than what you’d find at an amusement park in Branson. These are built in France, not by Sears. You have no idea how fast these rascals go until you see and hear them up close and personal. Neither could you imagine what it’s like to be among as many as 75,000 roaring fans, even on an 80-inch screen. Want to try it yourself? Try “arrive and drive” at the new Kartplex, located within the oval itself.
April starts the season out at most tracks and speedways, whether you’re in the mood for off-road trucks in Baja-style contests, to every other type of racecar competition, officially sanctioned or not. There’s SCCA racing (Sports Car Club of America) and heart-stopping 1/8-mile NHRA (National Hot Rod Association) drag races. You can thrill to a Grand Am or marvel at pre-1972 muscle car “nostalgia” runs.
Gateway only reopened a few years ago and work is still going on to add features so would-be racers can get a feel for all racing surfaces, from the classic oval to an impossibly curvy 1½-mile road course… hold on to your stomach!
Compared to new and ever-improving Gateway, Highland Speedway is not far from collecting Social Security. It opened in 1962… and excitement is building for its 54th season. UMP (United Midwestern Promoters) DIRTcar racing here ranges from Street Stocks to KidModz (12-18).
Did we mention that nearly anyone can get involved with this sport?
The racetrack in Clay County, 2½ miles north of Flora, has been renamed Route 45 Raceway. As many as 3,500 can enjoy all classes of UMP DIRTcar racing on the 1/3-mile high-banked dirt track. And would it be auto racing without sponsors and ads on every square inch of car, uniform or grandstand? This season 480-feet of fence will be festooned with 8-foot billboards.
In Pontoon Beach, just south of I-270, Tri-City Speedway is a 3/8-mile dirt oval (as measured 20- feet from the outside wall). The track features 10 degrees banking in the corners and is 70-feet wide all the way around.
Rather watch drivers bust stuff up? Keep tabs on whether a demolition derby will be scheduled somewhere, probably at Belle-Clair Fairgrounds in Belleville. At this writing, plans for the season there were still being formalized.
Yes, racing is exciting, whether you’re watching or participating. But, as Francois says, you don’t have to white-knuckle yourself around tight turns at a high rate of speed. Just focus on the orange cone at the apex of each curve.
As he points out, with a grin: “Racing is more of a geometry problem than guts and gonads.”