Madison’s World Wide Technology Raceway has a long history in quest for NASCAR

MADISON – Today it is a massive complex of concrete, steel and asphalt. But at one time what is now the World Wide Technology Raceway was, well, swampland.

Planning and facilities upgrade for the inaugural Enjoy Illinois 300 NASCAR Cup Series race on June 5 are ongoing and massive, but the facility’s beginnings were humble.

The track’s first incarnation was as a 1 / 8th mile drag strip that opened in 1967 as St. Louis International Raceway. In 1966, Wayne Meinert leased from Helen Bergfield the land that would eventually become the drag strip.

Rosemarie Brown, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce of Southwestern Madison County and a friend of Bergfield, remembers when Bergfield’s husband, David, told his wife he had bought the property.

“When he came home and told her what he had done she was so angry at him,” Brown recalled. “It was absolutely nothing but a swamp; It was an area with nothing but junk and water.

“When she sold it we celebrated,” Brown said. “She never thought she would sell that piece of property, and look what it is today.”

Other properties were added over the years, and the drag strip was later expanded to include a road course. In the mid-1990s big changes started happening when open-wheel racing promoter Chris Pook – known for the development of the Long Beach Grand Prix – leased a number of properties and started what was then the Gateway International Raceway.

In addition to the drag strip, he also received property operated by the former Stages Nightclub which was in the area around Turns 3 and 4 of the current track. The club was owned by Thomas Venezia who was an illegal video poker empire until it was busted up by the federal government. Known for allowing underage drinking, the nightclub was seized but was being run by the same management team when local and state police raided it in February 1996, charging more than 70 people.

That area wasn’t the only one Pook looked at. According to officials at the time, he viewed several properties but picked St. Louis International is a large part of the Raceway because it already has all the necessary permits, shaving years off the track’s development.

That also gave the city of Madison – which incorporated the track and some surrounding properties in the 1980s – sufficient leverage, allowing the city to strike a favorable redevelopment agreement when a tax increment financing (TIF) district was put into place.

Because of a wrinkle in TIF law, money from one TIF district could be transferred to adjoining districts, so city officials made sure all districts were touched. They were able to use their share of money for sewers and other improvements, the largest being what is now the fire station on Third Street.

The city also instituted a ticket tax, `over the objections of Pook and St. Clair County officials. The track’s development went ahead and on May 24, 1997, the first major race – the Motorola 300, a CART race – was held.

CART was competing with Indycar and the race was held the day before the Indianapolis 500. Track promoters hoped in part that open-wheel racing fans would come to Gateway one day and trek to Indianapolis the next.

That never really materialized. The race was finally moved to another date, then dropped. CART and Indycar eventually merged.

From the beginning, obtaining a Winston Cup Series – now NASCAR Cup Series – race was a top priority. NASCAR is becoming increasingly popular in the mid- to late-90s with the circuit and track development expanding nationwide. In the late 1990s, track officials had a plan to expand seating at Madison to about 120,000 in anticipation of a Winston Cup race.

That never materialized.

One issue was parking. In 1998 the track contracted with the Southwestern Illinois Development Authority to use its “quick-take” eminent domain powers to secure 148 acres just west of the track from National City Environmental LLC, which operated an automobile recycling business and was known locally as St. Louis Auto Shredding.

In addition to obtaining badly-needed parking space, the property was seen as a way to curtail development that could cause harm to the track.

National City Environmental operates a small landfill on the site for “fluff,” the unusable byproduct of shredding vehicles. The company wanted to expand the landfill and add a rail spur. There was a great deal of speculation about dwindling landfill space and officials concerned the owner – who lives in Chicago – would try to bring garbage down to Madison via rail.

SWIDA moved forward with the taking of the property. National City Environmental filed a lawsuit that eventually went to the Illinois Supreme Court, which, in April 2002, ruled in favor of the company.

The issue was a great part due to the difference between “public use” – the traditional role of the eminent domain – and the “public good,” the idea that the eminent domain was used to spur economic development at the expense of the landowner when others believed in them. Plans are a better use of the property. The “public good” condemnations were becoming increasingly questioned.

As the case made its way through the courts, NASCAR announced the Chicagoland Speedway and Kansas Speedway – two motorsports parks under development – were being given Winston Cup races before they had even hosted any events. By that time Gateway already had several years of relatively successful single-race events under its belt.

The bid for a major race also involves a great deal of internal NASCAR politics. The Chicagoland and Kansas Speedways were both associated with Bill France, who was president of NASCAR at the time, and his family.

In 1999 Pook sold Gateway to Dover Motorsports. For the next 11 years the track focused on a comprehensive drag racing schedule as well as several NASCAR, NHRA and Indy Racing League “stand-alone” races.

In November 2010, Dover Motorsports announced it was ceasing operations at Gateway International Raceway.

Under a redevelopment agreement with the city of Madison, the track could receive a set maximum in TIF funds for approved projects. The track was nearing that figure; And once it was hit, the city would receive all the TIF funds – about $ 2 million per year.

Prior to announcing the track’s closing, Dover Motorsports had requested large tax abatements.

In late 2011 a development team that included Curtis Francois announced plans to purchase the facility and start races again in 2012. Since then the site has added major circuits such as the NHRA, the Camping World Truck Series, Indycar and more than 300 annual events. at the track.

Covering more than 600 acres, the raceway is the largest outdoor entertainment facility in the St. Louis area. It features a 1/4-mile drag strip, a 1.25-mile superspeedway, a recently expanded 2.0-mile road course, the state-of-the-art Gateway Kartplex and the adjacent Gateway National Golf Links.

In April 2019, World Wide Technology acquired naming rights for the track. It would have been another two years before the track secured its first NASCAR Cup Series race – the Enjoy Illinois 300 set for Sunday, June 5th.

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