MADISON, Illinois (AP) — Kyle Larson is willing to drive just about anything with four wheels and an engine, and his ability to jump between NASCAR’s top-level and small-town late model races on dirt roads should come in handy this weekend.
You see, Larson showed up at World Wide Technology Raceway on Friday for first practice before the Cup Series makes its long-awaited debut there on Sunday, having never completed a lap there – not in a race, a tire test or even a simulator.
But given everything he drives – stock cars, sprints, midgets – he sees more new tracks than anyone else.
“My schedule is pretty busy and by the time it was Gateway week,” Larson said, referring to the track by its old nickname, “I realized I was racing every day this week. I wasn’t home. But I think I feel like I’m adapting pretty quickly, and I’ve got a pretty good track record on the tracks that I’m going to for the first time.”
This week alone, Larson had a late model race at Tri-City Speedway in nearby Granite City, Illinois, raining on Wednesday and taking pole there before crashing into a makeup race Thursday night. And after making his practice laps Friday around the 1 1/4 mile hairpin east of St. Louis, he headed back to Tri-City that evening for another race.
He has also raced on a dirt track in Pevely, Missouri, about 30 minutes away, and in a midget across the river at The Dome at America’s Center; the former home of the St. Louis Rams now hosts indoor dirt-track races.
“So I’ve raced all over here, but never here,” Larson said. “I haven’t had much time to prepare. I didn’t run any laps here for testing, nothing on the simulator. We’ll get the hang of it today and qualify on Saturday.”
While new to NASCAR’s top series, Gateway has a rich tradition. Built in the 1960s as a drag strip, it was expanded into an all-purpose racing venue in the late 1990s and early 2000s, hosting dozens of lower-level NASCAR events.
Then an economic downturn put it on the brink of financial ruin.
It took the vision and resources of real estate developer Curtis Francois, who grew up watching races in the Midwest, to save the track and start building it. In nearly a decade, he’s invested millions in facility upgrades and more are on the way, turning the speedway into a 700-acre destination for racing fans.
The long front-stretch grandstand and towering seats in the tight first and second turns sold out on Sunday, along with more than 1,200 campgrounds and dozens of hospitality areas. That means a crowd of more than 60,000 is expected.
No one knows exactly what all those fans will see.
The ovoid oval, with sweeping third and fourth turns, reminds some drivers of Phoenix or New Hampshire. Others point to Richmond. Anyway, Gateway is one of the few tracks where they will be active on the clutch: it will probably take two shifts to get through the first two turns and at least one through turns 3 and 4.
“Every time you go to a new track it’s hard,” said Chase Elliott. “You can do everything you can to prepare, but you really don’t know that until you do those first laps in practice. We get a bit more track time than most circuits, so that gives us a chance to sort things out before Sunday.”
About two dozen drivers have at least some experience at Gateway, whether it’s the 15 races in the Xfinity Series from 1997 until the circuit’s closure or the 21 races in the Truck Series before and after Francois bought it.
For the rest, the speedway a stone’s throw from the Mississippi presents an entirely new challenge.
“I see that track a lot like a yo-yo,” said Ross Chastain, who started and parked a truck at Gateway in 2018 before winning the following year. “Creating the momentum in 3 and 4 to make a pass in Turn 1, braking someone out and sliding up in front of him, downshifting – all that work combined with the heat and humidity we’ll have there, you’ll be on it have to sit to get through an entire Cup race there.”
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