MADISON, Ill. (AP) — Kyle Larson is ready to drive just about anything with four wheels and a motor, and his ability to jump between top-tier NASCAR racing and late-model racing in small towns on earth should be useful this weekend.
You see, Larson showed up at World Wide Technology Raceway on Friday for the first practice before the Cup Series makes its much-anticipated debut there on Sunday having never taken a lap there – not in a race, a test. tires or even in a simulator.
But considering everything he drives — stock cars, sprints, midgets — he sees more new tracks than anyone.
“My schedule is pretty hectic and by the time it was Gateway week,” Larson said, referring to the track by his old nickname, “I realized I was running every day this week. I I wasn’t at home. But I think I’ll be fine. I feel like I’m adapting pretty quickly and I have a pretty good track record on the tracks I’m going to for the first time.
This week alone, Larson competed in a late model race at Tri-City Speedway in Granite City, Ill. It rained on Wednesday, then took pole there before crashing out in a makeup race Thursday evening. And after doing his practice laps around the 1 1/4 mile hairpin track east of St. Louis on Friday, he returned to Tri-City for another run that night.
He also ran on a dirt track in Pevely, Mo., about 30 minutes away, and in a midget just across the river at the Dome at America’s Center; the former home of the St. Louis Rams now hosts indoor dirt track racing.
“So I ran everywhere here but never here,” Larson said. “I didn’t have too much time to prepare. I didn’t run any laps here to test, nothing on the simulator. We will get used to it today and qualify on Saturday.
Although new to NASCAR’s top series, Gateway has a rich tradition. It was built as a drag strip in the 1960s and evolved into a multi-purpose racing venue, hosting dozens of lower-level NASCAR events in the late 90s and early 2000s.
Then, an economic downturn left him on the brink of financial ruin.
It took the vision and resources of real estate developer Curtis Francois, who grew up watching races across the Midwest, to save the track and start building it. For nearly a decade he has invested millions in upgrading facilities and more are on the way, transforming the speedway into a 700-acre destination for racing fans.
The long front grandstand and towering seats in the first and second tight corners are full on Sunday, along with more than 1,200 campsites and dozens of welcome areas. This means a crowd of over 60,000 is expected.
No one knows exactly what all those fans will see.
The egg-shaped oval, with fast third and fourth corners, is reminiscent of some drivers from Phoenix or New Hampshire. Others point to Richmond. Either way, Gateway is one of the few tracks where they’re going to be active on the clutch: it probably takes two shifts to get through the first two corners and at least one through turns 3 and 4.
“Any time you head to a new track, it’s tough,” said Chase Elliott. “You can do anything to prepare, but you won’t really know until you do those early laps in practice. We get a bit more track time than at most tracks, so that will give the opportunity to try to understand some things before Sunday.
About two dozen drivers have at least some experience at Gateway, whether in the 15 races contested in the Xfinity Series from 1997 until the track was closed or the 21 races contested in the Truck Series before and after the Francois purchase.
For the rest, the speedway a stone’s throw from the Mississippi River represents a whole new challenge.
“I think of this track a lot as 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 pass in turn 1, braking someone and sliding past them, downshifting – all that work coupled with the heat and humidity that we will have there, you are going to have to be on it to spend a whole Cup race there.
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