ST. LOUIS — They originally called it the Chili Bowl since the sponsors sold pre-made chili. But the name lived on for this no-frills racing expo and event where, if you sit close enough to the dirt clay track, you can get splattered with what, come to think of it, looks like chili.
Racing folks from garages of all sizes come each year to the Chili Bowl, this grassroots event in Oklahoma that’s part-trade show, part-indoor race and part-party.
“And those guys saw us there, dirt in the air, drinking a beer and just having a good time — and it connected,” said Chris Blair, the executive vice president, general manager of World Wide Technology Raceway. “Everything we do is genuine.”
So, “those guys” Blair referred to were top executives from NASCAR. They watched Blair and WWTR owner Curtis Francois in their element, two unpresumptuous personalities who understand the racing fan. This was just another example of why the team at WWTR seemed like likable partners.
So it was fitting that Francois was at this January’s Chili Bowl when a NASCAR exec told him the news — St. Louis was leading the race to get a race.
The checkered flag waved Wednesday. NASCAR announced that a Cup Series race will take place at WWTR on June 5, 2022. It’s actually happening.
“It’s kind of like ‘Smokey And The Bandit,’ ” Blair said of “East Bound And Down,” the movie’s famous theme song. “We’re ‘gonna’ do what they say can’t be done. They told us it couldn’t be done. And Curtis made it happen.”
Francois and Blair are like our town’s “Bandit” and “Snowman,” clever and charming yet disarming on this endeavor. Their relationship has been integral in the growth of the track and the realization of this octane-fueled NASCAR dream. They had a hell of a time doing this — but they had a hell of a time doing this.
Speaking on stage at Ballpark Village, in front of hundreds of St. Louis big-wigs Wednesday, the 57-year-old Francois got choked up as he said: “There’s a guy by the name of Chris Blair somewhere out there. We share so many moments together. And it’s just an amazing relationship to see a man that is so passionate about racing. He works night and day to promote the racetrack, and his love of the sport runs deep. We’re blessed to have him on the team.”
They first met 10 years ago this month.
They were seated at the same table at a NHRA track operators’ meeting in California. Blair was doing big things at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. But he’s from Kentucky. Had been eyeing a return to his roots in the Midwest. Sure enough, more than a year later, Blair came to St. Louis to meet with Francois. They were at Café Napoli.
“He told me about his vision,” Blair said of growing WWTR into a home for IndyCar and — dare they dream? — NASCAR. “I just saw how passionate he was about what he wanted to do. You know, I believed it!”
During a layover on his flight back to Vegas, Blair received a message from a force in the racing world — John Force, the legendary NHRA drag racer.
“He said,” the 51-year-old Blair recalled, “‘Hey, I met this Curtis guy. And I know you. And the two of you belong together.’ So I’ve got John Force calling me! It’s real early 2013. So I’m like, ‘OK, let’s give this a shot.’ So we got here, and we just clicked.
“I always said I didn’t want to ever get too close to my boss. But he’s become one of my best friends. So we work together and a lot of the crazy ideas I come up with, he supports. It just always has worked. We were kind of on the same page. … So, we started chipping away.”
Blair used his NASCAR connections to help get a truck series race to St. Louis. Soon, they were tracking people down at IndyCar tracks, aggressively networking to make IndyCar a WWTR reality.
“A couple years ago, he told me, ‘I’m going to try to get a Cup race.’ ” Blair said. “And I thought, ‘Well, this is going to be the hardest thing we could ever pull off.’
“But if anybody ever needed to write a book about the ‘art of the deal,’ it’s Curtis. The one thing I found is if I could ever introduce Curtis to somebody, they fell in love with him. They buy in. They see the passion. And it was just that gradual process, and we just kept working and working and working.”
The jetsetters met folks everywhere from Daytona to the Chili Bowl.
“We both get really emotional because this racetrack has been like raising a kid,” Blair said after Wednesday’s event. “Today, when he mentioned my name, I thought, ‘Man, I got to look away!’ As I turn, I start crying like a baby. It’s been something just so important to all of us. For me, I feel like I’ve never really had a real job a day in my life — 40 years I’ve worked in racing. It’s what I love.
“And to be able to do what we’ve done?”©2021 STLtoday.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.